Program Management vs Portfolio Management vs Project Management

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Every business, from startups to fortune 500 corporations, needs to implement some form of project management. It’s the discipline through which every project and task gets accomplished. But it can be hard to find the best project management software if you aren’t equipped with the right vocabulary. What exactly are the differences when it comes to project management vs program management vs portfolio management?

Both program and portfolio management are closely related to project management, which often leads to confusion. But there are stark differences that separate the three. In light of this, we wanted to help clear things up and highlight the differences between project vs program vs portfolio management.

First up, let’s define the concept that you’re probably the most familiar with.

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What Is Project Management?

Project management involves the planning, coordination and oversight of a specific project from beginning to end. Project planning is quite possibly the most important step in the project management process, as it defines the budget, timelines and objectives of the project. This keeps everyone on the same page, aware of their constraints and focused on their goals.

Other aspects of project planning include defining the steps (commonly referred to as tasks) needed in order to finish the project, and identifying what resources will be required. These aspects help create a plan that the project team members can easily follow, as they know exactly what they have to do to complete a task, as well as what they’ll work on afterward.

In addition, identifying resources ensures that the team always has what they need, when they need it. For example, if someone needs to use a piece of equipment, they should schedule a time to use it and then document it under project management principles.

The other major component of project management is monitoring the completion of individual tasks while the project is underway. In order to make sure that the project is on schedule, project managers need to check in on the progress of each task as the project team works on them.

Teamwork project management screenshot

Project management software should allow users to document the tasks they complete.

What Is Program Management?

Program management is very similar to project management, but instead of one project, this discipline involves managing several ongoing projects at once. Overseen by a program manager as opposed to a project manager, program management focuses on how a group of projects affects the organization’s strategic goals and objectives. This approach takes projects out of their silos and avoids the pitfalls associated with them.

Think about the fact that you probably already have a lot of employees spread across several different projects. Perhaps someone is underperforming when it comes to project A, but it’s only because they’re completely tied up in project B. Looking at this scenario from strictly a project management lens wouldn’t have uncovered this. It’s only when you consider multiple projects in relation to each other that you’re able to uncover these types of insight. Therefore, the program manager is responsible for sorting out when each project can use a resource and when each employee should be working on which project, based on each project’s plan.

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Now you’re probably wondering what the difference is between a program manager and a project manager. They share some of the same responsibilities, such as daily management of life cycles, risks and budget. But because program managers look at the entire collection of projects (known as the program), they typically need more experience than a project manager. In the past, a program manager has likely already managed several very large, complex or risky projects. Program managers also do not directly manage the staff working to complete a project as a project manager would.

Zoho project management screenshot

Gantt charts are a necessity, as they allow program managers a clear view into resource usage.

What Is Project Portfolio Management?

Project portfolio management (PPM), also known simply as portfolio management, involves managing a company’s proposals, projects and programs to accomplish broader business initiatives.

Similar to how program management provides a higher level overview of project management, portfolio management offers an even higher level overview of both projects and programs. Also like program management, project portfolio management provides insights into big picture budget and resource allocation. However, there are differences when you directly compare portfolio vs program management. For one, PPM involves more strategy and is more goal-driven than program management.

Project portfolio management helps plan for future projects by giving managers better insights into where the smartest investments can be made. Additionally, PPM processes help you find gaps in the current project portfolio or identify the current projects that may become a barrier to completing a future one.

Smartsheet project management screenshot

PPM software lets portfolio managers determine projects by priority in addition to making notes on strategic progress.

Three Tiers of a Hierarchy

So what exactly is the difference between project, program and portfolio management? Each sits on a different tier of a hierarchy. We’ve discussed this a little already, mentioning that program management provides a higher overview than project management and the same for portfolio management over program management. But let’s get down into some specifics:

Project Management vs Program Management

Project management is the more tactical of the three. Projects are, essentially, just basic solutions to basic issues; they fill in the gaps that need to be filled. When you see something that needs doing, such as a software bug fix or creating a piece of content, the task is completed, and then it’s over. This means that project management has a defined end, making it very focused on deliverables and less so on business tactics.

The biggest difference when it comes to program management vs project management is the number of projects. Project management, strictly speaking, refers to one project. Program management involves multiple projects, as mentioned earlier.

Additionally, program and portfolio management are more strategic processes. Both involve the careful coordination of projects and programs that meet organizational strategies, rather than individual tactics. Because of this, they’re both ongoing processes with no definitive end.

Furthermore, project management is directed by project managers, but much of the tasks involved are carried about by your regular employees. Program and portfolio management are carried out by more senior roles as previously discussed, and may even be assigned to a project management office (PMO).

Portfolio Management vs Program Management

The difference between program management and PPM is a little harder to discern, but there are distinct differences between these two practices as well. Mainly, program managers are responsible for maintaining budget and monitoring risk but only at the program level. Project portfolio managers need to worry about the budget and risk of multiple programs, along with future projects and overall business goals.

Additionally, program managers tend to direct similar projects, whereas portfolio managers may be managing entirely unrelated projects. For instance, an IT program manager might manage an ERP implementation and a BI implementation. While they’re different projects, they may use similar resources and can benefit from being managed by the same person.

A portfolio manager might manage a software implementation program in addition to their content marketing program. While these two programs may not have much overlap in terms of resources, it’s still important to consider them together when planning for the future of the business. It’s also important to note that a portfolio manager could manage a program in addition to a project or perhaps even multiple portfolios.

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How Can You Manage Them All?

Whatever your needs are when it comes to managing your company’s projects, there’s a software solution available.

Although project management, program management and portfolio management are all distinct methods of managing project-oriented work, they can all be performed through one tool. Many project management software vendors offer all-in-one solutions that allow businesses to manage everything from the most trivial task to company budgets and reports.

The solution is project management office software, also known as PMO software. This category of software is one of the best tools for managing every level of project management. Some of the most useful features include real-time collaboration, document management, finance management and reporting/forecasting. If you need help determining which features you need from PMO software, make sure to check out our project management software requirements template.

What methods do you use to manage your company’s projects? Do you use project management, program management, portfolio management or possibly all three? Let us know with a comment below!

Kim O'ShaughnessyProgram Management vs Portfolio Management vs Project Management

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