How do we distinguish between project, program, and portfolio?

The following content is from Chapter 2 of Leading Megaprojects, a Tailored Approach; the book that is in the publishing stage at this time. We want to define these terms for the context of the book and because various practitioners might have a different definition. We will be posting other definitions in the next few days. For today, we will define what is a project, what is a program, and what is a portfolio.

In the next few sections, we address each question and we close with the link of a project to portfolio management.

What is a Project

The first question is about what is a project, and here are the general points we use to define a project:

  • A project could be anything we create from scratch or a significant modification to an existing system, which would require substantial effort in terms of development and delivery.
  • It has a specific product (output), objectives (outcome), defined timeline (schedule), budget, and various other parameters (resources, quality, risks, etc.).
  • As a result, a project is an investment of time and money to deliver a product or service (output), and it must provide the capabilities to enable the realization of benefits (outcome).
  • The project owner can verify and accept the output at completion and closeout but often cannot validate the outcome until months or years after the end of the physical work.
  • A project can be independent or part of a program. If it is part of a program, it must align with the program objective, which in turn must align with the organizational strategic direction. On the other hand, if the project is independent of a program, it must directly align with the organizational strategic direction.

What Is Not a Project

Further, we need to clarify the definition further by stressing what is not a project.

  • It is common knowledge that normal, routine, repeated actions (tasks)[1] are not projects. For example, something that requires a typical, repetitive business or manufacturing process to produce a gadget or X item would not be a project.
  • A phase of a project, or a stage, is not a project; more on this later.
  • Tasks that are part of a project are not projects, regardless of how big the task might be. For example, the graphical design for this book is not a project,[2] it is a piece of writing and publishing this book project, which one could label as a sub-project.

Next, let us add more information.

More information

Consequently, having said the above, we can still apply the project management process[3] on a piece of the project, be it a phase, stage, or a sub-project. The processes and process groups, such as the PDCA Cycle,[4] apply for tasks, sub-projects, or stages of a project. It is vital to understand this point: being able to use these processes on a piece does not make the piece a whole project. We stress this point because many practitioners confuse the processes and process groups from PMI® (the Project Management Institute) and ISO® (International Standards Organization) as project phases.[5] Consequently, those who think that the process groups are phases mistake the process groups as the project life cycle, which is a serious problem (except maybe for micro-projects).

What is a Program

Next, we define the program and here are the general guidelines that we follow to define a program:

  • A program is a group of related projects and may include other operational work.
  • The projects are related to a common business objective, often a long-term strategic objective that aligns with the organizational strategic direction, mission, and vision.
  • While working on the program, the organization may adjust the projects, such as accelerating or slowing one or more projects. The changes would be driven based on organizational needs and various other factors.[6]
  • The number of projects within a program could also increase or decrease as the organization collects feedback from the ongoing work and completed projects; some might call this Agile Program Management, but we call it an adaptive project and program management. It is being nimble or adopting agility (discussed later in this chapter).
  • Finally, each project within the program must deliver some benefits in addition to the incremental or collective benefits of the entire program. This point might be controversial for some, because we often see posts and discussions insisting that the business value exists only at the program level.

What is a Portfolio

We continue with the definitions and now we address what is a portfolio.

In this book, I do not refer to the term portfolio management often, because I see it as part of organizational project management and the management of projects and programs in the organization. Therefore, portfolio management is the highest level in the context of project management and includes managing the overall portfolio, which consists of various change initiatives, strategic project management, project selection, and termination. In CAMMP, portfolio management is active in the Discovery Phase, first with the idea and concept, then at Stage Gate 2, in which the initial project authorization is granted through a portfolio management assessment. During the project life cycle, portfolio management is active via the organizational and project governance.

Project Management and Portfolio Management

As a result of the above definitions, the above image is the project life cycle for CAMMP MP (Megaprojects). Although this image is specific to a project, the image indirectly shows how a project integrates with portfolio management. Portfolio management is active during the discovery phase, and at the time of project review and approval at stage gate 2.


[1] For differentiating tasks from projects, please refer to this blog article http://blog.sukad.com/how-to-differentiate-between-task-and-project/.

[2] We realize that the graphic designer, especially if an outside agency, might view the graphic design as their project. That is, for the service provider, the graphic design work from initial contact with the client until the successful completion of the work could be viewed as a project—a project for the service provider, not the client; more on this later in the chapter.

[3] Such as those described in ISO 21500 (Guidance to Project Management) or the PMBOK® Guide (A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge®).

[4] Plan–Do–Check–Act from Total Quality Management (Deming, 195#).

[5] This is possibly one of the most common areas of confusion in the project management community today.

[6] One might consider these adjustments as being driven by the emergent strategy generated from feedback and monitoring actual performance or responses.