What is the difference between a plan, a project and a program?

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A project is defined as a temporary activity aimed at achieving specific/narrow organization objectives. Programs, on the other hand, are organization activities aimed at achieving broader organization objectives by coordinating a group of projects. Thus, programs are much wider in scope compared to projects. 

Projects have a predefined end date, while programs may continue to run in predefined cycles without an end date. Programs are made up of a higher number of participants, which includes participants in the different projects. Projects run within short time periods compared to programs, which require longer time periods to achieve the set objectives. Often programs deliver intangible results because the results are a combination of achievements in the different projects. On the other hand, projects often deliver tangible results.

A plan provides the steps to be carried out in both programs and projects. Thus, it establishes the goals, deliverables, and the level of collaboration for both programs and projects.

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The basic difference between plan, project and program is that a plan details a course of action; a project is short-term and designed to deliver a specified output within time, cost and quality parameters; and a program is a long-term managed portfolio of multiple projects designed to produce outcomes.  

Plan: A plan provides a comprehensive detailed course of action directed at achieving a specified end result. A plan may be re-evaluated as goals and milestones are accomplished or as information or circumstances change. There therefore may be some degree of flexibility to a plan.

Project: A project is comprised of individual tasks that aim at specified outputs or deliverable products. Milestones and goals are defined and measured against the output objective, costs and timetable. Projects are well defined, short-term, with manageable risk, and resource needs that can be estimated with reasonable accuracy.

Program: A program contrasts with a project. A program is comprised of multiple projects that aim at outcomes and benefits (not outputs). Objectives are comprehensive and encompass change within the corporation such as in terms of a change in production capabilities or a change in organizational structure or culture. Programs are defined in fluid terms, are long-term, with significant risks, and resource costs that are tied to quarterly results.

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