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May 22

Program vs. Project Management in Jira. And how to choose a Program Management plugin?

Managing programs in JiraEven some Atlassian community members will claim that Programs are essentially equal to projects, but this is not true. Programs are more long-term and ‘democratic’ descendants of projects, not to mention the Jira ‘project’ (a mere container). Now, how to do the whole Program management in Jira? Could it be that programs better respond to the challenges of the 2020s? Why are programs about as suitable for hybrid environments, as they are for agile ones? And finally, a word on program management plugins that are available for Jira. Plus, a short video tutorial on running programs in Jira.

Why do I feel entitled to try to answer all those questions? BigPicture operates on programs, even though our app consistently supports agile + hybrid + waterfall. Officially, we didn’t have ‘projects’ up until BigPicture version 7, just programs. Of course, you could have always imported contents of a Jira project or two into a BigPicture program and manage the tasks on a timeline of a Gantt chart, but this is not how programs should work. There is more to them than just spanning several Jira projects.


Jira Programs vs. Projects

Whether you follow SAFe® rules on programs, or PMBOK guidelines on projects, to run the whole management thing in Jira, you need a plugin. Have a look at the below figure. 151 vs. 4 – this is how ‘project management’ plugins outweigh ‘program management’ ones on Atlassian Marketplace. Could it be that even vendors can’t recognize how programs are different than projects?

Jira project and program management plugins

151 vs. 4. Project management vs. Program management plugins available from Atlassian Marketplace.


What lessons can be drawn from the above ‘Project vs. Programs’ figure?

  • Most of the community still thinks ‘projects’ even if they are officially agile
  • Gantt chart, a tool labeled ‘classic’, or ‘non-agile’, can be used for program management
  • BigPicture ranks well for both ‘project management’ and ‘program management’, which corresponds to how we target the app
  • Programs are not ‘agile only’. The cross-methodology BigPicture has agile programs, hybrid programs, as well as waterfall ones

Now, you might ask: since Jira has projects, and some people consider projects nearly identical to programs, couldn’t I possibly practice program management with plain Jira? Do I really need an app for program management? There are two answers to that question. One is that Jira projects are just containers for issues and not real plans or schedules because Jira alone doesn’t have planning tools, such as Gantt charts, Resources, Roadmaps, or Risks.

But there is another, more true answer: Programs ≠ projects.


What are the Programs? [7 quotes]

Not to reinvent the wheel, just cut & pasted several quotes from SAFe®’s excellent article on Lean Budgets. These quotations describe programs pretty accurately.

Projects: In the pursuit of theoretical efficiency, everyone is assigned to 100% capacity, often to multiple projects.

Programs: A study by Adler concludes that ‘if managers had reduced their planned utilization rate to 80%, they could have reduced development times by 30% or more.’

  • Funding value streams vs. projects
  • (…) move decisions to where the information lives, enabling faster and better decision-making
  • Knowledge workers working in long-lived value streams are simply more productive than temporary project teams
  • Get the balance wrong, and you can starve the future by over-investing in today, or you can miss near-term opportunities while pouring too much money into the future.
  • portfolio level personnel no longer plan the work for others, nor do they track the cost of the work at the project level

Now that we understand the programs better let’s check how to run the program management in Jira.


Choosing a Program management plugin for Jira

Whether you practice agile or classic methodologies, Program Increment is the single term that you need to be aware of when choosing a program management plugin. Simply scan the Marketplace for ‘Program Increments’. The thing is that once you give up that traditional Project cost accounting, and transfer to more ‘democratic’ Programs, you need to supply some ‘guardrails’ to your teams. Without those guardrails, wouldn’t your decentralized decision-making lead your organization astray?

The Program Increment (PI) is one such ‘measure of guidance’ for an organization relying on programs. According to SAFe, PI typically consists of four Iterations and lasts 8 to 12 weeks.

Again, you don’t even need to know SAFe to run programs. But if you find a tool that has those PIs (Program Increments) deeply imprinted, it’s sort of tangible proof that the app is indeed designed for managing programs. Now, have a look at the two screenshots of BigPicture.

Programs management tools for Jira

Keeping an eye on programs in Jira BigPicture. Each program has its instance of Gantt chart, Scope, Board, Roadmap, Resources, Teams, Risks, and Reports modules.


Program-level reporting in Jira

Program-level reporting in Jira BigPicture.



So there you have it: programs are state of mind more than they are an encyclopedia entry. Decentralized, funded per PI rather than per project, and betting on knowledgeable staff more than on a senior manager that ensures 100% allocation of teams. Below, you’ll find two video tutorials on how to manage programs in Jira BigPicture – a one-hour webinar, and a 2-minute preview.

Also note, that BigPicture 8, with its Boxes, kind of revolutionizes the whole program management, as you knew it from BigPicture 7.



About The Author

With his automotive background Marcin goes beyond the 'Jira + software development' standard. He likes simple, up-to-five-sentence answers to complex questions.