Mad Libs was invented in 1953. I bet you played this fill-in-the-blank game as a kid — maybe on a long car trip. And even though the concept is more than 60 years old, hearing someone read off a wacky story with random words stuffed into sentences still elicits a laugh. But there is an important truth here. Just because a word fits a category (such as an adjective or noun) does not mean that it will hold meaning if used incorrectly or out of context.
This is especially true if you work in product or project management — where job titles are sometimes used interchangeably.
I think this happens because many of these roles contain some combination of the following words — product, project, program, manager, and owner. If you are new to working in one of these areas, you might still be trying to learn the nuances. Or your company might refer to the same role in varied ways.
When it seems like everyone has their own opinion about what the “real” definition is, it can be difficult to reach a consensus. I know that many of the most commented on blog posts that I write are frequently the ones that relate to job titles — especially product and project management.
People love to debate, but I do think that there is real confusion behind the banter. Our own Customer Success team works with teams of all sizes and has seen all kinds of structures. Here are some of the titles that folks most often conflate — and why we think it happens:
Product manager vs. project manager
This distinction is generally clear to most people who work in technology. But in organizations that are still building up a product management discipline, the roles may be blurred. For example, this can happen when project (rather than product) managers have historically managed most of the development work.
The product manager oversees the entire lifecycle of the product. They set the product vision and strategy, create the product roadmap, and lead the cross-functional product team. They are in charge of communicating the plan internally and externally to executives, stakeholders, and customers. They possess a deep knowledge of the product, the market, and customers.
The project manager oversees the entire lifecycle of the project. They manage the cross-functional work needed to deliver a new experience to customers and define the project roadmap. They also identify dependencies and help teammates meet deadlines. They possess a deep knowledge of resource planning and scheduling.
Product owner vs. project owner
These titles not only sound similar, but the responsibilities may also overlap in some companies. While product owners are more common than project owners in most organizations, product managers (especially in smaller companies) may own the requirements definition process and help manage cross-functional work.
The product owner supports the engineering and development teams by serving as an internal customer expert. On agile teams, they work closely with the product manager to ensure priorities are aligned. They have a deep knowledge of how to gather and define requirements, document user stories, and prioritize the product backlog.
The project owner supports the product owner and the teams working towards the delivery of the new product or experience. They tend to manage all of the cross-functional activities that are not necessarily product-related, but are required for a successful launch. They have a deep knowledge of everything necessary to deliver a Complete Product Experience to customers.
Group product manager vs. program manager
Both of these roles adopt a similar view — focusing on the whole rather than the individual. In companies without a dedicated program manager, a product manager or even group product manager may do this work instead.
The group product manager is responsible for the success of a group of products. They lead the implementation and execution of the work and often manage other product managers in the organization. They have a deep knowledge of research and product development.
The program manager is responsible for the success of a broad initiative that often includes several projects or products. For example, they may manage a major transformational effort or help define a new way the team will work. They have a deep knowledge of resource utilization and risk mitigation across a broad spectrum of work.
Clarity about the different roles is the first step to collaborating effectively and delivering meaningful results.
Even in mature organizations, there is often debate about the nuances of what product and project management are responsible for. So what can you do to encourage clarity? First, solidify your own understanding of the differences. Then share your knowledge with others transparently. The more alignment there is amongst the team, the more intentionality you can bring to serving customers — without any wacky mix-ups along the way.
What other product and project titles do you think are misunderstood?
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