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.

Question

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

Answer

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.

Projects

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.

Programs

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

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.

12 comments
YourAverageManager
YourAverageManager

Most of Chapter 2 in PMI's proprietary document called Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) is devoted to detailing the PM role and function within differing organizational structures. My copy is dated 2000. There are newer versions. Unfortunately for people with inquiring minds, PMI restricts all forms of copying and distribution. Join PMI, pay the dues to get PMBOK. Or, find a used copy of the CD. For those of us looking for easy open access in order to better understand Project Management before investing, TechRepublic and Tom Mochal are good sources; this is the place where one thing leads to another, we find some jewels, and we can get lost in the sauce. I enjoy the simple yet in depth structure and presentation of Project Management found at: http://www.maxwideman.com Looking for PM Definitions and how they relate? Wideman Comparative Glossary of Common Project Management Terms http://www.maxwideman.com/pmglossary/ Just a start, and I hope this helps!

edennis.cochran
edennis.cochran

I agree with all points in this article and feel I should add one distinction between programs and portfolios. A project may stand alone, but if it is part of a program, it is part of only one program. That project may however be associated with one or many portfolios, depending on how portfolios are defined. One portfolio could include all projects in the enterprise. More often however, portfolios are defined to facilitate the management of resources. Portfolios could be defined around functional organizations, strategic goals, customers, etc.. As such, a given project may me a member of several portfolios, but only one program.

harry.potma
harry.potma

Indeed the related terminology is frequently subject to local and personal interpretation. Therefore I try to always link it back to my interpretation: Projects create deliverables, Programs achieve change using those deliverables (and management of change) and Portfolio is the overview of what's going on. My experience is that often large projects are being called programs, but in reality don't live up to the change aspect. Thus on top of the bad track record of project success rates we -IT- seem to do bad on bringing the actual change to the business and thus harvesting on something like 'cost savings'. Check out the PrinceII inventors site for Managing Successful Programs: http://www.ogc.gov.uk/guidance_managing_successful_projects.asp

tullio.spadone
tullio.spadone

more complications come with the introduction of "change manager", another level ?. Tullio Spadone secretary of Italian Association of change management www.assochange.it . What do you think about ?

info
info

I agree. I found out why Click2Call works so well foro online businesses . www.2callus.com - they added a Natrional call center to take messages (and order) for the online business.....even from web shopper at 2 am

brianmcmurdie
brianmcmurdie

This article mentions the Project Management Institute and other literature. Perhaps the author could provide links (thus formalizing the references) to suggested literature. Good short message that seems consistent with my experience with the different interpretations of Portfolio/Program/Project management.

meryllogue
meryllogue

They make their knowledge nearly impossible to use. You cannot even get it local to your machine, which means you have to read it while logged in to their site. Thus, no reading on the train, plane or somewhere else with no connectivity. No printing for later reading in bed. I no longer use the PMI site as a source of information. It is too hard to use. The irony is that when I discussed this issue with them over a several-week period of time, they said that they need to protect their proprietary information, but I have to counter that with, "What good is protecting it if nobody will use it?" Of course, we CAN use it, but they have placed so many impediments to use that it is easier to get the information in other ways. Thanks for the alternative link below, btw... I will check it out.

casey
casey

When discussions of PM semantics occur, I find it helpful to review definitions in common use: A portfolio is a group of investments, usually made to produce a return of some sort. A program is a system of projects or services planned to meet a need. A project is something that is devised or planned. The PMI and others, have embellished these basic definitions, but at the end of the day, the organizational culture in which you find yourself will ultimately determine what the usage is. CASEY

doug.taylor.cxuc
doug.taylor.cxuc

PMI, especially in the upcoming revised editions of Program standards and Portfolio standards does a pretty good job of differentiating between the two. One of the other posts mentioned Change Manager. Does anyone have a good model where they have intergrated ITIL with Program Management in a PMO?

tim uk
tim uk

Out of curiosity, what are the 5 types of PM that the PMI identifies?

meryllogue
meryllogue

I am hoping you understood the context of my remarks. I can't quite tell by your post (Don't you love how written works somes and NOT others?). I totally understand PMI's need to generate revenue and especially to control the PMBOK access. That is a membership benefit, as well it should be. (Without some training in it, though, it is pretty difficult to figure out, I have to say. So it's kind of like it is encrypted, and so no matter if they give it away. lol) But my turn-off is specifically their access to the added information in their site... I think it is their research library or something like that. If you find a paper on there that strikes your interest, you MUST read it from that site. You cannot download it for a later read, or even print it for a later read. To me, that is one significant hurdle and takes "ease of use" to the trash bin. I am the type of learner that likes to read it over once fast, then go back and re-read it when I have some time to really absorb it and think about it and try to apply it to my own situation. And so I do not go there for research because I never think of it because it is too hard to use and so it is not in my mind as a viable resource.... Whew! Out of breath on that one!

YourAverageManager
YourAverageManager

I can not offer a better revenue generating model for PMI than controlling the distribution of PMBOK. Maybe someone else can. PMBOK is an extremely long read. If you are looking for knowledge expansion that is of similar project value, openly and freely available, check out BABOK at IIBA; Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK) from the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA). General: http://www.theiiba.org Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK): http://www.theiiba.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Learning/BodyofKnowledge/default.htm Local Chapters http://www.theiiba.org/Content/NavigationMenu/MemberShip/ChapterBrowseSearch/UnitedStates/default.htm Noted your job role as Development Project Management; having that responsibility you may get a little excited upon discovering what BAs could be delivering to your project team and the organization. Just keep in mind that PMBOK and BABOK are Frameworks, it is up to the organization to arrive at Methodologies. Stated differently, one must get from where they are given the generalizations offered by PMBOK and BABOK to arrive at some agreed method that delivers projects for the organization. We all understand that this is a long path to travel but it all starts with inquiring minds. Enjoy!

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