Is Program Manager the new Project Manager?

Is Program Manager the new Project Manager?


Project Management as a domain and Project Manager as a role has been well established within the professional world and the last half a century has just seen this domain and role being cemented with various industry verticals and mature with experience time. While Program Managers have also existed for the same modicum of time, they have sort of remained “under the shade”, letting the Project Managers be the torchbearer of the project management world. Of late, however, there has been an emergence of the Program Managers. Looking at the emerging interchangeability of these two roles, one wonders, and hypothesizes, are Program Managers the new Project Managers?

However, before we attempt to analyze it any further, let’s validate the tenability of the hypothesis through some data.

An independent study conducted by in mid 2019 estimated the number of certified Program Management Professionals [PgMP®] to be at 2,598, while the number of Project Management Professional [PMP®] credential holders for the same time period stood at staggering 911, 375. While these numbers were absolutely not comparable, the same team conducted a trend analysis for a period between November 2015 and March 2019, and the summary for that is given below:

  • PMP grows at a steady rate of 10%, with the exception of year 2018, when the growth rate jumped up to 15.6 % in anticipation of the edition change from 5th to the 6th edition
  • PgMP® and PfMP® experienced growth of 26.8% and 50.1% respectively
  • The PBA growth is exponential at 181.8%

If nothing, the study proves that the demand for Program Management Professional as a credential has been growing at twice the rate at which the demand for Project Management Professional as a credential has been performing during the last four years. The demand, with suitable assumptions, can well extrapolated to growing prominence of Program Manager as a role across organizations.

Before taking the plunge of analyzing the reasons behind this unique trend, let us take a peek at what are the similarities and dissimilarities in the roles of a Project Manager and a Program Manager.

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It is clear from this comparison that the key underlying difference between these two roles lies in the scope and context. In general, program managers are expected to look at a broader scope, are aligned to the organization’s strategies and are focused on long term sustainable benefits rather than the immediate deliverables. Project Managers, in comparison, are more focused on the deliverable at hand within the triple constraint of cost, schedule and quality. Due to this difference in perspective, there is also a difference in how “Change” is viewed by these two roles. While program managers are more adaptive towards change (they act as the change agent), project managers are skeptical in their approach when it comes to change as it may impact their deliverable at hand.

Regardless of this fundamental difference in approach, it has been validated that there is a significant shift and emergence of the program management role. There can be many reasons for this transition, I would like to enumerate two of them in support of my hypothesis:

(1) Changing the landscape of project management’s adaptability:

Project management as a methodology was envisioned with the construction industry as the model. As a result, a lot of examples that were quoted in subsequent literature on this topic had a “construction flavor”. However, to be fair to the propounds, the project management concepts were generalized to the extent possible, so that they may be industry agnostic. While this adoption took time, it surely did happen with the maturity of different industry verticals as well as the maturity of implementing project management methodology. With the emergence of the knowledge industry in the last few decades, adoption of project management has undergone significant changes. Knowledge industry has customized project management in a way that is more suitable to their way of work. As a result, knowledge industry especially views projects under the following categories:

(a)Quick wins: these are low cost, low complexity projects which can be finished within one to three months. Also christened as “project lite”, “sub project” or simply “initiatives”, the objective here is to get the work done without going through the rigor of a full blown “project”. These are often led by team leads with minimal support from a project manager.

(b)Lean projects: These are essentially process improvement exercises which may include activities like value stream mapping, root cause analysis, solution prioritization and design of experiments. These initiatives bring forth a blend of quality methodology and project management methodology and is usually led by the quality team within an organization with minimal assistance from a project manager.

(c)Projects: These are full blown projects which have the required complexity of a project and hence are expected to follow the rigor of project management. However, more often than not, these projects do have a focus on organization strategy, stakeholder expectations, benefit sustainment and change management, to the extent that diffuses the demarcation between a project and a program. And it is in these scenarios that a Project Manager ends up playing the role of a Program Manager.
Stand – alone projects, especially in the knowledge industry, is becoming rare and infrequent and hence organizations want their project managers to don the hat of a program manager ever so often. This is a primary reason for the emergence of the role of a program manager.

(2)Project Manager Demographics:

Early adopters to project management methodology (and by extrapolation, credential holders of PMP®) would be moving up in their roles, responsibilities and designations and would logically like to climb the next step of Program Management in their careers. These professionals, in turn, would operating from a perspective of a program manager, providing a potential shift from project management to program management.


A study conducted by Project Management Institute on the demographics of successful PgMP® credential holders revealed the following:

  • A whopping 62% of the respondents were in the age group of 36 – 50, indicating 10 to 25 years of professional experience
  • 80% of the successful respondents were in the age group of 36 – 55 years.

This was further corroborated by analyzing the number of years of project management experience of the successful credential holders, and the results looked as follows:

  • 52% of the respondents had more than 15 years of experience as project managers
  • 85% of the successful credential holders had more than 10 years of experience

High number of experienced project management professionals opting to gain the program management credential and eventually transition to a program management role goes on to the prove the hypothesis. Relatively younger project management professionals not opting to take the plunge further corroborates the point.

It doesn’t really matter what nomenclature an organization uses for project management professionals. As long as the organization, its PMO (if it does have one) and the individual concerned are aligned with the expectations, it would be an enriching experience and association for all stakeholders concerned, and project management would be the winner.

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