Planning out a career in project management can mean taking a few different paths. But one of the most popular is the journey from Project Manager to Program Manager.

So lets take a look at what the difference is between these two roles and – if it seems like the right path for you – some of the key actions you need to take.

Project manager vs. program manager

The simplest definition of the difference between Project and Program work is that Projects are time-bound, one off style endeavours, whereas Programs are made up of multiple, interconnected projects.

Projects will generally have defined costs, resources, budgets and time constraints. Whereas Programs involve a number of related projects, which complement each other and deliver value to the business’ long-term goals and strategies. In other words, Program Managers drive strategic benefits, overall business growth and transformation, while Project Managers focus on a clearly defined, singularly focused, tangible deliverable.

Want to learn more? Check out our guide, Project Management Career Path

The soft skills gap

It’s easy to think that the transition from Project Manager to Program Manager is just a matter of managing multiple versus single projects at a time. The reality is that the shift requires a change of focus in terms of some skills and the addition of others.

One big area of difference is the importance of soft skills. While the ability to communicate and build relationships is important for both – Program Managers need to rely more on “soft skills” to be both a business leader and manager. The ability to work with senior decision makers and build good working relationships across a broad spectrum of people – upwards, downwards and sideways – as well as show leadership, within an organisation is critical.

For Program Managers having the skills to handle and resolve politically sensitive challenges can be the difference between success and failure. Often the Program Manager must be what binds the organisation’s strategy with its ability to execute.

A solid base

Having said that – the general harder skills that Project Managers possess make for a solid launching off point to Program Management. Project Managers focus on execution, meeting deadlines, staying within budget, delegating tasks and completing deliverables. These are all key skills in being able to steer a number of projects – it’s the emphasis that needs to change.

To make the transition, Project Managers need to resist their likely tendency to dive deep into the weeds of a project. It’s just not possible when you have multiple projects on the go. To be a Program Manager means not sweating every last detail with every project but taking a birds-eye view of all the projects and focusing on the bigger overall outcome as well as delivering on business objectives.

A few things to keep in mind

In order to deliver on this last piece, it’s likely too that you will have to become more specialised in the industry you work in and extremely well-versed in the business of and way your particular organisation operates. To be able to add value at leadership level – insight will only come from knowing all you can about your industry and your organisation.

You will also need to shift your mindset around certainty as a Program Manager, while you might know what the big picture or long-term goals are – it may be less clear exactly how you will get there. With so many moving parts in multiple projects over long periods of time – there will be plenty of unknowns. So planning and governance will become much more complex.

PMI in its paper “10 steps to transition from project to program management” sets out the essential factors for transitioning from a Project to Program Management professional. All require a mindset shift. In summary they are:

  1. Think business instead of delivery: Focus on business delivery and understand what the requirements are, what is changing and how the organisation is reacting.
  2. Think dependencies instead of schedule: Zero in on how things relate to each other as opposed to how to deliver them.
  3. Think escalation instead of reporting: Reporting is passive. Escalation is about making sure the right information, is in the hands of the right people, at the right time and is delivered in a way that aids decision making.
  4. Think strategy instead of scope: Strategy is the plan, scope is more focused on how a plan is to be implemented.
  5. Think conflict instead of crisis: Conflict should be used as a constructive mechanism to get a point across and problem solve.
  6. Think governance instead of teams: Program Managers must clearly set out and communicate the governance of a program with feedback loops that help stakeholders and teams understand it.
  7. Think transition instead of transfer: Program Managers oversee the transition to Business as Usual (BAU) not just the transfer of responsibility.
  8. Think challenge instead of salary: Program Managers, do not necessarily get paid significantly more than Project Managers to begin with. The key is to focus on the challenge and resolving it – which will increase your value and drive your development.
  9. Think relaxation instead of stress: Programs take much longer than projects – so managing stress and burnout is key.
  10. ​Think program triple constraints (benefit, customer, and cost): This is benefit realisation or non-realisation, customer attainment or satisfaction, and then what does it cost to get there.


Take the time to map out your career plan. It’s always good to have your project management certifications and to attend events that will keep you up to date on the latest in the project management world. Also have a think about courses that you can take, which will move you in the program manager direction.