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Product Management: Program Manager

Definition: A program manager is a strategic project-management professional whose job is to help oversee and coordinate the various projects, products, and other strategic initiatives across an organization.

What is a Program Manager?

A program manager’s role can include:

  • Coordinating multiple projects and reconciling the interdependencies among them
  • Providing strategic guidance to the company’s project managers
  • Facilitating communication among a program’s cross-functional team

What does a Program Manager do?

To understand what a program manager’s role entails, we first need to define what we mean by “program”.

In an organizational context, a program refers to a group of related projects (or a combination of projects and programs) that together support a strategic business initiative. This initiative could include: launching a product, implementing a new sales process, or opening a new location.

The program manager’s job is to take a high-level view of the entire program, and strategically guide project managers to ensure they are all working effectively toward the program’s objective.

Then each individual project that falls under a program’s umbrella is coordinated by a project manager.

The Project Management Institute describes the role program manager as essentially a super project manager. You can also think of a program manager as a meta-project manager, strategically directing all of a program’s interconnected projects simultaneously.

Here’s how the Project Management Institute describes the day-to-day responsibilities of a program manager:

  • Daily program management throughout the program lifecycle
  • Define the program governance
  • Plan the overall program and monitor the progress
  • Manage the program’s budget
  • Manage risks and issues and take corrective measurements
  • Coordinate the projects and their interdependencies
  • Manage and utilize resources across projects
  • Manage stakeholders’ communication
  • Align deliverables to the program’s outcome
  • Manage the main program documents

How do Program Managers Help Other Members of the Organization?

Program managers provide project managers with strategic guidance that a project manager might not be able to see when focused on just a single project.

Program managers also help other teams across the organization, however.

They can help developers.

Program managers have an organization-wide view. They monitor the requirements and progress of not just one strategic initiative but all of them. As such, they can help protect the development team from being overloaded with work or given unreasonable deadlines.

They can help product managers.

Similarly, a program manager can set realistic expectations for product managers during their products’ development. Program managers can show them the broader organizational context of their available development resources. Also, if a dev team completes another initiative sooner than expected or hires more people than planned, a program manager can alert a product manager that new resources might be available to speed the development of their products.

They can improve the entire cross-functional team’s communication and coordination.

Due to their strategic eye on all of the major initiatives across the company, program managers serve as valuable communication hubs for cross-functional teams.

For example:

During the product development process, the program managers will know the right time to strategically bring together the marketing, sales, and product teams to discuss the best way to handle the launch. They’ll also often be first to know when a company budget issue might affect several departments working on the same program. Program Managers can bring those teams together as soon as possible to discuss the budget setback.

They can help all individuals and teams working on a program make better decisions.

Finally, program managers focus on the strategic questions of “How?” and “When?’ to help improve the decision-making processes for everyone that works on each of the interconnected projects.

While this is a key difference between program managers and product managers, it also reveals how the two roles can work synergistically to give programs a strategic advantage.

Where a product manager focuses on why—Why target this user persona? Why prioritize work on these user stories now?—a program manager’s job is to think about the how and when. Program managers continuously evaluate how the company can carve out more development time, when one project needs to be completed to keep from slowing down another, etc.

Program managers can make the downstream work of everyone involved in projects smoother and more efficient.

The Program Manager: a Strategically Invaluable Role

While project managers focus on the many details required to complete a single project, and product managers focus on the strategic direction of the products they represent, program managers can gain a unique strategic view in an organization. They can see the goals, risks, available resources, budgetary limits, and other important aspects of every major company initiative simultaneously.

When they use this unique vantage point and insight to guide programs in the most strategically advantageous way, program managers can provide long-term value for the vision and direction of the company. Any organization juggling more than a single project at a time will benefit from a program manager.