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Both projects and programmes introduce change to improve something.

Neither delivers the organisation’s mission. That is they do not directly serve customers or produce something for sale

Generally, people accept that there is a difference between project and programme.

On a separate, etymological, note, project comes from the Latin word for “throw forth”. It came into use in English in the 15th century. Programme comes from both Late Latin and Greek. It entered the vocabulary to mean “a definite plan or scheme” in the early 19th century. On this basis programmes are clearly ‘new-fangled nonsense’.

However, the nature of that difference is not commonly agreed. As in any project, that lack of agreement results in misalignment. In this case conflicting job titles, descriptions and expectations.

Size is not a good indicator and some people incorrectly describe ‘big projects’ as programmes. Size, particularly duration, is a factor in defining the nature of a body of work. But there are many, more significant differences. Rather than present every nuanced example, here are three ways of telling apart projects and programmes.

  1. Programmes can be open end – projects are always bound.
    If we consider the London 2012 Olympics, each construction site ran at least one project. Those projects ended with hand over to the games organisers. The games were also a project with a clear public end when the venues passed into new ownership. On the other hand, the Legacy was a programme. It doesn’t have a defined end state, although it was time bound. The legacy programme set up, launch and oversaw many projects.
  2. Projects have solid relatively clear outcomes – programmes have aspirational goals.
    Back to the Olympics. The individual projects whether a building or the actual games are pretty much understood. Stop for a moment and consider the goals of the Legacy. They fell into four broad camps: economic, sporting, social and volunteering, and regeneration. These goals are relatively ambiguous; they are hard to describe. But the outcomes of the projects are all fairly easily defined. For example, fund elite sport and invest £1bn in the Youth Sport Strategy.
  3. Project stakeholders tend to agree about the outcome. Whereas programme stakeholders are likely to have different perspectives on life.
    Sure, squabbling stakeholders beset some projects and some programmes boards are suspiciously conciliatory. However, stakeholders see both the end goal and the means of achieving it from their own perspective. Compare the views of Engineering and Finance, they may agree the need to reach new customers. But they will have different methods and outcomes in mind.And many differing perspectives often result in disagreements. The art of programme management is untangling these differences. And getting agreement to a set of goals the programme can achieve.

You now work out whether you have a project or a programme

So, what?

Can managing projects be all that different to managing programmes?
Oh yes. The Programme Manager has to build consensus from chaos, provide clarity from ambiguity and maintain cohesion when project forces threaten to pull the programme apart. By this definition, the Programme Manager must work differently to many Project Managers.

And many would argue a Programme Manager has a responsibility to Project Managers. Perhaps as a leader, certainly by setting standards and providing a toolkit.

You might ask, ‘where is the ambiguity between project and programme?’.
I feel a misuse of the name Programme Manager comes from the term PMO. We see people called Programme Manager who collate data, report progress and administrate the risk process; among myriad other tasks.

Their role is important and centralising the activity to support multiple projects and programmes can improve quality and efficiency. But the staff of the PMO are not Programme Managers. I heard them called Programme Officers, Project Controllers, Project or Programme Support staff and Project Administrators. Does it matter?

Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Well, Juliet thought so of her Romeo. So, it probably doesn’t really matter what we call a role, providing we agree on its responsibilities. However, if the Programme Manager challenges methods and brings fresh insight when stakeholders expect nothing more than regular reporting, then the team is in for a bumpy ride.

photo credit: sam.naylor Pensive via photopin (license)

This Post Has One Comment
  1. Hi Michelle,
    I don’t know if any of your readers have studied for a Prince2 or MSP qualification – Prince 2 is for managing projects and MSP is for managing programmes. Both methodologies are from the same body, which in itself says that projects and programmes are not the same thing or that they are managed the same way either. So I agree with you and I get a little irritated when job ads, in particular, interchange the two or ask for Prince2 qualifications when recruiting a programme manager. Bizarre!
    The way that Prince 2 and MSP distinguish a project from a programme is this:
    – projects deliver new capability e.g. a new system, a building, a manufacturing line, etc.
    – programmes deliver change e.g. business change, organisation change, culture change.
    Programmes often involve people changes, which are more complex and require visions, stakeholder management, etc. Projects are much more tangible, where the only people involved are resources working on the project.
    Where things often get confused is when several tranches of new capability projects are linked together by an over-arching change programme.
    Hope this makes things a bit clearer for your blog readers.

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