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Mar 30

Program vs. Portfolio vs. Project in BigPicture

Program portfolio project Big Picture

Projects and Portfolios are Box types available in BigPicture. Program on the other hand, while ubiquitous until BigPicture 7, has become an option in BigPicture version 8.

Before we proceed to BigPicture-specific settings, let’s explain projects, programs, and portfolios from a manager’s perspective. What is their application in classic and hybrid environments? How often should an organization evaluate the progress of a project, program, or portfolio? Do managers always need all three? Are all three items relevant to agile?

Rule one: the hierarchy goes as follows (top-bottom): portfolio -> program -> project.

Programs – a mystery for many

Let’s begin with Programs – the least popular of the three types. Programs are sort of a mystery for many users of BigPicture. Program is a set of jointly managed projects, united in one purpose. If Program is a collection of projects, then how is the program different from a portfolio? For example, a city’s “Cut smog by half between 2021 and 2025” is a program – neither a project nor a portfolio. That’s because:

  1. it has a clear and finite vision or output – 50% drop in air pollution within the city’s boundaries (unlike a portfolio which tends to be perpetual and strategy-ridden),
  2. it incorporates many projects, such as ‘Replace bus fleet’, ‘Restrict parking’, ‘Redesign streets and traffic’, ‘Promote bicycles campaign’.

In other words, a defined timespan is what Programs and projects have in common – they are both temporary initiatives with a set start and end date.

However, Program is similar to Portfolio in terms of content – they both do not contain specific tasks but aggregate… projects or other initiatives. Of course, a portfolio could contain and aggregate programs, too. Have a look at Table 1, especially the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th row.

Portfolio, program, project explanatory infographic


Table 1. Compare Portfolio, Program, and Project

Portfolio Program Project
perpetual or multi-year finite
(a program is done once the last of its projects is completed)
Tangible effect no yes yes
Does scope contain tasks? no no yes
Example 1 Several mayors’ terms of office united in a common strategy City’s clean air transformation Replace bus fleet, Restrict parking, Redesign streets and traffic,

Promote bicycles campaign

Example 2 UEFA European Football Championship 2024 Build and redesign stadiums,
Design transportation, Market the event
Build/redesign stadium X,

Build/redesign stadium Y

Goal Align with the strategy “We will build…”,
“We will develop…”, “To deliver business value”Develop a complex product, too large for a project.
Coordinate several projects with cross-project dependencies.
“We will complete building X by day Y”,

“To meet a deadline”

Build a building,
develop a relatively simple product or service.


The following standard KPIs should yield to industry-specific KPIs

Delivered Business Value vs Planned Business Value,

Alignment with strategic organizational goals

Budget performance (e.g. % of projects on budget, % Full-Year Budget Vs. Full Year Actual Cost, BV – Budget Variance)

Resource utilization

Trends in Risks

Current Air quality vs at Program initiation (industry-specific KPI)

Schedule progress (e.g. SV – Schedule Variance)

Scope performance (e.g. Estimate to project completion)

Budget performance (e.g. Deviation of Planned Budget)

Risk management (e.g. # of risks identified/closed/that occurred)

Frequency of evaluation every several months

Senior executives debate on changes to strategy, competitors, a merger, takeover, etc.

every few weeks ~weekly,
iteratively in agile
Application in agile methods yes

In Product Management: Portfolios of initiatives


As long as there are projects, there is room for a program.

yes – agile project (common in Scrum)
Presence in BigPicture BigPicture Enterprise has ‘Portfolio’ Box type. Programs were ubiquitous until BigPicture 7. Starting BigPicture 8, programs are a BigPicture Enterprise feature because you need to configure your custom ‘Program’ Box type. Read more below. BigPicture Enterprise has
‘Agile Projects’,
‘Hybrid Project’,
and ‘Classic Project’ Box types, while the regular BigPicture has the universal Program.

Do programs apply to agile environments? The term “program” has its roots deeply in classic project management. As long as there are projects beneath, even agile projects, there is also room for a program. Once your organization has transformed to an agile framework, such as SAFe, traditional programs disappear. (SAFe has its own programs, very different from the ones we are talking about, but that is another story.)

Why are Programs the least popular of the three?

Perhaps you have heard of ‘master projects’. These are real-life programs. Master projects employ the smartest project managers. Master projects aim at coordination, cross-project dependencies, and risk management, and so they are bona fide programs.

Portfolios. Could an organization be too small for portfolio management?

Portfolio management doesn’t make sense if a single person can embrace all of the company’s initiatives. When there are two or more PMs in a company, portfolio management, in theory, begins to make sense. In real life, we see portfolios in medium and large organizations.

‒I have never seen a small organization that would make use of portfolios, but portfolio-using small businesses definitely do exist. The ultimate determinant, whether to employ portfolio management or not, should be one’s business need. The rationale behind portfolios goes as follows: constrained by a portfolio’s budget and resources, prioritize initiatives that deliver plenty of business value at the expense of minor initiatives that deliver little business value – says Jerzy Sekula, Product Manager at SoftwarePlant.

Another question when deciding whether to use portfolios or not is ‘Do I deal with limited resources, including the human resources?’. If yes, then using portfolios on top of projects or programs, might pay off.

If you opted for portfolio management,

then PPM (Project Portfolio Management) software, such as BigPicture Enterprise, is more relevant, than plain PM (Project Management) software.

Is one portfolio a sufficient reason to even bother with them? Or do you need at least two portfolios to “break-even”? A single portfolio is a valid reason to use them if your PPM software is capable of aggregating data at the portfolio level, such as BigPicture Enterprise, see Figure 2. The single-portfolio setup might consist of that single portfolio, plus a couple of satellite projects.

Mixed agile, hybrid, and classic portfolios in BigPicture Enterprise

Figure 2. Portfolio view (called Overview) in BigPicture Enterprise. Note, how the view is a mix of a portfolio, agile project, two classic projects, a hybrid project, and a SAFe ART (1). Also, note how we re-labeled the modules for the Hybrid project (2). (3) depicts how you can permit users to add a Box below certain parent elements only. (4) shows the Scope type configuration, and as we learned, the ‘aggregations only’ option should be used for Portfolios and Programs because the two should not accept tasks.

How to use Portfolios, Programs, and Projects within BigPicture?

BigPicture is the most popular PPM application for Jira and Atlassian ecosystem. In order to use programs or portfolios, you need the BigPicture Enterprise edition. For mere projects, the regular BigPicture is fine.

Table 2. The implementation of Projects, Programs, and Portfolios in BigPicture Enterprise vs. BigPicture

BigPicture Big Picture Enterprise
Box Types

(~templates, prototypes)

Program Box

Program Increment


Three is the limit. You cannot create new Box types beyond this limit.

Agile Project

Classic Project

Hybrid Project

Hybrid Stage


LeSS Requirement Area


Program Box

Program Increment



You can create an unlimited number of custom Box types, as well as customize the existing ones.

Custom Box types you could consider creating Program – read below

Agile Portfolio – even though portfolios are not meant for storing tasks, if you are designing the Agile Portfolio Box type, please, allow epics as early as one level down from the portfolio level. Also – enable Gantt charts for agile portfolios, and relabel the ‘Gantt’ with ‘Roadmap’.

How Programs are handled?
Program Box type exists in BigPicture 8, but this is a legacy, BigPicture-7-like program; more like a project. The ‘Program’ name stems from the fact that BigPicture sits on top of Jira with its “Jira projects”. We labeled BigPicture projects – “Programs” to reflect the fact that one BigPicture Program could contain many Jira projects. In other words, the Program Box acts as both Project and Program.

For real Programs, acquire BigPicture Enterprise.

BigPicture Enterprise has the very same default project-like Program Box type that regular BigPicture does.

But you can also custom-build a real Program Box. Real Programs are intermediaries between portfolios and projects, as we sketched them in table 1.

Tips on the configuration of your custom Program Box type:

  • Allow aggregation and grouping for your custom-built Program Box type.
  • Arrange Program Box type so that users are allowed to add its instances as direct descendants of Portfolio Boxes, to enforce the portfolio-program-project hierarchy.
How to re-label modules? You cannot relabel BigPicture modules. The Gantt module has to bear the ‘Gantt’ label, always. Likewise, other modules have fixed names. You can re-label modules to adjust the language to your organization’s jargon or methodology. For instance, you can rename ‘Gantt’ with ‘Roadmap’ or ‘Scope’ with ‘Backlog’.

Rename BigPicture modules on a per-Box type basis. For example, the mentioned ‘Roadmap’ and ‘Backlog’ labels were taken from Agile Project Box type. Rename modules, to your liking or as your PM methodology prescribes.

For whom? Small, medium, and large companies. The second and third category in particular Those who mix PM approaches – have classic, hybrid, or agile projects.

Or: if more than one PM methodology exists within your organization, such as Scrum and SAFe.

Or: you run two or more portfolios.



BigPicture version 8 supports all three: projects, programs, and portfolios. If you continue using the proven projects, programs, and possibly portfolios, PPM software, such as BigPicture Enterprise is the way to go. For those who only need projects, we recommend the regular BigPicture.

Agile transformation must be initiated deliberately. Just because your newly purchased PM or PPM software promotes agility is not a valid reason to be 100% agile. It is fine to pause halfway through. We talk about the agile transformation-related decisions and dilemmas here. Anyway, BigPicture is equally relevant if you pause your digital transformation halfway through (hybrid projects) and if you have completed the agile transformation. Agile projects, SAFe ARTs, LeSS Requirement Areas, and ‘Design your custom Box’ are all available in BigPicture Enterprise.

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.