Program Vs. Project – A Guide to Program Management

By John Cropper, LINGOs Director of Project Services

JohnCropperAgain and again I am struck by our sector’s tendency to over-complicate; taking something that is already challenging and making it even more difficult.  I see so many projects; health, education and so on, and when I look at the details of each one I see large, multi-million dollar budgets, multi-year plans, multiple areas of intervention – and sometimes multiple countries….. and I realize these aren’t projects, they are programs!  I could go on about how the donor funding environment is a major driver of this, but let’s save that for another time and focus on programs versus projects.

Program Vs. Project

If we structure our work as one large project, it will be extremely complex.  Budgets will be massive, risk registers will read like books, plans will be vast, assigning roles and accountabilities will be complicated– and everything will be interlinked.  If we can break this mass of work down into smaller units, i.e. projects, we make things simpler.  Plans are easier to understand if they involve a specific piece of work such as building a single healthcare center rather than improving health outcomes for hundreds of thousands of people spread over three countries. It becomes easier to manage, comprehend and control.   Just how do you deal with a change in a vast mega project? How do we even understand the implications throughout the project?

A Guide to Program Management

Clearly, there is no magic solution. Turning a mega-project into a program with a series of smaller, more concrete projects raises its own issues. How do we manage the program? Who will do this? What skills do they need? How do they coordinate across projects? How do they ensure that the projects are working together to deliver all the anticipated benefits?  Help is on the way! Building on the success of PMDPro (8000 people have now been through the certification), LINGOs, PM4NGOs and APMG are working together to write a Guide to Program Management and this will eventually be linked to a certification.

Programs are all about achieving outcomes for our beneficiaries and linking up to organisational strategies at country, regional and global levels. As such, they are at the heart of our work and I hope that the new Guide and certification will make a helpful contribution to improving program design, planning, management and delivery – and I hope that we are able to offer a pilot course in the fall of 2014.


3 thoughts on “Program Vs. Project – A Guide to Program Management

  1. Hi John,

    Essentially any project can be thought of as a program and any program can be thought of as a project. A program manager is also, technically, a project manager, but managing a very large project (which is a program).

    No matter what literature is written on the difference between the two, they are technically the same, except for the size.

    1. It is an Interesting discussion – and many thanks for reading the blog and for taking the time to comment. Speaking about development work, I do think there are some major differences between programs and projects. I look on a program as 2+2=5 – which sort of meets the PMI definition of:

      “A group of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually. Programs may include elements of related work outside scope of the discrete projects in the program”.

      You could argue that you might have a big project and break it up into workstreams – fair enough – and it is this ‘breaking down’ that is really important.

      In the development sector, what often happens is that a donor will issue a call for project proposals – say healthcare in Northern Ghana or whatever. NGOs then write project proposals! Some get funded. So we now have a series of ‘projects’. As I tried to describe in the bog, when you unpack the ‘project’, you see that it is huge – and unless it is broken down – it becomes very difficult to manage. In the PMI terminology, it is easy to lose control.

      A further complication is that in international development, projects will have outputs and outcomes. I find that this is less common in the private sector where projects are more about outputs and programs are more about outcomes. For NGOs, it is more about a hierarchy of outputs and outcomes and project and program level. I think this because of the nature of international development. Organisations are not trying to build latrines for the sake of it. They want to reduce the incidence of water borne diseases and save lives. So there will be outcomes in terms of behaviour change as well as more traditional outputs in terms of latrines built, number of people trained in public health etc.

      In addition to this you often see project implementation being done by local partner organisations. These might be camp committees in a refugee camp, local NGOs or even a local Government body such as a local health centre. The International NGO person is managing relationships with the partners rather than managing direct implementation. Structuring this as a one big project is possible – but very complex. Breaking it into projects and helping local partner organisations to be clear about ‘their; project not only makes it easier for them to manage, it also helps build their capacity – which is what good development practice is all about.

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