Many people are uncertain about the difference between a project and a program (also please refer to note on spelling conventions used on ICB.com).
Management consultants are regularly involved in supporting clients through periods of complex change and consequently clarity on the basic definitions of a project and a program, and the difference between a project and a program are important.
It is also important that management consultants use consistent terms and language when describing work to be undertaken in order that the client can understand the nature and scale of the consulting intervention that will be required. Although many of the change management considerations are common between a program and a project, the nature of the consulting work required to support each type of initiative is quite distinct.
Definition of a Project
A project is a temporary entity established to deliver specific (often tangible) outputs in line with predefined time, cost and quality constraints. A project should always be defined and executed and evaluated relative to an (Executive) approved business case which balances the costs, benefits and risks of the project. The project business case should be managed under change control.
Definition of a Program
A program is a portfolio comprised of multiple projects that are managed and coordinated as one unit with the objective of achieving (often intangible) outcomes and benefits for the organization.
Difference between a Project and a Program
The following table summarizes the main areas of difference between a project and a program.
|Objectives||Outputs – tangible; relatively easy to describe, define and measure; tending towards objective.||Outcomes – often intangible; difficult to quantify; benefits often based on changes to organizational culture and behaviors; introducing new capabilities into the organization; tending towards subjective.|
|Scope||Strictly limited; tightly defined; not likely to be subject to material change during the life of the project.||Not tightly defined or bounded; likely to change during the life cycle of the program.|
|Duration||Relatively short term; typically three to six months.||
Relatively long term typically eighteen months to three years.
|Risk profile||Project risk is relatively easy to identify and manage. The project failure would result in relatively limited impact on the organization relative to program risk.||Program risk is more complex and potentially the impact on the organization if a risk materializes will be greater relative to project risk. Programme failure could result in material financial, reputational or operational loss.|
|Nature of the problem||Clearly defined.||Ill-defined; often disagreement between key stakeholders on the nature and definition of the problem.|
|Nature of the solution||A relatively limited number of potential solutions.||A significant number of potential solutions with often with disagreement between stakeholders as to the preferred solution.|
|Stakeholders||A relatively limited number of stakeholders.||A significant number of diverse stakeholders; probable disagreement between them as to the definition of the problem & the preferred solution.|
|Relationship to environment||Environment within which the project takes place is understood and relatively stable.||Environment is dynamic; and programme objectives need to be managed in the context of the changing environment within which the organization operates.|
|Resources||Resources to deliver the project can be reasonably estimated in advance.||Resources are constrained and limited; there is competition for resources between projects.|
A change portfolio is comprised of multiple and interdependent change programs. An organization will manage a change portfolio with a strategic perspective often over a rolling three to five year period.
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