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  • Writer's pictureJD Solomon

Driving Success: Why Call It Project Development vs Program Development

Framing the differences of project and program development is a key for driving success.
Framing the differences of project and program development is a key for driving success.

Projects and programs are often used interchangeably. Yet, they represent distinct entities in the realm of development and management. Understanding their differences is crucial for effective planning, execution, and resource allocation. Framing the differences correctly is a big factor in success or failure.

Defining Projects and Project Development

A project is a temporary endeavor designed to create a unique product, service, or result within specified constraints such as scope, time, and resources (Project Management Institute). Project development involves the phases of planning, execution, and closure aimed at achieving specific objectives. Projects usually have a defined start and end, distinct deliverables, and a fixed budget.

Defining Programs and Program Development

A program is a collection of related projects and other activities managed together to attain strategic objectives and benefits that are not achievable if managed individually (Project Management Institute). Program development involves aligning multiple projects and activities to support overarching organizational goals. Programs usually include projects with interdependencies and shared resources.

The distinction between a project and a program often hinges on size, scope, and timing. A project tends to be smaller in scale and address a single objective. A project’s scope is focused and delineated, aiming for specific outcomes.

Scope Differences

In contrast, a program is more extensive, encompassing multiple projects, activities, and sometimes ongoing operations. Programs operate across a broader scope, spanning longer durations and multiple objectives that are strategically linked.

Timing Differences

The timing aspect also distinguishes projects from programs. Projects have well-defined timelines. Programs often have a more extended and continuous timeline. Program timelines evolve and adjust as projects within the program are executed and completed.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Name

Calling a bunch of projects a ‘program’ helps people see the connections between them, plan resources better, and manage risks together. But it might make things more complicated and invite too much-unneeded oversight.

On the other hand, saying a group of projects helps manage each task separately but might miss out on how they can help each other and share resources. Considering connected projects individually also limits risk mitigation when surprises occur.

A Case Example

Mount Pleasant Waterworks decided a few years ago that it wanted a more streamlined approach for its Asset Management Program. As a management system, asset management touches everything of value in an organization. MPW had fallen into the trap of over-managing and over-meeting to the point that leadership and staff were paralyzed.

Reducing the number of projects was the first step in re-framing the asset management program was reducing the number of projects. For example, it was determined that a series of new projects for improving inventory control could be developed and implemented as a single project that required minimal oversight from the asset management core team. The tradeoff meant less control by the core team but more time to focus on more important things. The same approach is being implemented for developing and executing a series of improvements for the geospatial information system (GIS).

Moving Forward

In short, knowing the difference between a single project and a bunch of projects (a program) helps manage things better and reach bigger goals, but it also adds complexity to how they're handled. Deciding which to use depends on how they connect and the goals they aim for.


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