Why You Need to Understand the 3 "P"s in P3M

Projects, Programmes and Portfolios: what are they and why do you need them? All three take you down the path of business change but there is a clear difference and they all meet different needs.

Projects and Programmes

Projects and programmes are very closely related with the main difference being scope. Projects tend to deliver a set of well-understood business objectives while programmes are groups of related projects that benefit from common management. All programmes will comprise one or more projects but many projects will be standalone and not part of a programme. As a result, while most projects typically last for weeks or months (sometimes into years depending on complexity), programmes are likely to have lives that span several years.

Aren't Programmes just Complex Projects?

A common source of confusion is to think that programmes are just complex projects - this is not the case as complexity is more about the delivery environment and certainty (how much is unknown? how many conflicting stakeholders are there? what is the level of risk?). The biggest single differentiator is scope - how much will be changed or what its impact will be. Changes with large scope (affecting many different aspect of the business, for instance) will often comprise multiple distinct deliverables and will often become a programme with multiple projects covering the different aspects.

It is therefore possible for a project in uncertain envrionment to be much more complex than a programme in a more stable environment, needing very different management and governance.

As a rule of thumb - programmes tend to focus on outcomes (what is the impact on overall business) while projects tend to deal with deliverables (producing something that will achieve an outcome). 


Portfolios are collections of projects and programmes that, together, are intended to deliver an overall strategic business change. They may last for many years, have entire business departments dedicated to running them and are frequently led by executive level management.

Project, Programme and Portfolio Management

Project, programme and portfolio management have related, but different skillsets.

Project managers need to focus more on specific business objectives and deliverables, managing delivery teams to ensure that progress remains on track and that risks are managed effectively. This tends to be a tactical role that deals with specific actions rather than strategic decisions.

Programme managers need to focus more on business outcomes and will take on responsiblity for multiple projects, each of which is likely to have its own project manager and meet its own business objectives. This is a more strategic role than project management and the programme manager will need to ensure that each project's business objectives remain aligned with the programme's desired outcomes, as well as dealing with escalated risks and issues.

In some cases, of course, it is inevitable that the programme manager will also be managing some of the projects but this should be avoided where possible as the roles have quite different responsibilities.

In the same way as a programme manager may be responsible for multiple project managers, a portfolio manager will be responsible for multiple project and programme managers. This is a purely strategic role that focuses on ensuring the right projects and programmes are in place to meet the business' changing strategy.

How The Peak Consultancy Can Help

The Peak Consultancy specialises in business change and has a strong history of both managing successful projects and recovering failing ones. We can help you across the P3 spectrum to ensure the right processes are in place to manage your projects, programmes and portfolios effectively: please get in touch for a free consultation.