What’s the Difference Between Project, Portfolio, and Program Management?

Faculty Insights Industry Advice Management

To the layperson, the phrase “project management” can be rather broad, referring to any kind of management work—from the simplest projects to  the most complicated implementations. But the reality is that there are actually “three P’s” of project management, each of which is different than (but related to) the others: projects, programs, and portfolios. 

Project, program, and portfolio management

The relationship between project, program, and portfolio management can best be described as follows:

  • A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken by a company or organization (such as the creation of a new product, service, or result).
  • A program is a group of projects that are similar or related to one another and that are often managed as a group instead of independently.
  • A portfolio is a group of programs and/or projects within the same organization, which may be related or unrelated to one another.

Put another way, projects fit within larger programs, which themselves fit within portfolios

Though related, tasks associated with project, program, and portfolio management are very different.

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What is a “project” in project management?

So what exactly does “project” mean in the world of project management? Generally, a project is a temporary endeavor, with a finite start and end,  focused on creating a unique product, service, or result. 

Nothing in this definition describes the size or the precise content of a project—there are projects of every size imaginable in virtually every industry, and project managers supervise them regardless of these specifics.

What does a project manager do?

Project managers balance the scope of work—also known as “deliverables”—to meet the project objectives with the resources, time, and budget allocated. They must do this all while ensurig the project meets the quality guidelines required by stakeholders.

Learn More: What Does a Project Manager Do?

Project management is about applying the right tools, techniques, and processes to successfully complete the project. The body of project management knowledge is huge, and there are a number of skills, tools, and techniques available to support project managers in the delivery of these initiatives. It’s important to understand the project’s goals and challenges and to select and use the right parts of the project management toolbox accordingly.

Learn More: Building Your Project Management Career Path

What is a “program” in project management?

Sometimes a group of projects must be managed in a more coordinated way to ensure results. In project management terms, this collection of projects becomes a program. Like a project, a program is a temporary initiative, so when the related projects are complete, the program is complete, too. 

The Project Management Institute (PMI) describes program management in its PMBOK Guide as “the application of knowledge and skills to achieve program objectives and to obtain benefits and control not available by managing related program components individually.”

What does a program manager do?

Program management is not simply managing multiple projects—it’s a bit more strategic than that. Instead of managing each project themselves, program managers coordinate with individual project managers to ensure that the right work is carried out on the right projects at the right time for maximum benefit. They are, in other words, supervising this collection of projects to ensure their effective completion. 

Responsibilities of a program manager typically include:

  • Understanding how steps in individual projects connect with others in the program
  • Creating a master schedule that takes each of these connections into consideration
  • Developing a program-level risk management plan
  • Establishing communication systems and guidelines so that each person involved in the program is aware of important information
  • Evaluating projects to determine whether any should be redesigned or removed from the program to achieve maximum benefit

The program manager is focused on benefits realization—knowing the benefits that can be accomplished from this group of projects and focusing on achieving them. Since the role of program management is to ensure that projects are aligned to the business strategy, as the strategy changes, the program manager also needs to communicate with the project teams so that they are aware of the changes and what needs to be done about them.

What is a “portfolio” in project management?

A portfolio is a collection of projects and programs that are managed as a group to achieve strategic objectives. An organization may have one portfolio, which would then consist of all projects, programs, and operational work within the company. It may also establish several portfolios for different purposes, depending on its size and goals. 

What does a portfolio manager do?

Portfolio management is the centralized management of one or more portfolios to achieve an organization’s goals.

An organization’s resources are often limited, and a portfolio manager is responsible for determining which projects will best serve the organization’s goals, in which order they should be completed, and which resources can be allocated to each. It’s therefore critical to look not only at programs and projects at the individual level, but also holistically to understand how they align with the organization’s overarching goals.

At the same time, it’s important to consider a level of balance in the portfolio. The organization needs to “keep the lights on” while also developing new opportunities. Some risk needs to be taken, but the portfolio should not be so risky that everything could be lost.

Monitoring is key to the process, since portfolio composition is not a one-time decision. Portfolio managers must therefore constantly evaluate the elements of their portfolio to rearrange schedules, add or remove projects and programs, or reprioritize tasks accordingly. This is done to ensure that projects always align with an organization’s strategies and goals, even after they have been completed. 

Project vs. program vs. portfolio managers

Project, program, and portfolio management all happen simultaneously. While the project manager is overseeing multiple tasks within a project, the program manager is coordinating related projects within a program. Portfolio managers, meanwhile, are managing multiple programs within an organization, ensuring that all of them are working towards fulfilling strategic objectives.

In short, a project manager works to deliver a project efficiently and reliably. They are responsible for the day-to-day management that brings a project to fruition. Program managers are more concerned with strategic alignment: understanding what individual project managers are doing and enabling effective communication between them in order to understand where projects are and to provide support where necessary. Portfolio managers coordinate between various programs to ensure that things stay on track and that the organization is meeting its overarching strategic initiatives. They are often tasked with asking “Why?” (E.g., “Why is a particular project being proposed?” and “Why is certain work being done?” etc.)

How project, program, and portfolio management all work together

To be effective, it is essential that the project managers, program managers, and portfolio managers within an organization all understand each other’s roles in reaching company goals. Without this, there may be unnecessary confusion and miscommunication that can derail an initiative before it even begins. 

If you’re considering a career in project management, whether at the project, program, or portfolio level, building the skills necessary for each role is critical to your success. Earning a master’s degree in project management is one way to develop these skills, increasing your earning potential and giving you a competitive advantage in the field.

Learn how a Master’s in Project Management from Northeastern can jump-start your career today.


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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September 2017 and has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.