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Product manager vs. project manager: What’s the difference?

Product manager vs. project manager: What’s the difference?

French poet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” You may interpret this in a way that’s directly meaningful to you. But I think at its core is the idea that leadership and alignment come from creating a vision, setting a course, and inspiring others to create something wonderful.

But we need to be realistic about one thing.

That ship is still not going to build itself.

Speaking for myself, I can easily get lost in daydreaming about life on the sea until some capable project manager comes by to tell me to cut some wood.

And here we start getting at the difference between a product manager and a project manager. A product manager will make decisions about where to go next and point in that direction. A project manager will make decisions about how best to get there.

Let’s get down to some basics.

What’s a product and a project?

A product is a tangible good you’re building for customers who value that good. This may be a physical hardware good (boat), software (boat inventory management application), or a service (on-demand subscription-based Boat as a Service).

A project is a set of activities necessary to bring the product, or some aspect of the product, to a specific outcome. If the term ‘outcome’ seems a bit vague, it’s because it doesn’t necessarily mean the purpose of the project is to bring a product to the customer. The outcome could be to end of life the product or to improve the product’s adherence to some regulatory compliance (as a couple of examples).

One thing I’ve noticed in how others describe the difference is they’ll say that a project is a time-limited initiative that has a definitive end date. I don’t think this is a particularly useful distinction as its quite common for a product to have a dedicated and ongoing project plan and project manager. The project doesn’t necessarily need an end date so much that it needs clearly articulated outcomes against a timeline.

What does a product manager focus on?

Our perspective is that the product manager’s main task is to prioritize what to build next. This entails:

  • talking to customers and discovering user insights.
  • working with stakeholders to create a clear strategy.
  • aligning the organization around a cohesive roadmap.

The product management role is highly strategic. Successful product managers analyze customer needs, market dynamics, and their company’s overall strategy to create a product strategy that drives the most value for both customers and the business. They spend time talking to customers, management, partners, and team leaders to vet their strategy and ensure buy-in for the direction they’re pursuing.

A product manager’s success metrics are a mixture of things assessing the customer reaction to the product and strategic business objectives.

For example, the metrics a product manager may care about are:

  • NPS (product)
  • Conversions (product)
  • Revenue (business)
  • Churn (business)

What does a project manager focus on?

The project management role is much more execution-focused. If a product manager prioritizes what to build next, the project manager oversees the process to get the thing built, under a wide variety of constraints. At a high-level, successful project managers have a full handle on:

  • knowing who and what tools are available at what times through intensive resource planning.
  • identifying potential problems and developing options for mitigating those issues using risk management.
  • balancing resources and budget if (or rather when) the timeline or product definition changes by managing the project scope.

In now-popular phrasing, project managers “get shit done.” In a basic sense, project managers need to understand who is available for working on the project and ensure that the time is being used properly. They also have to be ready for disruptions and have contingency plans when things like feature-creep, budget changes, or unplanned leaves occur (as examples). In theory, successful project managers drive the project to its intended outcome on-time and on-budget. In reality, if the timing or budget changes (and they likely will), successful project managers proactively communicate those changes with a set of options of how to facilitate those changes.

For project managers, success is measured based on how effectively and efficiently they’re delivering that project. Some metrics they may care about are:

  • Budget
  • Velocity
  • Quality

Product manager vs. project manager: Which role might be right for you?

If you’re considering the different between a product manager and project manager and considering which of these roles you’d like to pursue, you may want to think about what you like doing.

Do you enjoy digging through data and talking to people to try and identify themes and trends? Do you enjoy a bit more abstract thinking and are motivated by the idea of solving customer problems with product solutions? If so, product management may be for you.

Do you enjoy creating task lists and spreadsheets to organize your day? More importantly, do you get a thrill when you can put a checkmark next to a task? Do you like using your problem-solving skills to try and figure out how to move resources around in a creative way? You might consider project management.

Product managers can come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including technical, consulting, finance, support, and more. They don’t always need technical backgrounds, but it may be helpful if the company and product are very technical in nature. Project managers tend to more frequently have a technical background and often have been engineers at some point in their career. There are plenty of successful product and project managers with unusual backgrounds, so if these don’t describe you and you’re interested in these roles, don’t worry!

Partnering for success

To some degree at small companies and even at larger companies, you’ll find a lot of overlap between product managers and project managers. They are both roles that require leadership, analytical and creative thinking, and the ability to communicate and inspire others. As you can tell from the above, the difference comes down to the activities and outcomes you’re looking to drive. Product and project managers are partners, and regardless of company policies, you should meet your counterpart to discuss what your working relationship should look like. Upfront communication will mitigate conflicts down the road.

What about a product owner?

There is also another role sometimes asked about: The product owner. I’ve seen this popping up more and more and thought it was worth quickly mentioning. As we’ve noted before, product managers have become increasingly more visible and strategic in companies as organizations are becoming more product-led.

This gives product managers more responsibility to be strategic leaders in their companies and squeezes time they once had for activities, such as writing requirements and backlog management. This shift is particularly true in agile environments. Based on job descriptions I’ve read, product owners focus on those more execution aspects of product management. It can be a great role to get into product management.

Set sail!

Getting your product into your customers’ hands, or getting your boat out to the sea for which you yearn, requires both strategic direction and capable project management. Of course, there are plenty of other jobs, such as marketing, sales, support, and more, needed to get the job done as well. Hopefully, this gives you some insight into how the roles of product manager and project manager differ and work with each other in the larger picture.

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