Is “program” an appropriate universal descriptor in the project-related context?


By Alan Stretton

Sydney, Australia


I developed an increasing interest in program management (I will use this shorter spelling except when quoting authors who don’t) when I became involved in helping improve English translations of the program management section of Japan’s P2M 2004, Project and Program Management Guidebook. Having gained a reasonable understanding of the Japanese approach to program management, I then asked the question, “How does the Japanese approach differ from the Western approach?”

I wasn’t able to find a Western approach to which all would subscribe. I wrote a few articles on the subject, starting with Stretton 2009b, and ending with Stretton 2013n, after which I simply gave up trying to reconcile the many different approaches to, and understandings of, programs and their management. It also appeared to me that less focus was being directed to program management in more recent times, and that the descriptors ‘projects’ and ‘programs’ were increasingly being used interchangeably, particularly in the context of large complex programs/projects.

However, the recent appearance of the second edition of the Gower Handbook of Programme Management (Lock & Reinhard 2016) has rekindled my interest in the subject of programs and their management. This is the background to this article.


When individuals involved in projects and programmes meet, they each spend time trying to understand what the other means by programme management.                                                             (Pellegrinelli 2008:3)

This quotation typifies the ongoing lack of agreement in the project management world about the nature of programs and their management. In a non-exhaustive literature search a few years ago, I found no less than thirty-six different definitions of programs and program management, as detailed in Stretton 2012c.

Revisiting these topics, there appear to be two rather different basic ways in which programs and their management are defined and/or discussed in the literature.

  1. Programs comprise component projects requiring coordinated management to achieve a common objective.
  2. Programs are seen as synonymous with large complex projects.

We will discuss each of these in turn.


From definitions/descriptors of programs and program management

As noted above, a few years ago I found some thirty-six different definitions/ descriptors of programs and program management. I will not reproduce them here, but will start with four definitions from some of the best known project and program management standards.

[Program] A group of projects, subprograms and program activities, managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually.
(PMI 2013b:2)

Programme management is the coordinated management of projects and change management activities to achieve beneficial change.                              (APM 2012:14)

[Programme]….a temporary flexible organization created to coordinate, direct and oversee the implementation of a set of related projects and activities in order to deliver outcomes and benefits related to the organization’s strategic objectives: a programme is likely to have a life that lasts several years.                        (OGC2011) [Turner 2016:32]

A program is defined as an undertaking in which a group of projects for achieving a program mission are organically combined                                           (PMAJ 2008:57)

All 36 definitions include component projects. A few add other entities. As can be seen, PMI has added subprograms and program activities to its group of projects. (Its 2006 definition had only the latter). APM has included change management activities. Five other definitions include other non-project activities. However, it should be noted that more detailed discussions in these cases are generally confined to component projects, with little further mention of non-project activities.

In the thirty six definitions, some of the component projects are varyingly described as related (6), interdependent or interconnected (6), and (purposely) grouped (7). In some other cases, connections between the component projects are not mentioned. Coordination of component projects (or its equivalent) is specifically included in two thirds of the definitions. It also appears to be implied in most of the others.

One further attribute which is either directly stated or implied in most definitions is that the component projects share the attribute that they are specifically contributing to an overall shared program objective – which is varyingly described as a benefit to the organisation (20), or as the organisation’s objectives or equivalent (11).

Although the many definitions of programs and their management differ in various ways, most of them share the attribute that programs have component projects which require coordinated management to achieve a common organisational objective and/or benefit.


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Editor’s note: This series of articles is by Alan Stretton, PhD (Hon), Life Fellow of AIPM (Australia), a pioneer in the field of professional project management and one of the most widely recognized voices in the practice of program and project management.   Long retired, Alan is still accepting some of the most challenging research and writing assignments; he is a frequent contributor to the PM World Journal. See his author profile below.


About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)
Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)



Alan Stretton
is one of the pioneers of modern project management. He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA. In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects. 

Alan has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France). Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992. He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996. He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management. He has published over 170 professional articles and papers. Alan can be contacted at [email protected]

To see more works by Alan Stretton, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/alan-stretton/.