Project Management

A primer on projects, programs, and portfolios

Where does program management end and project management begin? The answer depends on the roles assigned at your company. Project management veteran Tom Mochal explains with this look at the three P's: projects, programs, and portfolios.

Tom Mochal answers a question about project management terminology from a TechRepublic member.


I have worked at companies where a program manager was assigned to manage all major development. In these situations, the project manager had little authority and was often relegated to administrative duties, tracking, and reporting. How does this compare with your definition of project management and the role of a project manager? Why doesn't the literature spend more time describing the role of the program manager?-Dan


Your question gets at the heart of the relationship between projects, programs, and portfolios. Although companies may describe these terms differently, I am going to describe what I believe is the most common use, which is also the relationship that I've seen in companies where I have worked.

In general, you can divide all the work of a corporation into projects (large and small) and support (ongoing operations). Administration may be considered separately or as a part of support. For the purposes of this discussion, I am focusing on projects.

* Projects are how all new work gets done, including new enhancements. Projects are unique in that they have a beginning and an end and have specific objectives and deliverables.

* Programs are used to categorize huge work efforts into a smaller set of related projects, some of which are executed sequentially while others are executed in parallel.

* Portfolios are a collection of related and unrelated programs and projects. The person who manages a portfolio might be called a director or a vice president, since the job typically involves the overall management of the work, people, budget, vendors, etc., many times on behalf of a department or division.

This is all complicated because the terms and roles might mean different things at your company. Consider the project manager role. The Project Management Institute actually defines five major types of project managers, based on the type of organization and the type of project being executed.

Each type has a different level of authority and responsibility in the organization. Each type is also related differently with a different set of functional, or administrative, managers.

At your company (and others), the project manager may, in fact, be seen as more of a coordinator and have few real responsibilities other than administrative. You may use the program manager role as the first one with real authority and project management responsibility.

You may also use the term program management to define the level where you actually control budgets and staff. In other companies, those could all be the responsibilities of a strong project manager.


All that being said, I think you will find plenty of literature filled with information on project management and the role of a project manager. The key is to see how the information maps into your organization.

It sounds as if a project manager in your organization is more of a coordinator. The role that you consider to be a program manager actually maps into the traditional project manager role that you read about. So, for instance, when you read my columns on project management, you may need to mentally translate project management issues into your role of program management.


There is not nearly as much information on program management because typically a program is defined as an umbrella organization over a group of related projects. Let's take an example of a program to send an astronaut to the moon.

The moon-landing program is made up of dozens (or hundreds) of projects dealing with all the specific work required to land a human on the moon over a seven-year time frame. No work gets delivered at the program level. All the work is done in the underlying projects.

The program is there to help set overall direction, help start new projects, make sure the projects are progressing as they should, etc. But all the action (hence all the literature) is still focused on the project.


Portfolios are similar to programs in that they encompass a set of projects, but they are also much broader. A portfolio will typically be the umbrella structure over a group of related and unrelated projects.

The portfolio may also contain support groups. Usually, a portfolio encompasses all the work associated with a specific company business unit or a specific technology. The person in charge of the portfolio is usually a functional manager, reporting upward in the company's management hierarchy.

However, again, work is not done at the portfolio level. Instead, the work is done on the projects that are within the portfolio.

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