Project Management Institute

From project to program to portfolio

is this a career path of project managers?

PMO and Change Manager at BC Ferries.


This paper analyzes the main differences between the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to succeed in the project, program, and portfolio management roles. It also provides an understanding of the professional development and organizational challenges that may affect the ability of a practitioner to move between roles. Finally, it will show how the existing foundational standards of the Project Management Institute (PMI) can be used as a guide to allow individuals and organizations to grow as they adopt new roles.

PMI’s View of Project, Program, and Portfolio Management

PMI has been historically all about projects. However, in 2006, PMI published the first editions The Standard for Portfolio Management and The Standard for Program Management. It was an obvious reaction to the fact that organizations were not looking at projects in isolation, but as part of more strategic business concepts.

At the time, and based on the previous success of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), the standards were meant to be a best practice guide and a starting point for a body of knowledge on those two disciplines. At the same time, long-term practitioners of project management started to wonder if these two new areas were also meant to be a clear-cut career path for project managers.

In 2009, PMI also introduced the Program Management Professional (PgMP®) credential, fuelling further interest from project management practitioners around possible career advancement opportunities in the area of program and portfolio management.

Despite these indications, neither PMI nor other project management organizations around the world have formally stated (as it happens in other professions) that a career path is available for professionals in the area of project management. Companies, on the other side, have defined career paths for many years, a practice seen as a tool to attract and retain talent. Most of these career paths take project management practitioners from junior to senior to executive project management positions, but typically, they do not leverage the richness of the program and portfolio management concepts.

The first step to understand if there is a logical career path or professional progression within the context of projects, programs and portfolios, is to understand the main differences between these three concepts. Exhibit 1 shows a comparative overview as published in the latest version of the PMBOK® Guide, (Project Management Institute [PMI], 2013a, p. 8).

Comparative Overview of Project, Program, and Portfolio Management

Exhibit 1 – Comparative Overview of Project, Program, and Portfolio Management

This overview highlights several interesting areas as it relates to the practitioner's ability to perform in each one of the three roles:

  1. The scope of each role is progressively larger.
  2. Changes are more complex to manage as they become far-reaching in each role.
  3. Management (of resources) includes more people with different roles for each one of the areas.
  4. Success criteria are more demanding as the role becomes more strategic.
  5. Monitoring includes more elements and, by extension, becomes more complex.

This cursory and simple review demonstrates that professionals are called to perform tasks that are more complex and responsibility is higher as they progress from project to program to portfolio. The next section will analyze in more detail the different areas required to adequately perform one, some or all of the roles related to these three areas.

Review of Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities

The first question that needs to be answered is how to describe the different elements required by a practitioner to effectively perform as a project, program, or portfolio manager. As part of this research, some models were considered and analyzed for complexity, consistency, and ability to describe how a particular role's requirements are fulfilled or not.

A quick scan through PMI standards of practice shows that there is no common approach to define the roles, along with required competencies, skills, and abilities. PMBOK® Guide —Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013a) provides a full appendix (X3) called “Interpersonal Skills” (PMIa, 2013, p. 513) to highlight areas of importance for the project management role. The Standard for Program Management —Third Edition (PMI, 2013b, p. 145) also provides an appendix (X4) called “Program Management Competencies.” This section also includes a detailed list of core knowledge areas and core skills. Finally, The Standard for Portfolio Management—Third Edition (PMI, 2013c, p. 14) provides a generic description of the portfolio management role along with a generic list of knowledge and skills.

The “Project Management Professional (PMP)® Examination Content Outline” (PMI, 2010) also provides a glimpse of the knowledge and skills required to perform specific tasks in the so called “Domains” of project management.

These knowledge and skills are aligned with the aforementioned standards and they are presented in the context of testing the aspiring Project Management Professional (PMP®) credential holder on specific areas.

The descriptions used in the standards will be used later in this paper to define areas of commonality and differences for the roles, but unfortunately, they cannot be used to create a framework to support a career path strategy. Other models and concepts need to be explored.

The most basic description used in the profession is related to “hard” and “soft” skills. Hard skills are often presented as specific knowledge either in the project management area (planning or scheduling, for example), or knowledge in the area where projects are going to be executed (for example IT or construction). Soft skills are described as listening, negotiating, problem solving, or communicating, to name a few. It is not easy to define professional requirements in those two basic categories because they are somewhat broad and open for interpretation. However, individuals who have been successful in these roles can be used to review the importance of these competencies.

A more complex model was found in the ICB-IPMA Competence Baseline Version 3.0 published by the International Project Management Association (IPMA). IPMA has attempted to describe the competence of practitioners in the three areas (IPMA, 2006, p. 29). The model uses three types of competences: Contextual, Behavioural, and Technical (Exhibit 2). One advantage of the IPMA model is that it addresses each one of the three roles (project, program, and portfolio manager) and gives a qualitative and quantitative weight to each one of the components of the competences to describe how a practitioner can be considered apt for a particular role. Unfortunately, this model is too complex to approach a career path. However, some of these elements will be mentioned later as a reference and the relative level of competency will be used in Table 1.

IPMA “Eye of Competence” Model

Exhibit 2 – IPMA “Eye of Competence” Model

A more balanced approach is found in the classical concept of the human resources discipline used to describe roles and create career paths. The concept of KSA (knowledge, skills, and abilities) has been around for decades and it covers the main areas any profession should address to perform a specific role, attain a higher level of expertise, and, therefore, take on roles that are more complex.

A very simple definition of these three terms can be used to draw the specific areas of interest for project management:

Knowledge—an organized body of information, usually factual or procedural in nature. For example, having knowledge of human resources’ rules and regulations could be used as a KSA for a human resources manager position.

Skill—the proficient manual, verbal, or mental manipulation of data or things. For example, having skill with operating personal computers could be used as a KSA for an office assistant position.

Ability—the power or capacity to perform an activity or task. For example, having the ability to use accounting principles to create financial reports can be used as KSA for an account assistant position.

A Model KSAs

The following table describes the common KSAs for project, program, and portfolio managers, using as a reference the PMI standard's descriptions, as well as some of the IPMA competences. The table creates a virtual model that can be used later to provide guidance on possible career paths for practitioners. The KSAs are classified as very high, high, medium, and low for each role, based on the analysis of the roles in both PMI and IPMA. This model also avoids the use of generic KSAs (for example “communications”) and prefers to decompose those into more specific KSAs.

    Project Manager Program Manager Portfolio Manager  
  Time, budget, and cost estimation techniques H H M  
  Project planning H M M  
  Organizational change management M H M  
  Quality assurance and quality control H H H  
  Performance measurement L M VH  
  Oral and written communication techniques, channels and applications H H VH  
  Code of ethics H H H  
  Stakeholder impact analysis M H VH  
  Motivational methods H M M  
  Business-specific knowledge (IT, construction) M M H  
  Financial management and accounting M H H  
  Purchasing and procurement H M L  
  Sales and marketing L M H  
  Contract and commercial law M H M  
  Supply chain management H M L  
  Strategic planning L M VH  
  Organizational development L M H  
  Health and safety H M M  
  Cost-benefit analysis L H VH  
  Business case development L M VH  
  Project selection criteria L M VH  
  Risk management M M H  
  Program management theory M VH H  
  Portfolio management theory L H VH  
  Social responsibility M H H  
  HR management M VH H  
  Simulation techniques L M H  
  Prioritization algorithms L M H  
  Project and program auditing L VH H  
  Active listening H H H  
  Data gathering M VH VH  
  Decision making H VH VH  
  Impact assessment techniques H VH VH  
  Knowledge management M H H  
  Vendor management H M M  
  Resource management H VH M  
  Facilitation H H M  
  Manage and use information systems H H H  
  Negotiation VH H H  
  Presentation tools VH VH VH  
  Problem solving VH VH VH  
  Relationship management M H VH  
  Coaching H VH M  
  Mentoring H H M  
  Compliance M VH H  
  Customer focus M VH VH  
  Brainstorming H H H  
  Conflict resolution H H M  
  Cultural and political sensitivity VH VH H  
  Leadership VH VH VH  
  Prioritize/time management VH H H  
  Teamwork VH H H  
  Interviewing M H H  

Table 1 – List of KSAs Related to Project Management

Practical Gaps in Education and Experience

Critical aspects of the Table 1 cannot be explained by gaps in the practitioner's own skills and abilities; that is to say, there are aspects that can be explained by lack of training, education, or pure practical experience. The main areas of concern are clearly concentrated around the knowledge area of the KSAs. How are those gaps typically closed? There are two ways:

  1. Education: Project managers tend to focus their interest in “project management” related topics like planning or risk management, However, Table 1 shows other areas of interest to people who want to move forward in their careers as either program or portfolio managers. Those gaps can be closed through focused training and professional development. In many cases, practitioners have acquired the knowledge through their own professional education, but as they do not use that particular knowledge in their day-to-day jobs, it is lost and it must be refreshed. In addition, many of these areas of knowledge are not static and, therefore, any career development plan should account for changes on theories, technologies, or methodologies.
  2. Experience: Even the most professional project managers face the challenge to keep their KSAs, especially those related to knowledge, up to date. The best way to deal with the challenges to close the gap is through practical experience. No amount of study or book reading makes up for the working practice acquired through projects. Moreover, it is well known that once a specific knowledge is acquired, it must be used and practiced time after time to allow the person to execute tasks without major effort. In order to have a very high competency in a specific area, practice is the best way to achieve mastery.

Responsibility to Close the Gaps

The next critical aspect of a career path is to define responsibility to address or close any gaps present in a practitioner KSAs, in order to allow their personal and professional growth.


It is often said that each professional is responsible for his or her own professional and personal development. Each person is in the best position to evaluate strengths and weaknesses and, therefore, establish a plan to leverage the strong points and close the gap on the weak areas of professional and personal KSA.

The ability of the practitioner to properly evaluate the areas of improvement is affected by two main factors:

  1. Ability to perform a subjective evaluation: Whereas knowledge evaluations are well known and can be related to specific curricula in training and professional development courses, assessment of abilities and skills is more difficult to attain. The best approach is the “360 Evaluation,” which is used by many companies around the world and brings an objective perspective. This evaluation uses feedback from peers, supervisors, and reports to assess specific areas. Although there is no standard model, many examples are available on Internet.
  2. Ability to select areas of improvement: Once an evaluation has been completed, the areas of improvement are not discrete, in general, but rather a combination or mix of several of them. For example, it is not enough to say, “I need to improve my negotiation skills.” The negotiation concept carries some level of expertise in communications, conflict management, assertiveness, and even legal matters. It is very unlikely that a practitioner is missing all of them or has to improve all of them. As a result, any effort to improve needs to be focus on the right areas of KSA.

Rarely a practitioner is able to properly assess and select the areas of improvement without external help. However, beyond the formal elements used to evaluate or plan those areas, our own feeling about what we need is still a valuable tool to drive us in the right direction.


From the organizational perspective, there are two scenarios:

  1. Some organizations provide the practitioner with a proposed career path. The career path has a clear delineation of KSA required to move between project management levels of expertise and from them, to other roles in the organization. In these cases, the organization typically provides tools to ensure a proper evaluation of those KSA, to document them, and to help the practitioner to create a plan. These organizations also have formal programs like mentoring and coaching to help people develop even more focused KSA.
  2. Other organizations do not have formal career paths but provide support for personal and professional development. Typically, they have areas of development that are standard for people in certain positions (e.g., managers or team leads) and blanket plans are provided to achieve a given level in some of the KSA.

In both scenarios, the organizations have taken some responsibility to “take us to the next level.” It is important that any expectation from the practitioner is aligned with the expectation of the organization and plans are developed in a short and long-term basis. It is also important to track progress (especially in the second scenario) and mark specific milestones that can be used to trigger a career step.


How the Roles Will Develop


The main assumption used in the development of these roles as a career path is that practitioners have more than a basic knowledge of project management. Therefore, the career path starts once a project management role has been obtained.

Other assumptions to be used are:

  • Knowledge in areas other than pure project management can be acquired through training and through professional development activities.
  • Abilities can be developed and can be improved, but they are primarily related to the person's background, culture, and basic education.
  • Skills are developed and can be improved regardless of the person's background.
  • Some basic knowledge of the specific industry is available.
  • Experience is a function of time.
  • A career path is a joint effort between a practitioner and an organization. When the practitioner is an independent contractor, he or she will have to fulfill both roles.
  • A career path is not prescriptive. It can move in different directions given specific personal or environmental conditions.

How to Map a Career Path

The proposed creation of a career path follows a very simple model outlined by the Human Resources Management Association (HRMA) (2010). This model has five initial steps:

  1. Identify your current role: Many practitioners are called one way but they are actually performing all the activities to be named in a different role. Try to select “the best fit.” For the proposed model, the PMI description will be used.
  2. Investigate your career options: Look at the areas that best match your current KSAs and what areas you can develop in the short, medium, or long term. Do not focus on the titles but the roles and responsibilities it entitles.
  3. Identify your career goals and career path: What do you want to achieve, when and where you want to achieve it. Do not focus on titles, roles or organizational area, but the conditions that will lead to your career fulfillment. Think about how you will build your skills and competences. Consider moving in all directions.
  4. Identify your opportunities for development: Conduct a gap analysis to understand your KSAs and where they need to be for a particular role. Also, consider future areas of development that may not be clearly outlined in the present description of a role.
  5. Create a plan: Identify the resources you need. It includes working with others to achieve your objectives.

Exhibit 3 is a model of a career path that can be used as a starting point for a project management practitioner:

Career Path Model for Project Management Practitioners

Exhibit 3 – Career Path Model for Project Management Practitioners


Even though there is no formal definition of a career path for project managers or practitioners, the current standards of practice provided by PMI, along with concepts and standard practices by the HR profession, and a clear interest of most organizations to keep and develop their project management resources, represent a great opportunity of personal and professional advancement.

This paper has shown how the concepts of project, program, and portfolio management can be used to map out the practitioner's career and how these steps can be taken under a standard approach.


Human Resources Management Association. (2010). The career path tool: Step by step guide for hr professionals. Vancouver, BC, Canada: BC Human Resources Management Association.

International Project Management Association. (2006). ICB - IPMA competence baseline, Version 3.0. Nijkerk, Netherlands: International Project Management Association.

Project Management Institute. (2010). Project management professional (PMP®) examination content outline. (Revised July 2011). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2013a). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (5th ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2013b). The standard for program management (3rd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2013c). The standard for portfolio management (3rd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2013, Ivan Rincon, B. Eng., MBA, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana



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