What is the difference between projects, programs, and portfolios?

by Gerald Leonard

As a certified project manager and portfolio manager, I am often asked, what is the difference between project, program, and portfolio management? The way I explained it is to use the metaphor of a musical concert series, and it goes like this.

If you are a fan of opera, orchestra music or love a Jazz series program, then this analogy should make sense. When I think of projects, programs, and portfolios, I think of them in terms of musical concerts. The entire season of musical concerts would be the portfolio, each event or concert in the season would be the program, and each song within a concert or program would be a project. So, you would equate a portfolio to a concert series, you would think of the concert event with multiple songs as a program and each song as a project.

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI):

  • Project portfolio management = Portfolio management PMI indicates ensures that an organization is able to leverage its selection of projects and its execution success. “It refers to the centralized management of one or more project portfolios to achieve strategic objectives” (PMI, 2018).  Research conducted by PMI has shown that portfolio management helps bridge the gap between strategy and implementation.
  • Program management = Is the management of a group of related projects, called a program, in order to gain the collective benefits of managing them as a group rather than managing them separately. Program management involves the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet the requirements of a program. According to PMI’s research, organizations with mature program management are far more successful than those without it.
  • Project management = Is the temporary management of a project that has a predefined beginning and end (a defined scope and resources). Moreover, a project is unique in that it is a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal, not a routine operation. A project team is often composed of individuals who usually do not work together; they can come from different companies or different geographic locations.

For a detailed comparison of the various elements, knowledge, skills, and abilities of projects, programs, and portfolios within any organization, click on the document below.

Comparative Table: Portfolio, Program, and Project Management Difference

Now, I hope that this comparison table answers the question, How do projects, programs, and portfolios differ? The next time someone asks you what the differences are, feel free to share this article and tell them about your favorite musical concert series.


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