Programs – Are they not just big projects?

This is a question that quite often gets asked. Another question that quite often gets asked is “what is the difference between a program and a project?” Also in my experience organizations are very often not sure if they have a project or a program on their hands? A project is a temporary organization put together to deliver products (outputs) according to an agreed business case. A program on the other hand is a temporary flexible structure created to coordinate, direct and oversee a set of related projects to deliver outcomes and benefits aligned to strategic objectives.

Differences between projects and programs

  • Both are temporary structures put together but projects are about delivering outputs whereas programs are about delivering a transformation to the organization. Projects deliver the outputs that the program will then use to deliver an outcome that the business can then use to go on and deliver benefits.
  • Projects are finite – they have a clear start and end whereas programs might not have a clear path showing how the end state will be achieved. At the start of a project there will be a picture of what the end result should look like and how to get there.
  • A program there will have a vision of where you want to get to but how it will be achieved might not yet be clear.
  • Projects are over a shorter period of times than programs. Programs can normally have a life span of several years. Within the delivery of the program there will be a number of projects which will have a much shorter life span than the overall program.

Project and Program benefits

  • Project benefits tend to occur after the project has closed.
  • Program benefits can be realized during and after the program has closed. This is because project lifecycles cover the delivery of the outputs but not the realization of the outcomes. Programs cover the realization of the outcomes and quite often also the realization of the benefits.
So you can see that the answer to the question above – is a program not just a big project – is definitely no!