The Difference Between a Project and a Program

Occasionally there is confusion about the key differences between projects and programs. This blog post will summarize some of the key differences and provide a real-world example of projects and program.

A project is defined as a temporary assembly of resources and capabilities designed to create a specific product or achieve a specific objective. Projects establish criteria that, when met, signify completion of the project.

A program, on the other hand, can be thought of as a collection of related projects that are managed in order to meet a related set of objectives. Where projects are temporary in nature and have a defined beginning and end, programs can include operational aspects.

A good example of the difference between a project and a program is the work that accredited training organizations did to update ITIL courseware in the context of the ITIL 2011 refresh.

For the intents and purposes of this discussion, there were 13 courses that were updated based upon the ITIL 2011 refresh. The series of activities to update each of these courses were managed as individual projects. For example, when we updated the ITIL Foundation course, specific start and end dates were established, along with overall project milestones.  Furthermore, resources were allocated for project activities. For each course that was updated, a similar set of activities was performed.

The projects to update all of the courses were related in terms of their overall objectives and the resources required to achieve those objectives. However, there is an ongoing operational aspect in which we constantly validate that the courseware is accurate and  any errors found are corrected. Therefore, the individual projects to update all of the ITIL courses were collectively managed as an overall program, which includes the ongoing operational aspects associated with keeping the courses accurate and up-to-date.

Fundamentally projects and programs help us apply boundaries and control scope. A good project is a boundary that helps to limit activities to only those that contribute to the objective of that project. A good project manager protects that boundary. A program is also a boundary, but it is broader than the boundary of a single project in that a program considers the contribution of many projects to a related set of objectives.

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