We’re often asked about the recommended approach to managing programmes, sub-portfolios or even larger projects in Project Online. Whilst there is no built-in hierarchy to exploit, we are able to create this parent-child relationship through a combination of Enterprise Project Types (EPTs), project metadata and scheduling techniques.

Enterprise Project Types

Where an organisation is managing programmes; a suite of projects being undertaken to achieve a wider strategic goal under the overall management of a Programme Manager, it’s best practice for the Programme Manager to have control over a separate programme Schedule and Project Site in Project Online, achieved through a separate Programme EPT. The related projects can then be set up and governed through the respective project-level ETPs.

Project Metadata

Enterprise Custom Fields (ECFs) can then be used to link projects and programmes together which enables a nested view to be created in the Project Centre as well as in reporting.

A common approach is to use:

  • Programme – a lookup field that indicates which programme that a project belongs to.

Tag the actual programme and corresponding sub-projects with the respective Programme name from the custom lookup table. This would allow grouping and/or filtering of all projects belonging to the same programme (as well as the Programme itself).

You can take this a step further with the following approach:

Make use of the Project ID field and create the following ECFs:

  • Parent ID
  • Classification

If the entity is the ‘Parent’ (i.e. the programme), populate the “Project ID” and the “Parent ID” with the same value and classify the project as “Parent”.

Project Metadata in Project Online - Parent
Child entity in programme for Project Online

If the entity is a ‘Child’ (i.e. the sub-project), populate the “Parent ID” with the value displayed in the related project parent/programme “Project ID” and classify the project as “Child”.

If the entity is a ‘Stand-alone’ project, do not complete the “Parent ID” and classify the project as “Stand-alone”

Stand-alone entity in Project Online
Programme entity in Project Online

The same can be achieved with alternative terminologies, such as “Programme”, “Sub-project” and “Stand-alone”

Which projects belong to the system in Project Online

These fields are used to understand which projects in the system belong to a parent project/ programme and those that are independent/stand-alone.

Below is an illustration of how these ECFs could help group and filter data in the Project Centre views as well as reports:

In the following example, the view has been grouped by ‘Programme’ and the filter Programme = Marketing Programme has been applied:

ECFs can group and filter data in Project Centre views

In this example, an additional filter has been applied whereby Classification <> Programme:

Additional filters in ECFs

In the second example, you avoid duplicating the aggregated values (i.e. cost) in the summary line.


Programmes have defined stage gate or key milestones that the programme manager has committed to the organisation. Individual projects must complete work in time to achieve these defined stage gate milestone dates.

One of the key concerns for a Programme Manager is to monitor projects to ensure they will enable the programme to achieve the stated deadlines. It is therefore important for the Programme Manager to have control over a separate programme schedule as well as visibility of the related child/sub-project schedules.

This provides the framework for individual projects and enables logical linking of key milestones from the programme plan to each individual project schedule (therefore eliminating any duplication of milestones and possible miscommunication of deadline dates).

Projects within programmes are also very likely to have inter-dependencies – logical links between tasks in separate project schedules across the programme – as well as logical links to the parent/programme. Project Online offers different approaches to managing these relationships:

  • Master project with sub-projects: helpful for reporting and to gain a helicopter view
  • Hard-links (predecessors): hard-linking between tasks of different projects using predecessors
  • Soft links (deliverables and dependencies): a flexible approach to linking projects, where the gives and gets are moulded by the Programme/Project Manager

I’ve discussed managing cross-project dependencies using both the “Hard Links” and “Soft Links” approach in a previous blog post. Therefore, I’m going to focus on the Master Project with sub-projects approach.

Overview of Master Projects

Think of a master project as a collection of consolidated projects that show a hierarchy among multiple related projects. Projects inserted into a master project are called sub-projects.

The first step is to open the existing Programme schedule in Microsoft Project for Editing, this is going to be our Master Project. In this example, the Programme plan is populated with a series of key milestones.

Select the row where you wish to insert the first sub-project. Note, this will be an existing project entity within Project Web App. Click on the subproject icon on the Project ribbon and the insert project box will open. Select the relevant sub-project from the list.

Insert sub-project into read-write

If the “Link to project” box at the bottom of the screen is checked, this will insert the sub-project as read-write, meaning any changes made to the inserted project within the Master will be reflected in the stand-alone project. Whereas, if the box was unchecked, then the inserted project would be read-only and remain as an independent copy.

Once inserted to the schedule, you have the option to change the sub-project to read-only from the Advanced tab in the Project Information window.

Change sub-project to read-only from Advanced Tab in Project Information Window

When the sub-project has been inserted in the Master project, an icon in the Indicators column will appear to show that this is an embedded project and to distinguish it from summary tasks that are part of the master project.

Sub-projects appear in master project

In the master project, subprojects appear as summary tasks that you can easily arrange in an outline. Click the arrow header next to a subproject to expand that sub-project’s tasks for viewing.

The advantage of using Master Projects and sub-projects is that it becomes really simple to dynamically create inter-project dependencies. As the projects are linked, you can view all the information in the sub-project/s from the Master Project, and key milestones in the programme schedule can be linked to each individual project schedule.

Sub-projects approach in master project

The Master Project with sub-projects approach can also be applied to managing large projects. For example, if your project contains more than a few hundred tasks, breaking it into sub-projects can make it easier to manage. Furthermore, if some parts of the project contain work that is broken down into more detail than others, it may make sense to make those parts into sub-projects so that most users see only a rolled-up description of the sub-project, but interested parties can view it in more detail.

Another consideration for using Master Project with sub-projects is when you’re managing multiple interrelated projects. The Master Project doesn’t have to exist as a separate entity within Project Web App, it can be created in Microsoft Project Professional as an empty container.

Rather than opening the projects one by one, they can be opened at the same time in a single window. Acting as a container, the temporary Master Project can be used to provide a consolidated view of the interrelated sub-projects and the relationships between them. Once the PM has finished reviewing/making updates to the schedule, they can close the master project (no reason to save) and save each inserted sub-project when prompted.


To link tasks and save changes, the user will need to have permissions to manage (i.e. read-write access) to the related sub-projects.

Remember to check the Subprojects checkbox in the ribbon for sub-projects to be displayed in the Project Center.

Check subprojects checkbox in ribbon for sub-projects

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By: Rachel Goodwin

Rachel Goodwin
Senior PPM Consultant, Wellingtone | An experienced PMO professional; P30 and PRINCE 2 certified, skilled at developing and implementing Project & Programme management methodologies, tools and best practices, with the ability to balance formal processes with pragmatism to drive delivery.

Published: 18 February 2021

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