Skip to content

What is the difference between a project and programme? A mission to the moon might help

Added to your CPD log

View or edit this activity in your CPD log.

Go to My CPD
Only APM members have access to CPD features Become a member Already added to CPD log

View or edit this activity in your CPD log.

Go to My CPD
Added to your Saved Content Go to my Saved Content

The complexity of space travel is something that really fascinates me, and as a project/programme professional this fascination has often provided great inspiration. Space travel to the moon is a useful analogy to explain the difference between projects and programmes.

Unfortunately, project and programme have often been confused by many, programmes referred to as large or more complex projects and the terms project and programme used interchangeably. I have found the relatively simple analogy of a space mission to the moon helps to decipher the terms.

Although actually getting to space is extremely complex and challenging when boiled down to the basic idea of what is required, it’s simple. You need:

  • One big rocket full of complex computers,
  • Several highly intelligent and well-trained astronauts,
  • The equipment required to keep these people alive while off planet such as suits and;
  • Houston (launch/ mission control).

We have many space agencies around the world, each with a very similar strategic mission, to “drive advances in science, technology, and exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality, and stewardship of Earth” (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (NASA)). Like many of our own organisations, space agencies use a mix of projects and programmes to realise and drive the strategic mission.


Put very simply, a project is a unique, temporary endeavour established to deliver planned outputs as efficiently as possible, for example building the rocket, developing astronauts’ suits and undertaking research.

Whereas programmes focus on the coordination of a number of related projects and other change management or business as usual activities. The purpose is to deliver strategic or significant outcomes and beneficial change for an organisation. A mission to the moon may deliver strategic outcomes for the organisation with the development of a new capability and advances in science and technology.

A project may create the rocket required for the mission. On its own this output may hold little value to the organisation; however, when combined with outputs from other related projects – training of crew, development of launch control and computerised rocket systems, etc – as part of a programme, it can provide the effective delivery mechanism for realising desired strategic outcomes such as putting people on the moon.

In addition to the differences in definition and focus, project and programmes also differ in several other aspects.

Clarity of scope and deliverables

Usually with a short-term timeline, projects require a defined start and end point and work against a clearly defined scope limited to delivery of a specified output (such as the rocket). This scope is often defined before the start of a project as this is why the project is set up.

Programmes however are usually long term, sometimes spanning for many years and often have a fixed deadline. Working towards a desired outcome, specific deliverables may be unclear from the start and therefore programme scope is often broad and adjustable.

For example, much of the technology needed to get to the lunar surface and return in 1969 didn’t exist at the time and much was unknown. Only as research and understanding developed in these areas during the 1960s could the requirements and specific deliverables be defined for a mission to take place.

Structure and approach

Programmes are made up of separately managed projects and initiatives which must be coordinated. Programmes will define and agree the various projects throughout the life cycle to ensure the benefits can be realised. This coordination and management of activity can create a fluid structure and often involves working with multiple organisations (or functional departments) each responsible for one or more projects and each using a different project approach.

NASA are currently working on the Artemis programme, to return people to the Moon by 2024. NASA is working in collaboration with other organisations such as SpaceX, Boeing and the European Space Agency to provide key deliverables such as the rockets and communication satellites required for these missions.

A project is a single managed entity with the means to deliver a specific output which is clear at the start and will not usually change during the life of the project. This single and temporary entity is usually the responsibility of a single project team working to their own project approach that suits the output being delivered.

Using the same example, working for NASA as the customer, SpaceX would be responsible for producing the rocket and will use their own project approach to ensure effective delivery.

Measuring success

Success of a project is usually defined as creating the desired output within the agreed time, cost and quality constraints rather than the success of the deliverable itself. In this instance a project may deliver a rocket that was created on time and within budget however never get used and still be deemed successful.

Programme success can be measured by the extent to which business outcomes have been realised in line with strategic and long terms objectives of the organisation. For a space agency, a programme to put people on the moon may be successful if the outcomes of the mission are realised, astronauts touch down on the lunar surface, science experience are undertaken and the full crew returned to earth safely.   


While clearly different in many aspects, project and programme do have similarities. For example, both structures are temporary sets of teams that are designed to deliver change. Although project delivery is focused on tactical change and programme more strategic, both deliver change aligned with the strategic objectives of an organisation.

What is the difference between project and programme? Well, the biggest difference is that a project focuses on the delivery of strictly defined outputs within well-defined timescales and budgets whereas programme focuses on the delivery of strategic outputs to benefit the entire organisation.

With these differences it is also important to remember that the management of projects and programmes is distinctly different too. In addition to different themes and emphases, that may change the style of management there is also a very different set of approaches and techniques. Project managers do not necessarily make very good programme managers and vice versa.

So, are you building a rocket or putting people on the moon?

Sign up today and enjoy the latest project management articles delivered straight to your inbox.

You may also be interested in



Join the conversation!

Log in to post a comment, or create an account if you don't have one already.

  1. Kelly West
    Kelly West 03 November 2020, 04:09 PM

    I really like this explanation, easy to remember and recount!

  2. Robert Tunnicliffe
    Robert Tunnicliffe 28 June 2021, 05:24 PM

    Excellent post; the use of the terms project and programme interchangeably is sadly very familiar. Naturally a Project Manager ought to be giving thought to how their project's output will translate into benefits for their client, but this can quickly blur the distinction. This is especially apparent when there seem to be Projects within Programmes within Programmes, and even more so in the absence of effective Programme Management (elements of which are at risk of being left to the Project Manager)!