Program Manager: Operations or Projects?

Operational vs. project-based program manager

The role of Program Manager exists in many organizations but there is some ambiguity around whether this is an operational-type role or a project-based role. What is the difference?

In my experience, operational Program Managers are more widespread than project-based ones. There is no end date to operational programs. The Program Manager is expected to be the subject matter expert. They may have direct reports who are not project managers. They work within a line of business and may have profit-and-loss responsibility.

Project-based Program Managers run multiple projects in order to obtain benefits that cannot be attained by running these projects separately. When the projects end, the program ends too. Their direct reports are typically project managers. If they are not Technical Program Managers, they are usually not expected to be subject matter experts. This is because project-based programs tend to be cross-functional and rely on many subject matter experts in various fields drawn from multiple departments.

At times, the Program Manager role starts off as project-based to create a new line of business or transform an existing one. Once the revenue stream is established the position could shift into an ongoing operational Program Manager role simply because the individual knows the most about the business.

The simplest question to ask to find out whether a particular Program Manager role is project-based or operational is, “Is there an end date to this program?” For project management coaching, visit