What are the differences between a Program and a Portfolio?

As discussed in the posts on “What is a Program?” and “What is a Portfolio?”, programs and portfolios are essentially just groups of projects. There are obviously differences between the two. In this post, I’ll review those differences.

Level of Existence

Their differences come in the level at which they operate. Portfolios generally are higher level groupings of projects and programs; programs are lower level groupings of projects (and perhaps other programs). A portfolio may have one or more programs within it, but a program can never have a portfolio within it.

This may be better examined by reviewing a diagram of a portfolio that has programs under it.

Project Proximity

Projects have many parameters that define them – they have different objectives, derive from different organizational strategic goals, operate within different groups of the organization, etc. Depending upon these parameters, one could determine the closeness between two projects. Within an organization, there would be many projects running at a time. One project may be close to five other projects and very far away from five others. If there are a number of projects that are very close in proximity, they may be grouped together to form a program. So, projects within a program have closeness/proximity to one another; while projects within a portfolio do not have that proximity.


The only exception to the proximity rule is ownership – due to the grouping of projects into programs and portfolios, they are generally owned by a single individual or department. In some ways, ownership is one of the reasons why they are grouped together – so that they can be owned and executed by a single entity. However, from my perspective, ownership not just an important thing in terms of a portfolio, it is everything. From my perspective, ownership defines a Portfolio. Generally speaking, a portfolio exists at the highest level – the Portfolio is owned by the Director of PMO or someone like that. However, a portfolio may also be owned by a Program Manager or even a Project Manager, who are simultaneously working on a number of projects, thus forming their portfolio. Think about your stock portfolio. But, that’s my definition. The standard definition still holds a Project Portfolio at the highest level. Regardless, while ownership defines a Portfolio, ownership is only an attribute of a Program.


In this post, we reviewed some of the key differences between a Project and a Program – namely level of existence, project proximity and ownership. Hope it provided you enough clarity.

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