Back to top anchor

Better Business Cases™: Programme or Project?

What is a programme? (Programmes are not projects on steroids)

A programme is a time-bound, flexible arrangement established to coordinate, direct and oversee the implementation of a set of related projects and activities to deliver integrated outcomes and benefits related to an organisation’s strategic objectives. It’s about managing complex change with a strategic vision and a roadmap of how to get there. A programme exists to manage and make sense of complexity or uncertainty; it typically comprises multiple related projects and non-project activities, completed in tranches[1] over an extended period to achieve outcomes greater than the sum of the parts. For example:

  • Policy change focused on changes and improvements in society; driven by desired outcomes but likely to be ambiguous and complex to define in terms of what is involved.
  • Fundamentally changing the way an organisation works, led by a vision of the outcomes and benefits; there is uncertainty about the change but clear delivery approaches can be used.
  • A highly complex, lengthy project that is best broken down into a series of related projects and managed as a programme. Although generally considered a portfolio rather than a programme, a programme approach may be appropriate to very complex major projects. The question should always be asked “what is the added value from this approach?”

How does a programme differ from a project?

  • A project typically delivers outputs (eg, an ICT system, am office building, a road). A project has definite start and finish dates, a well-defined development path, and a defined set of financial and other resources allocated to it; benefits are achieved after the project has finished and the project plans should include activities to plan, measure and assess the benefits achieved.
  • Project management is suited to making tactical changes where there are closely bounded and scoped deliverables that can be relatively well defined (bounded change).
  • A programme typically delivers integrated outcomes, including significant organisational change (eg, a new hospital, military purchase requiring capability uplift). Programme management is suited to strategic change initiatives where there are complex and changing inter-relationships in a wide, dynamic and uncertain environment (unbounded change).
  • A programme exists when it makes sense to bring together multiple projects under a single coordinating structure, as the individual projects contribute to the overall programme outcome(s). Programmes can include pieces of work that are not projects (eg, ongoing business-as-usual activities) and can have a variety of structures.

Programme Management and Project Management are complementary approaches. During the programme lifecycle, projects are initiated, executed and closed. Programmes provide an umbrella under which these projects can be coordinated.[2]

Programmes and projects have some things in common; they both:

  • Are required to deliver what they say they are going to.
  • Require good governance, controls and management disciplines (risk, assurance, finance, monitoring and reporting etc) to be in place.
  • Require the active involvement of the Senior Responsible Owner (Sponsor) – some things just can’t be delegated.
  • As they must deal with a greater degree of ambiguity, coordinate multiple streams of work and large numbers of stakeholders, the required skillsets of people working on a programme differ from those working on projects. A good project manager isn’t necessarily the right person to run a programme.
  1. [1] A tranche is “A group of projects [within a programme] structured around distinct step changes in capability and benefit delivery” – OGC 2007, Managing successful Programmes, Office of Government Commerce, UK page 249.
  2. [2] OGC 2006, Business Benefits through Programme and Project Management, Office of Government Commerce, UK page 7.
Last updated: 
Friday, 26 March 2021