Project or Program? You Decide

By Jack S. Duggal, MBA, PMP

Do you have a project or a program?

Deciding that question seems straightforward, but it is not. If you are in the process of defining what constitutes a program, you might find it a challenge to come up with clear criteria to distinguish it from a project.

You’re not alone. Many organizations that implement program management policies and standards have the same problem.

Typically, the idea of project management methodologies and PMOs conjures up images of bureaucracy and loads of unnecessary paperwork. In an ongoing survey of more than 1,600 project managers conducted 2001–2008 by the Projectize Group, 68 percent of PMO stakeholders perceived their PMOs to be bureaucratic.

The Standard for Program Management—Second Edition defines a program as a group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available when managing them individually. All projects within the program are related through a common goal.

Easy enough, right? Not quite.

What makes it difficult to distinguish projects and programs is that they share the same DNA, or genetic code, and have many similar attributes. For example, both have to manage customers and stakeholders; however, in a program all of the customers and stakeholders may not be known upfront and may change frequently.

Generally, programs have characteristics of multiplicity of projects, requirements, deliverables, customers, stakeholders, departments and interfacing organizations. However, you can use the following checklist as a more specific reference source:

  • Is the associated change wide-ranging, and designed to achieve a common goal or strategic business objectives?
  • Are there multiple deliverables staggered over a period of time?
  • Is the timescale loose and flexible focused towards achievement of benefits, rather than meeting strict deadlines alone?
  • Is the scope fluid and are dynamic changes expected?
  • Is there a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty?
  • Is it complex and multi-disciplinary?
  • Is it at a departmental or higher level?
  • Are benefits expected to be delivered incrementally during the lifespan of the initiative?

If you answer “yes” to many of these questions, especially the first one, then you are dealing with a program. The first question is the primary criteria. The rest are secondary, and all of them may not be necessary to qualify it as a program.

Deciding if you have a project or a program is important because it can help you to determine what management approach to use. Often, what should be run as a program is managed as a project. This can lead to failure, or a multitude of other problems.

Remember the expression: if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck. You should identify the characteristics before you decide whether it is a project or a program. Some projects may not fit the common definition of a typical program.

But if they have the characteristics of dynamic changes, ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability with inherent complexity, they should be treated like a program. They will certainly benefit from a program approach.

Please refer to The Standard for Program Management, second edition page number 11, Table 1-1 Comparative Overview of Project, Program and Portfolio Management.

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Duggal is the managing principal of Projectize Group LLC specializing in next generation training, consulting and tools, and a PMI SeminarsWorld® leader of the seminar Building a Next Generation PMO and Portfolio Management.. For questions on the content of the seminar, or your comments and feedback, please contact Mr. Duggal.