I had a really good discussion today on the topic of products vs. programs, and wanted to put some thoughts down on this topic. Specifically, the difference between all three. In larger organizations it’s not uncommon to have a product, program and project manager working together, so clarifying the difference is important.

So what’s the difference?

  • Projects are defined units of work. They have a scope, schedule, and a cost. They are the simplest to understand of the three. Managing projects is the craft of coordinating humans towards completing a scope of work, within schedule and cost restrictions.
  • Products are tangible entities - built to satisfy some market demand. They’re built and maintained most often by multidisciplinary teams like engineering, design and product management.
  • Program management is pretty inconsistently used. They can be a group of projects which require coordination. In some companies program managers are synonymous with technical product managers (I don’t subscribe to this definition; I think it’s pretty silly). In my view, programs are the systems that drive a business forward. A program can be a product or product feature, and the supporting operations to make that feature successful. A product’s success does not always mean a program is successful.

It’s all a bit abstract, and in my experience unique defined in every company.