What is the difference between a project manager and programme manager?

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In the intricate world of business operations, the roles of programme managers and project managers may appear similar at first glance.

Yet they play distinct and crucial roles -- each with its own set of challenges and responsibilities.

In my 26 years of technology staffing, I’ve worked on various programme and project management recruitment campaigns including ‘urgent requirements,’ and I’ve seen the lines blurred between the two ‘PM’ roles too many times, writes Matt Collingwood of VIQU, a tech recruitment agency specialising in programme and project management recruitment.

The Relationship between projects and programmes

Projects are the building blocks of progress within organisations. They are essentially short-term endeavours that are meticulously planned to produce specific deliverables, such as a new product, service, or system.

However, projects do not exist in isolation; they are integral components of a larger, more comprehensive structure -- programmes.

Programmes are the orchestrators of change within an organisation. They are comprised of a network of co-ordinated projects, all aimed at achieving a common business objective or goal. These programmes are not merely a collection of random projects; instead, they are carefully designed to create meaningful and lasting benefits for the organisation.

Project versus programme: examples

For instance, consider an organisation striving to enhance its operational efficiency.

To achieve this overarching goal, the organisation may initiate a programme designed to digitise their existing processes. This programme will encompass multiple individual projects.

For instance, migrating the company's accounting systems to a digitised platform and developing a state-of-the-art digital inventory tracking system. I’ve seen many companies embark on similar endeavours in the last decade. In particular, moving from on-premises to the Cloud.

The success of both projects and programmes hinges on the expertise and acumen of capable project and programme managers, including the use of freelancers and contractors who possess niche expertise and experiences.

By working in tandem with programme and project manager recruitment experts, businesses can ensure that their workforce is equipped to align seamlessly with the broader objectives of organisational programmes.

The role of a project manager

Project managers are the masters of detail and execution within a programme!

The PM typically embarks on their journey by crafting a comprehensive ‘project roadmap,’ outlining the specific tasks and timelines required to complete the project successfully. These well-thought-out roadmaps are essential in harmonising the diverse skillsets of team members, ensuring that each project serves cross-functional purposes.

Resource management is another critical responsibility of project managers. They are entrusted with the task of procuring and allocating the necessary resources to carry out project tasks while ensuring strict adherence to programme guidelines.

Moreover, project managers take the lead in guiding their team members through each phase of project execution.

As projects advance, project managers closely monitor progress, promptly addressing any bottlenecks or issues that may arise causing delays. For example, if they identify that an inadequate network infrastructure is impeding their team's progress, they will proactively seek solutions to rectify the situation.

Furthermore, project managers meticulously track the contributions of their projects in relation to their costs. This information, along with comprehensive records of schedules, budgets, risks, and resource utilisation, is then communicated to programme managers.

The role of a programme manager

Programme managers are the visionaries and strategists behind the scenes!

They are responsible for defining programmes and their objectives, carefully evaluating how these objectives will impact the organisation. Once this assessment is complete, they formulate strategies to actualise the defined programme goals. This involves the identification and oversight of a multitude of projects, all strategically structured to collectively achieve the programme's objectives.

When planning a programme, programme managers adopt a long-term perspective, envisioning how it will contribute to the sustained growth of the organisation.

They develop comprehensive roadmaps that outline schedules, budgets, and anticipate potential dependencies that might create roadblocks. Unlike project managers, whose roadmaps focus on individual projects, programme managers orchestrate the intricacies of multiple projects within the programme.

While they do not directly oversee individual projects, programme managers bear ultimate responsibility for their success.

To ensure this success, they identify best practices that can benefit the projects and strategise ways to streamline organisational processes. For instance, they may eliminate redundant tasks or introduce project management software to enhance efficiency. Additionally, programme managers often engage in negotiations with clients and internal stakeholders, ensuring alignment with the programme's objectives.

Key differences between programme managers and project managers

In essence, programme and project managers share a common thread of responsibilities, such as budget planning and team leadership. However, their scope of work differs significantly!

Project managers possess what I’d call a ‘focused lens,’ concentrating on the successful delivery of specific, well-defined deliverables. Their role is essential in ensuring that individual projects are completed efficiently and effectively.

By contrast, programme managers operate with a broader perspective; the ‘big picture.’ They act as architects who envision and oversee the intricate interplay of multiple projects within a programme, ensuring that they ‘synergise’ to drive the organisation's long-term growth.

Programme managers go beyond the completion of individual projects; their mission is to realise sustained, company-wide expansion.

To illustrate my point here, consider a programme manager overseeing an initiative to expand a company's customer base. Their role involves envisioning a constellation of projects designed to attract potential customers. They meticulously design the rollout of these projects to ensure they build upon one another, resulting in the most significant impact and a surge in leads.

Four must-checks if you’re looking at PM assignments

The four main things to look for as an IT freelancer or individual tech contractor when speaking to a specialist programme or project management recruitment agency, with a view to landing an assignment, include:

  1. IR35

When considering IR35, projects managers can often have clearly defined outcomes to deliver. So it is less complex for companies to engage freelancer project managers on an outside IR35 basis, in comparison to programme managers, who might have less defined roles.

  1. Rates

Contract rate versus contractor tasks & responsibilities – Rates for a project manager can vary wildly, from £400 to £700 a day. Some project managers with niche industry/project-specific experience can expect to command even higher rates. Whereas a programme manager can earn between £600 and £900 a day.

  1. Be wary! Double-check you won’t be a Project Manager doing a Programme Manager’s job

Project managers must be wary of recruitment agencies approaching them about project management roles that actually turn out to be ‘Programme Management’ work.

It can be argued that being thrown into the deep end (you expected to manage a project not a whole programme!), could be good for developing a contractor’s or freelancer’s skills. And for developing their experience. But you, the candidate, will in effect be selling yourselves short, while allowing the programme or project management recruitment agency to take advantage of you and in some cases, to make a better margin!

  1. Factor in the competition

Our top 20 roles between June and September 2023 – in terms of those which attracted the most applications -- included both a PMO (Project Management Office) manager and a Project Manager role. This clearly conveys that a vast number of candidates are going forward for programme and project management roles.

Further top tips for wannabe contractor PMs

Contractors can make themselves stand out from the crowd by forming relationships with specialist programme and project management recruitment agencies, and if they’re any good, these agencies ought to have multiple roles matching your skills at any one time.

Additionally, I recommend reaching out directly to the individual recruiter who is advertising the role, so you can then follow up on the application, and potentially be accepted into their online network for future openings -- if at first you don’t succeed.

Sometimes in the PM and PM jobs market, it’s just a case of ‘right place right time.’ So as an IT contractor wanting either role, please do put in the legwork with individual agents, in order to optimise your chances of getting hired as a project manager or programme manager.

Final thought

As this article has hopefully put beyond doubt for you, freelance programme and project managers may appear similar on the surface, but they serve distinct and complementary roles within organisations. Together though, these tech professionals form the backbone of effective project and programme management, translating vision into tangible outcomes.

Written by

Matt Collingwood

Managing Director of VIQU

Matt Collingwood is the Managing Director of VIQU Ltd. an IT recruitment and project-based consultancy company with offices in Birmingham and Southampton. Matt is also the co-founder of the Recruitment Canaries, a network of West Midlands based recruitment agencies who encourage collaboration, best practice and upholding the standards and ethics of the recruitment industry.

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