The roles of project managers (PMs) and portfolio managers (PfMs) are often confused. Understandably so: at first glance, the difference is subtle. However, it does exist, and it’s actually significant. Because of this, we’ve created an overview of the respective purposes, responsibilities, and skill sets of a project manager vs a portfolio manager to help you understand their distinct roles. 

 

What is a Project Manager?

Before we can define project managers, we first have to understand what a project is. In this context, a project is a specific, time-bound endeavor that’s focused on a unique goal or targets a specific area for improvement. A project manager, then, is someone responsible for meeting these objectives within the boundaries of fixed timelines, budgets, and resource allocations.

In other words, a project manager is a professional who’s in charge of seeing projects through from planning to completion. They’re also tasked with overseeing all of the moving pieces within a project, like the resources and financial investments necessary to complete it.

 

Key Responsibilities of a Project Manager

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines project management as “the use of specific knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to deliver something of value to people.”  But what does that really mean?

The exact responsibilities of a project manager tend to vary from one organization to the next. That said, they’re usually in charge of the following:

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  • Making sure that the project objectives and requirements are clear and achievable
  • Planning the project along a realistic timeline, including a breakdown of tasks and key milestones
  • Mapping out budget requirements
  • Monitoring the progress of the project and ensuring adherence to budget and timeline while keeping an eye on project risk
  • Managing the project team to ensure cohesion and proper collaboration
  • Communicating important project information with the right stakeholders

 

What’s the Difference Between a Project Manager and Portfolio Manager?

A key challenge for PMs is reconciling the operational concerns tied to work collaboration and task management with the changing expectations of clients or project owners.

Put simply, PMs must figure out how to ensure that things get done on time, within budget, and according to a business’s goals – but they also have to make sure that projects match what stakeholders are expecting. Sometimes, those two ideas might not align; determining what needs to happen to ensure that they do is what PMs do best.

They are also required to re-evaluate the project situation on a regular basis. Even in the absence of new client requests or specifications, it’s all too easy for a project to creep off track during the course of execution because of changes in the organizational or market environment.

A great project manager stays on the lookout to detect any unexpected problem that may arise and delay the project or prevent it from achieving the desired outcome.

 

Common skills and competencies for a project manager

  • Discipline and attention to detail for project scheduling and task management
  • A good business culture, including some degree of financial and technology savvy, to manage deliverable quality, cost, and risk
  • Great leadership and communication skills to manage interactions with project teams and key stakeholders 

 

What is a Portfolio Manager?

While a PM focuses their efforts on the delivery of individual initiatives, a portfolio manager has to consider a set of multiple projects. In other words, their job is to visualize the connections between those projects and align them with the firm’s long-term objectives and vision.

As a quick refresher, a portfolio of projects is a collection of business endeavors that have been grouped together in order to achieve specific objectives — usually strategic ones. Therefore, a successful portfolio manager embraces a higher-level perspective and looks at the big picture.

Key Responsibilities of a Portfolio Manager

Here are a few of the main duties of a portfolio manager:

  • Project Selection. Separating the wheat from the chaff, examining numerous projects, and picking the best in order to build (or re-balance) high-achieving project portfolios
  • Strategy Realization. Identifying patterns and trends across projects and establishing connections with the organization’s strategies and goals to ensure the strategic fitness of the portfolio
  • ROI Maximization. Efficiently optimizing human and financial resources and prioritizing projects based on objective analysis in order to maximize business return
  • Data-Based Analysis. Tracking analytics in real time to gain a fine and dynamic understanding of portfolio health, simulating what-if scenarios to plan the best course of action

 

Common skills and competencies for a portfolio manager

While PfMs oversee the project management process and often need to look into individual projects to assess adherence and efficiency, their role is much more strategic in nature.

As a result, the skills required for a portfolio manager to succeed are also more strategic, including those below:

  • Outstanding analytical abilities to make sense of masses of complicated data
  • Excellent communication skills to share analyses and recommendations with operational and leadership teams
  • The ability to read markets and situations to anticipate problems or opportunities
  • Decisiveness and the ability to bring people together around a vision

 

Project Manager vs. Portfolio Manager: What’s the Difference?

The synergy between PMs and PfMs is obvious, and organizations usually need both types of professionals to thrive. However, the fundamental structure of each role – and whether it handles short- or long-term business actions – is what distinguishes it from the other.

Project Manager vs Portfolio Manager

Characteristic

Purpose

Project Managers

Ensure that each project is successfully delivered and meets time, cost, quality, and scope requirements

Portfolio Managers

Optimize a portfolio for performance and efficiency, ensure that all projects contribute to an organization’s strategic goals

Responsibilities

• Oversee individual projects from initiation through completion
• Manage project teams
• Manage timelines, budgets, and deliverables
• Communicate with project stakeholders
• Implement PPM methodologies to achieve goals

• Manage collections of projects and programs
• Ensure portfolios align with organizational strategies
• Oversee resource allocation across a portfolio
• Keep up with portfolio performance

Key Skills

• Decision-making
• Risk analysis
• Communication
• Conflict resolution
• Leadership
• Proficiency in project management tools and methodologies

• Analytical skills
• Strategic thinking
• Financial management skills
• Strong leadership skills
• Problem-solving

 

The Bottom Line

Project and portfolio management may be distinct duties, but one thing they have in common is their reliance on accessible project data and information. And for both, a software tool like Sciforma empowers project and portfolio managers alike to fulfill their roles. With access to features like time tracking, risk analyses and modeling, and task automation, project portfolio management becomes significantly easier.

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