Keeping track: What distinguishes project, programme and multi-project managers?

Many successful projects prove that organisations that work with the leadership concept of project management are successful in their tasks. There are many reasons for this success. Some of them are project, programme and multi-project managers who are qualified, strong leaders and therefore able to express the needs of the project or project landscape (also called project portfolio) and, if necessary, to implement them even in the face of resistance. 
The skills of the manager are crucial to the success of the project, but what exactly are the differences between project, programme and multi-project managers?
A door with the letters A and B on it.


Project manager

The project manager is responsible for ensuring that the project objectives are met, i.e. that the project is completed on time and on budget, and that the deliverables specified by the client (e.g. product and service) are delivered. Many individual tasks are subordinate to this central task. In order to cope with these, the project manager must master the methods, procedures and tools of project management. They also need knowledge of relevant management approaches (e.g., general management, process management, contract management).
A project manager must be able to
  • manage the project,
  • lead his team and
  • act as an interface to the stakeholders (e.g., client, management, suppliers). 
This includes the following tasks, although these may vary from company to company:
  • Set up the project organisation
  • Contribute to the project definition
  • Set and prioritise goals
  • Coordinate project sequences
  • Monitor the project progress (deadlines, costs, performance)
  • Identify impending deviations from the plan at an early stage and counteract them
  • Check, coordinate and incorporate changes into project plans
  • Regulate communication
  • Conflict management
  • Coordinate reporting
  • Represent the project internally and externally
  • Develop the team
  • Coordinate contract management and conduct negotiations
  • Conduct purchasing and logistics, including supplier management
  • Observe financial management
  • Manage staff (professionally and possibly disciplinary - in sub-areas or completely)
  • Conduct opportunity and risk management
  • Conduct customer and partner management
  • Conduct business development in ongoing projects
  • Maintain relationships and build networks 
The integration of the project manager into the organisation can also vary from company to company. The level of responsibility and decision-making authority depends on this, as does the level of support the project manager receives for his work. A project office set up for a project or a project management office (PMO) set up for multi-project management and project landscape management can relieve the project manager of many tasks (e.g., documentation, organisation).

Programme manager

A programme is a large undertaking that unites several interrelated projects under one roof and is limited in time like a project. 
The programme manager has a fixed term of office for the duration of the programme. The programme manager is responsible for the programme and is relieved of his duties at the end of the programme.
The programme manager must manage the various sub-projects assigned to the main project in such a way that
  • the necessary information and product results from the sub-projects are available in time for the individual milestones of the main project,
  • the numerous interfaces of the various projects are coordinated with each other and
  • the entire programme is completed on time and within budget, with the required quality and to the satisfaction of the customer.

Multi-project manager

The ongoing tasks of the multi-project manager include evaluating projects, planning and controlling the project landscape, developing an infrastructure for professional project management and providing a pool of staff. The manager must also take into account that the risks of individual projects may be interrelated. For example, in an input-output relationship, a technical failure in a subcontracting project may lead to significant delays in another project. The multi-project manager must prepare cross-project decisions in such a way that management or the project portfolio board can set clear and binding priorities. To do this, they must make well-founded proposals for the composition of the projects in the project landscape. Above all, they must always check that the corporate strategy and the current and planned projects are compatible.
The multi-project manager must ensure that the status of all projects is transparent at all times. This means, among other things, that
  • the utilisation of resources and staff capacities in the departments is known,
  • up-to-date information is provided on the schedule, cost and risk situation as well as the progress of all projects, and
  • knowledge is available about the dependencies between the individual projects in terms of content, time and personnel.  
Only when this knowledge is available the following questions can be answered:
  • How is the withdrawal of five development engineers from project A to project B likely to affect the final deadline of project A?
  • What are the consequences of postponing the end date of project C by three months to milestone M5 in project D?
  • With the current resource utilisation in the development departments EA1, EA2 and EA3, is it still possible to carry out contract development for customer X on schedule?
  • How high are the costs incurred so far in the business year for all product development projects? 
  • What third-party funding has flowed into these projects? 
  • What are the estimated remaining costs for the individual undertakings? 
The individual project managers or programme managers cannot answer any of these questions, as they only know the situation in their respective project or programme.
Developing the infrastructure for professional project management is another task of the multi-project manager. To do this, they must, among other things
  • Define processes (e.g., within the framework of a process model) and ensure that they are applied uniformly,
  • develop and enforce standards for project management,
  • provide and maintain tools (e.g., software),
  • train project participants and
  • ensure the continuous development of the project management concept in the organisation. 
The multi-project manager is the top position in a project management office and as a "networker" he builds up a pool of experienced internal and external project managers, coaches and consultants, thus providing support capacities for the projects and programmes. The tasks require excellent qualifications and extensive leadership experience in project management, as well as strong interpersonal skills.

Relationship between multi-project manager and project manager

The multi-project manager is not a substitute for the project manager who is responsible for the operational management of the project. The project manager must provide the multi-project manager with comprehensive, up-to-date and regular information about the project and its relationships with other projects. Status reports tailored to the multi-project situation and regular meetings are the most important means of doing this.

Relationship between multi-project manager and programme manager

In general, both the programme manager and the multi-project manager are positioned above the project manager in the project-based corporate organisation. There is always a need for demarcation and clarification, especially with regard to the broader tasks of the programme and multi-project manager, as they fulfil different tasks, take on different roles and have to overcome different challenges.

The programme manager has:
  • A leadership task, with budgetary responsibility, intervening directly in the programme's projects as the situation requires,
  • personnel responsibility. 
Programme management is a finite task that is completed when the programme is finished.
The multi-project manager has:
  • a coordination task, 
  • a monitoring function (no responsibility!) for the budget of the project landscape, 
  • to analyse the staff situation and the projects of the project landscape and to present identified problems to the respective project manager, client, or portfolio board. 
The coordination of the project landscape is a permanent task.


The programme manager focuses on the programme for which they act as captain until the destination port is reached. 
The multi-project manager must maintain an overview of the project landscape and takes on the role of a permanently acting navigator for its control.

The programme manager has to deliver the agreed services within the set time and cost frame.
The multi-project manager has to deal with the power games within the company and take these into account for the projects in the project landscape.

Concluding words

Project, programme and multi-project managers are three different roles with different tasks and objectives. Each role requires different competencies to best manage the challenges associated with the job. Whether project, programme or multi-project managers, they complement each other where a large number of projects need to be realised and therefore contribute to the successful development of the projects and programmes of the company or the project-bearing organisation.

project, programme, multi-project managers differences - The Author
Keywords: Project Management, Programme Manager, Definition

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For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.