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Project, Programme, Portfolio?

In the mystical, often magical world of project management and change delivery, one debate rages longer and hotter than all others; is it a project, a programme, a portfolio or none of the above? And from the ashes of that debate rises another, one deeper and more cathartic than the first; who cares? Two questions that say a lot about an organisation and its mentality towards change.

Let’s start with the second question first…

Does it really make a difference what label you attach to a change initiative? While it is fair to say that labels are not necessarily more important than content or context, imagine walking down the tinned food aisle in a supermarket and finding that someone has cheekily removed all of the labels from all of the tins. How do you know what you are picking up is exactly what you want and will give you what you need? Beans or dog food?

Maybe that’s a bit overly simplistic but the principle works in that realm of changes and projects. With 17 years of experience in this field, I have found that people who deliver change need as much stability as they can get in order to achieve real results. Tell me I am doing “a project” and I will feel more comfortable about the expectations and standards that I need to satisfy than if you just told me I am doing “some stuff”.

Imagine going to a nice fancy restaurant and when the waiter takes your order, you reply “I’ll have the food please”…what is the poor chef going to think you want him to deliver for you? In this scenario, the customer would represent the Executive, Director, Head of Delivery or equivalent senior manager who commissions change. The chef is the change professional who needs that bit of clarity about ‘what’ you want; you can leave the ‘how’ up to him because he is an expert and possesses the skills to create the right results but a clearer direction will result in a better result (a tastier, more satisfying meal).

Why should organisations care? Does it make a difference if there is consistency in terminology around the area of change? Actually it does because mature organisations work more effectively when everyone has the same understanding about what is being done.

Consistency breeds efficiency. If you had to spend time defining the ‘what’ every time an initiative begins, that’s a lot of hours that could be saved by just having a clear distinction of the different types of changes and a suitable methodology that applies to each one. That's why the restaurant-goer only needs to provide a selection from the menu, not a step-by-step guide for the preparation of their selection.

So let’s go back to the first question, the really important one. What is the difference between a project, programme, portfolio and…something else? Best practice standards and professional definitions exist but are usually (and purposefully) fuzzy so that they can flexibly fit into any organisation.

We could call a project “a temporary initiative to deliver outputs or practical changes”.

We could call a programme “a temporary initiative to deliver outcomes or strategic changes”.

We could call a portfolio “a collective of temporary initiatives which we manage as one continuous function of the business”.

How about another analogy? Maybe one that’s not about food because my stomach is rumbling as I type this…

You are managing a piece of work to build a new childrens’ park; swings, slides, that sort of thing. It is part of a larger piece of work to develop a new community on the outskirts of town; your colleagues have other work such as creating roads, building houses and establishing a community council. The reason you are all doing this is part of a commitment by our local council to expand the town and create more capacity for families, homes and jobs.

Hopefully it is pretty obvious. You have a Childrens’ Park Project (temporary output), part of a New Community Programme (temporary outcome) within the Local Council Portfolio.

The distinction between the three gives a lot of clarity for the different people working on different aspects of this work. As Childrens’ Part Project Manager, you would have a set deadline, budget and certain quality expectations to meet. Each of these may be linked to or dependent upon other similar projects (you may need to share a resource or two with the Building Houses Project, for example). Most importantly, ‘how’ you deliver your project is something that you have trained specifically for and you know the right tools, techniques and approaches to get the job done.

Let us turn things around (as often happens in this mystical land of change)…

Let’s make the Children’s Park Project into a Programme. The focus of work changes from an output (the park) to an outcome (children can play). We could break down the bits of my park into individual projects like The Swings Project and The Park Bench Project, each of whom would have their own budgets, plans and quality criteria as well as being managed and governed separately. As Programme Manager, you may suddenly become more concerned with coordinating the different projects (each with their own managers) and ensuring that benefits are going to be achieved in the longer term.

Either of these scenarios are okay. Building a Children’s Park might make more sense as a project in a large organisation like a council overseeing multiple areas and types of change. It might fit better as a Programme in a smaller organisation like a local charity funded by residents. It could even be a whole portfolio where the organisation effectively exists to create children’s parks (that would be a cool job, huh). The park itself might be more of an output than an outcome.

Whichever term matches that description of the change, it says something about how you are going to approach it. I have worked on projects, programmes and portfolio teams so I can visualise what you are asking for if you asked me to deliver “The Childrens’ Park Project” or “The Childrens’ Park Programme”. I can select the most appropriate skills, tools, techniques and methodologies to fit that challenge. The next time I get asked to deliver a similar change for that organisation, I can fit my understanding of the work around my experiences delivering this beautiful place for children to play.

Projects, programmes and portfolios all mean the same thing; delivery of change. The distinction between three words is more about the distinction between the approaches that we will take to deliver those changes. Sometimes people get it wrong because they do not understand the distinction but there’s no reason to get it wrong on purpose (or worse, through not caring).

The challenge is simple. It is not about the seniority of the people involved or the amount of money you have to spend (I’ve worked on programmes that costs thousands and projects that cost millions, for example). It’s not about making people feel more important or outperforming your competitors. It’s about having a consistent set of standards for how you will go about achieving your goals over a long time and a large scope of work.

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