Projects continue to generate value—solving user problems, promoting technological advancement, meeting compliance requirements, and gaining a competitive edge. Projects have a specific goal, a one-time undertaking, and are performed and managed for a fixed period with a particular start and end date. A project may be the delivery of a service or product on time and budget with required performance benchmarks. For example, the implementation of a new customer relationship system may generate more new leads and, therefore, more revenue.

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Programs, on the other hand, are groups of related projects that are run as a group toward producing a common benefit. A project is content-specific, while a program focuses on the benefits. Developing a web application for ticket registration (air, travel, or rail) to generate revenue is an example of a project. Developing a group of functionalities or applications related to analytics and generating leads through marketing for the desired outcome of customer conversion might be a program (with the individual components of its projects). 

Due to the value and benefits both bring, skilled project and program managers are always in demand throughout the world. In this article we will discuss the following point of differences between projects and programs:

  • Benefits Realization
  • Change Management
  • Risk
  • Complexity
  • Governance
  • Role in organization

Portfolios, Programs, and Projects

A portfolio organizes programs, projects, sub-portfolios, sub-programs, and operations to facilitate business benefits (i.e., maximize profitability). In the diagram below (Diagram 1.0), the organization groups its initiatives, investments, projects, and programs through portfolios or lines of business aligning to the organization's benefits. The program can have a group of projects or programs under them aligned to the respective portfolio or sub-portfolio. 

Resources are efficiently utilized (moved, managed, or optimized) between programs and projects to maximize the benefits of the organization. Projects can also exist independently and need not be grouped under programs. Programs will be used in their standard manner within the portfolio, with each program managing its projects’ dependencies, program-level risks, and flow of information between projects.



Some Fundamental Differences Between Projects and Programs

The characteristics of projects and programs make them valuable for different reasons. Understanding these differences assist one in determining the application of projects or programs. Although this isn’t a comprehensive list, it provides a broad understanding and provides anyone wishing to take advantage of these tools a strong complete list. 

  1. Projects vary in duration, while a program is generally of longer duration, since the start of the program will be the start of its first project, and the end of the program will be the end of its last project.
  2. Projects focus on desired results or outputs, where programs focus on desired outcomes or benefits.
  3. The efficiency and effectiveness of the project can be measured based on metrics like budget, schedule, quality, etc. However, the efficiency and effectiveness of the program will be measured in terms of the benefits realization of the program. Such differentiation allows one to measure the success of both the project and program management, even though the projects will exist within the program.
  4. A project fulfills project objectives (“Why” the deliverable/s is/are required), and the program generally focuses on generating organizational benefits. 
  5. Projects have defined objectives, and scope is iteratively developed; programs have a scope that encompasses the scope of the collection of projects.
  6. Project managers expect change and implement processes to keep change managed, where program managers accept and adapt to change to optimize the delivery of benefits.
  7. Success has majored within projects through product and project quality, timeliness, budget compliance, and customer satisfaction; success in a program measured by the program’s ability to deliver its intended benefits to the organization.

These are only a few differences between programs and projects. The following topics are more specific to the tactical implementation of these two tools.

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Benefits Realization

Commercial organizations pursue commercial benefits. Non-commercial organizations seek benefits such as improved health, safety, or security. Since projects focus on deliverables that meet objectives, organizations can use projects to ensure controlled change where the projects are concentrated. Businesses can also use programs to realize benefits between projects. To compare the difference in focus on benefits realization between the two, there are two documents that assist a project manager in performing benefits realization:

  1. The Business Case, which justifies the value or benefits to secure project approval 
  2. The Business Management Plan, which documents how benefits will be planned, determined, measured, and validated throughout the project 

In comparison, a program (if formal) will document, monitor, and administer benefits identification, benefits analysis and planning, benefits delivery, benefits transition, and benefits sustainment. This demonstrates the level of analysis and control of expected benefits when comparing programs to projects.

Change Management

The management of change should be considered formal. Whether the change is at the project or program level, change is approved, applied, and verified when it is necessary. Program management ensures a consistent level of performance from the components of the program. Change, therefore, is integrated between projects and between projects and the administrative work that supports the program. In comparison, projects use change to control variance from planned cost and schedule while protecting various aspects and characteristics of the planned outputs. 

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Risk is uncertainty—we don’t know if it will indeed occur, and if it does, it might generate an impact. Projects always work towards minimizing or avoiding risk as it can impact the project severely. Projects exist in an environment where the output, benefits, or outcome of the work may be uncertain and unpredictable. Since projects have more or less fixed constraints at the outset, there is a lower chance of certainty. 

In comparison, programs at their start are a little less defined and may have more significant uncertainty than projects, even projects that define the programs. The same occurs throughout the life of the projects— as the projects progress, they become more defined. Programs can change around projects to ensure the stability of the projects and therefore contribute to the projects’ success. This, in turn, ensures less risk for projects and greater risk for the programs


Projects and programs may respond to complexity in different ways and due to different types of complexity, but generally respond to complexity in similar ways: it takes more time and increases uncertainty to both. Program complexity may arise from governance, stakeholders, definition (agreement of the future state among stakeholders), benefits delivery, and interdependency (connections between components). Project complexity arises from organizational complexity (depth of the organization structure as well as the number of organizational units) and dynamic complexity (the project’s behavior and how it changes over time).


Governance is the monitoring, management, and support applied to meet goals. For projects, the goals support the deliverable and its enablement of objectives. For programs, governance establishes program support and maintains oversight. Another difference between projects and programs regarding governance is the way it is implemented. In projects, governance is implemented and integrated through a collection of organizational, project, and stakeholder requirements and constraints.

Role of a Project Manager

The job of the project manager is to lead and manage—direct the team, engage the stakeholders, and influence and motivate. They take over-arching responsibility for the project and use that comprehensive vision to motivate and influence. They may not know how to perform all the skills required to build the deliverable, but through knowledge of management and leadership, they can bring diverse skills together and support an environment that leads to a successful outcome.

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Role of a Program Manager

In comparison, a program manager is authorized to lead the team or teams responsible for achieving program objectives. They maintain responsibility for leadership, performance, and conduct of a program, and build teams capable of achieving those objectives. Therefore, the program manager will monitor outputs and outcomes of component activities and ensure the program adapts appropriately to those activities.

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Become Equipped with the Right Knowledge for Project and Program Management

Although programs may be larger than the sum of their projects, they will be so because they serve the strategic needs of an organization, instead of the tactical demands of the individual projects. These two roles have different focuses, different skills, and responsibilities, and are valued within organizations for various reasons. To understand the components and capabilities of each is to know why organizations value both project and program management. Simplilearn’s PMP Certification Training Course can provide excellent insights into project management and equip you with the right skills and tools to become a great project manager.

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About the Author


Simplilearn is one of the world’s leading providers of online training for Digital Marketing, Cloud Computing, Project Management, Data Science, IT, Software Development, and many other emerging technologies.

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