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Four key differences between project management and programme management

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From an outside perspective, the transition from project to programme management makes logical sense. It’s a natural progression to go from managing one project to coordinating a group of interdependent projects, right?

In theory, yes, but making the transition from project to programme manager is easier said than done. To get it right, you need to adapt, change your mindset, improve your soft skills and rethink how you work with others.

Having been on this journey over the past year, I have collated the following lessons in the hope of helping those starting this transition in 2024.

1. Less detail, more oversight

As a project manager, you’re taught to be across all the details. Whether it’s accurately forecasting budgets, ticking off milestones or foreseeing risks, you need to know what’s going on at all times.

In programme management, you simply don’t have the time and capacity to be involved in all the details. This takes some getting used to as you learn to get comfortable stepping back and trusting others.

On the other hand, you can’t let the projects simply head off in different directions. This means there’s a balance to strike. Regular touchpoints with project leads help you steer the projects in the right direction while receiving the essential updates you need. This ensures you keep oversight and allows you to provide support and guidance to team members.

Your project leads can handle the details, but make time to regularly oversee, align and support.

2. You’re an unofficial people manager, whether you like it or not

While project managers, business analysts and other programme team members will have their own line management, they’ll still need your day-to-day support.

While this doesn’t mean you need to approve annual leave requests or manage sickness-related absences, you will monitor attendance, contribute to performance reviews and collaborate to find personal development opportunities.

These sorts of activities come more naturally to some than others, so if you don’t have people management experience, it’s worth trying to get some before starting a programme management role. Once in the role, proactively working with team members and their line managers will help you effectively navigate your new, unofficial duties.

The welfare, happiness and development of programme team members will fall on your shoulders — so plan for your unofficial people management duties accordingly.

3. Embed yourself in the business department

As a programme manager, your focus turns to driving strategic organisational benefit. You’ll move away from day-to-day task and deliverable tracking to manage quarterly outcome achievement and the incremental building of business benefits.

Those outcomes and benefits are easier to achieve if you embed yourself within the business operations. At the programme level, you need to know what’s going on across the departments you’re delivering into and how other initiatives in those areas, both formal change and business as usual, may impact your ability to deliver value.

Knowledge and information are power. Get yourself involved in department updates, strategy calls or leadership meetings to fully understand the landscape around you. You can use these forums to communicate your own programme updates too.

Your programme will only succeed if it’s a core part of the department it benefits, so find opportunities to embed yourself into that business area.

4. Soft skills > hard skills

While technical project skills are a great foundation, soft skills are imperative for programme managers.

You need to build relationships and influence stakeholders, including senior decision-makers who have the power to make or break your programme’s success. In addition, you’ll be required to show leadership, spot and solve conflicts, make tough decisions and inspire team members — all of which require communication skills.

Without the buy-in, alignment and championship of stakeholders at all levels, realising your programme’s benefits will be near impossible. Prioritise building strong relationships, communicating with stakeholders and motivating those around you.


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  1. Ian Heptinstall
    Ian Heptinstall 08 March 2024, 01:00 PM

    Hi James. From my experience it seems you are describing transition from managing tasks or work packages within a project, to project management. There may also be a scale consideration - moving from managing small projects where the PM has to do a bit of everything, to managing a much larger project which involves more delegation. I appreciate that some organisation use the term “project” to mean a relatively small package of work within a larger project. The problem with this is they then use a different word to refer to the overrating project. My experience is that this is just one approach, but not a universal one. There are other ways to define ‘project’ and ‘project management’. I personally do not like the common distinction between project and programme when it implies the latter is somehow more strategic or benefits focused. I feel your four key differences stem from the common distinction. For me there is only one key difference between project and programme management. In a programme what would be ‘work packages’ are stand alone projects. Each project will deliver unique benefits and have its own steering committee/sponsor. Being part of a programme simply adds one more member to the steering team - someone who is focused on the additional benefit coming from it being part of a programme. The new skill one needs to learn is coordinating projects, which is different to coordinating work within your own project. The other differences you discuss seem more related to scale of project than whether it is one or the other. I cant see a logical reason why managing the constituent projects of a programme couldn't be a more challenging and higher paid job than managing the programme. In that case moving from project to programme management might be seen as a downward step! The risk you mention of not letting work “head off in different directions” seems to be important manging both a project and a programme. If anything the risk is less in a programme because the individual project should have its own oversight and governance and so the direction it heads in is at least supported by some in the business. In a project the buck stops with the PM if a work package manager heads in the wrong direction.