Projects and Programs are two different animals, don’t underestimate the gap


By Thomas Walenta, PMP, PMI Fellow


Lions are the ‘king of the animals’ and quick killers. They are living in families called prides and live for about 12 years in the wild. Lions hunt in teams mostly led by females for prey, they also eat dead meat if they are not successful in their hunts (more than 50% of all cases). Their hunts are limited to short bursts of sprints, otherwise they are stalking for prey. Humans respect and fear lions, there are man-eaters, and the Romans used lions in their arenas to kill Christians and criminals in a cruel but efficient way. Despite this image of might and power, Lions have not been trained to be used for warfare.

In a way, project managers could be characterized as lions: they work in teams, are efficient, can achieve results in short term, but are not always successful. The best are well respected. They usually are not consulted when it comes to strategy implementation.

Elephants are respected and useful for strategic initiatives. They were heavily used in warfare by Indian, Persian and Roman armies, as well as by the famous Hannibal from Karthago. Elephants are plant eaters and like to live close to waters, they can live for 70 years. Elephants are characterized by living in large families, having good long term memories and caring for each other. Occasionally, Elephants attack and kill humans but in general they are regarded as friendly and peaceful animals.

Like Program Managers, Elephants have been used for strategy implementation, they are respected, work in teams, exhibit a longer timeframe in age and social life and are effective.

Like lions and elephants, Project and Program Managers are not just flavors of the same species. While we agree that lions and elephant are indeed different animals, we still see the perception that project managers and program managers are the same species, just with slight differences in experience and skills. And some say if you push project managers enough, they will transform into program managers and the organization will receive the benefits it longs for. This is not true in general, as we will see from the following paragraphs.

Project and program success rates are (still) not satisfactory. PMI’s Pulse of the Profession Survey 2014 suggests 44% of strategic initiatives are unsuccessful and more than 10% of project budgets are wasted. Other studies support these dimensions of failure, and this is true for the past decades. PMI’s Survey further states as current main reasons for the shortfalls:


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About the Author 

141017-pmwj28-walenta-PHOTOThomas Walenta, PMPflag-germany

PMI Fellow

Frankfurt, Germany

Thomas Walenta, PMP, PMI Fellow, was working as Project and Program Manager for IBM from 1983-2014. Most recently he was responsible for a program encompassing all business of IBM with a global client in the EMEA region, with teams in India, Japan and across Europe. He led the PMI Frankfurt Chapter from 1998 to 2005, increasing membership from 111 to 750 and annual budget to 100K Euro.

Thomas had a variety of volunteer positions for PMI, among them being final juror of the PMI Project of the Year award, member of the PMI Board nomination committee, auditor for PMI‘s Registered Education Provider Program, writer/reviewer of PMP Exam questions and significant contributor to PMI‘s first standards about Program Management and Portfolio Management.

In 2005, he was elected by PMI membership to serve a 3 year term on the PMI Board from 2006 to 2008. Being a speaker on global project management events in Tokyo, Moscow, São Paulo and across Europe, Thomas extended his professional network significantly and is regarded as an experienced and skillful advisor and mentor.

Thomas is serving as a member of PMI’s Ethics Review Committee since 2011. He can be contacted via email at [email protected].

To view other works by Thomas Walenta, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/thomas-walenta-pmp/