The Product Manager vs. Project Manager

It was a big day. I was presenting a new product idea to the executive team. After speaking with dozens of customers, the product team knew that we had touched a nerve. This idea would be an excellent way to increase our market share against our competition.

I walked into the conference room ready to go. I confidently shared our strategic vision for why we needed the new product, and offered quantifiable goals to measure our success. I also discussed what each new feature would do, and the benefits that our customers would gain.

As we were finishing the presentation, our CFO was convinced that this was the right move. He wanted to jump right into the financial details — and for a moment, I was tripped up. I had been so focused on looking out at the big picture. I did not know the specifics of what each phase would cost — and was unprepared to answer his questions.

Luckily, our project manager was in the room with me. I glanced over at her with the look of help in my eyes. She jumped right in and explained how the team would get it done on time and under budget. Thanks to her knowledge and readiness, that big day turned out to be even bigger than I had ever imagined.

Why did my presentation go off without a hitch? I understood my role as the product manager and my colleague’s role as the project manager.

But this is not always the case. These roles often cause confusion, even in savvy tech companies. It is understandable — the words are separated by only two letters. And in most organizations, the responsibilities overlap in more ways than any other roles. In some cases, the same person is the product manager and the project manager.

I’ve worked with countless project managers in my 15 years as a product manager. I have even played the dual role on occasion which works just as well as splitting it up.

So, what is the first step towards a successful working relationship if you are working on a team with product and project managers?

The key is having clear boundaries (and crossing them when needed with intent and clear communication). When you internalize what each of you are accountable for, you will better understand your responsibilities and points of intersection. That is how you collaborate and build great products.

Definition

It helps to begin by describing how we think about a product and a project.

A product is what you are providing to a group of users. It can be anything: a physical product that you hold in your hands, a software application, or a service that you are delivering.

In contrast, a project is a plan with a series of activities that has a defined outcome and a fixed start and end date. The project is completed when that outcome is accomplished.

So, let’s assume that your product is a new mobile application. It might contain many projects before it is ready to be launched. These projects all have their own unique starting and ending points. The mobile application, however, is a product which will continue to be improved as long as it is being sold to customers.

Role

What is a product manager? Product managers are often described as the CEOs of their products. They set the strategy, prioritize releases, talk to customers, and clearly define features. Their efforts are ongoing and involve managing the entire lifecycle of the product. A product manager’s goal is to deliver a product that customers love.

What is a project manager? Project managers oversee a fixed project from beginning to end. It can be a single project or a group of projects. Their job is to execute the strategy set by the product manager or leadership team. A project manager’s goal is to work with a broader team with a diverse set of skills and to complete a project on time and under budget.

Each role performs unique functions to achieve specific goals. So, the next step is to break out the details of who does what, because this is where uncertainty and conflict often arise.

Responsibility

The product manager is responsible for setting the product strategy. By having a “goal first” approach to managing and building the product, great product managers can create initiatives to help reach those goals. This approach helps determine which features should be built to achieve those goals. Product managers must answer these questions: “What problem does this solve?” And, “What are you building?” And, “What will the benefits be?”

Product managers own:

  • Strategy
  • Releases
  • Ideation
  • Features
  • Go-to-Market
  • Organizational training
  • Profit and Loss

The project manager is often less concerned with specific product goals. They are more focused on the project itself. A project manager takes product initiatives and features to develop a timeline based on any potential constraints related to resources, risks, or scope. Project managers must answer the questions, “What resources are needed?” And, “When will the project get delivered?” And, “Who is going to do what?”

Project managers own:

  • Budget
  • Delivery
  • Resources
  • Capacity
  • Cross-team organization
  • Problem resolution
  • Status updates

Collaboration

Product managers and project managers work closely together in high-performance organizations. And both work with the broader product team and executive leaders.

The product manager collaborates daily with cross-functional teams regarding the future of the product: Engineering, Sales and Marketing, Customer Success, etc. And since the product manager is responsible for the product throughout its lifecycle, she will naturally be involved with any project that concerns the product. So, it is the product manager’s job to define the scope of each specific project. She explains why these projects will achieve high level goals for her product and business.

The project manager also works with the broader team, but is focused on bringing plans to life. And his work is more time-fixed. He manages one effort and once that project is complete, he moves on to organizing other tasks. For example, a project team might be assembled to tackle a UX redesign with a target date that is six months away. The project manager will be concerned with that project’s budget, resources, deadline, and quality. He will understand the many details of each project.

Product and project managers each perform unique functions. When aligned properly, they both can shine.

Product and project managers see the same work through different lenses. And that’s a good thing when you are trying to achieve something special like bringing a new product to market as I was. But they both work for the same team. And when they join forces to collaborate, everyone benefits and the company wins.

Have you seen product managers and project managers work well together?

About Ron and Aha!

Ron is a product guy. He is the Director of Product Management at Aha! - the world’s #1 product roadmap software. He previously founded and sold his own company and has been on the founding team of multiple venture-backed companies.

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