Product vs. project. The amount of confusion these two words can cause never surprises me. If you are a product manager, you know where I am going with this. I bet you have been called a “project manager” more times than you can count. And the confusion only grows in companies where there is a product owner on the team too.
But clarity about these roles is vital to effectively collaborating and bringing a product to market.
To be sure, there is not one universally accepted definition for these roles. And companies may use each one in different ways. For example, the product manager role may be separate from the product owner and project manager, or the titles may be used synonymously. Oftentimes a product manager does the work of all three — it just depends on the size and organization of the company.
But it is important to have a solid understanding of how these roles typically differ and overlap. At organizations where the titles and areas of work are distinct, each role should work closely as a tight knit team to drive the best results. This is how you make a meaningful contribution to your organization and help create a product that customers love.
So let’s start with some simple definitions. The product manager owns the product vision and defines what the ideal customer experience should be, based on a deep understanding of customer needs. The product owner works with the development team to ensure that the right experience is being built. And the project manager focuses on all the cross-functional work, driving on-time and on-budget schedules. Here are a few more ways to think about the three roles:
The product manager sets the product vision and strategy. This role defines the release process and identifies the cross-functional activities necessary to bring the product (or feature) to market. This work is not one-and-done — it continues through the entire lifecycle of a product.
The product owner supports the development team by prioritizing the product backlog and creating user stories. They serve as an internal customer expert for engineering and development teams, answering questions and clarifying requirements.
The project manager oversees the project and ensures that deadlines are met. They manage all of the cross-functional work that is required to deliver a Complete Product Experience. This role is also internally focused, coordinating complex work across many teams and many dependencies.
The product manager creates the product roadmap to capture the strategic plans and timeline for what the product team will deliver. They are also responsible for collecting ideas, prioritizing them, and adding them to the roadmap.
The product owner does not typically build a roadmap that is discrete from the product roadmap set by the product manager. But they should work closely with the product manager to review the product roadmap and make sure priorities are aligned.
The project manager defines a roadmap to show upcoming work related to each cross-functional release and a timeline for completing it all. The project manager identifies cross-functional dependencies and does resource planning.
The product manager has a deep knowledge of the product, the market, and customers. They are responsible for both strategic and tactical activities and are able to easily context-switch between an internal and external focus.
The product owner is an expert on gathering requirements and documenting detailed user stories. They take a more technical approach to internal needs. In an agile environment, they are responsible for participating in daily scrum meetings and managing sprints.
The project manager has extensive experience helping teammates stay on schedule and meet deadlines. They know how to estimate the time it will take to complete a project and identify potential problems related to scope or limited resources. They are tactical and oriented towards internal execution.
The product manager leads the cross-functional product team. They work closely with teammates in engineering, marketing, sales, and support. They communicate the product vision and plan to executives and others (including customers and partners) who are invested in the success of the product.
The product owner works closely with the development team to plan sprints. They may also work with UX and operations to define detailed requirements and make sure the technical infrastructure can support the future of the product.
The project manager works with the broader team and must have an understanding of how the organization delivers value to customers. The project manager knows exactly how to keep everyone motivated and on track.
Titles aside, the ultimate goal is the same — to deliver a product that customers truly love.
No matter how your organization operates or what formal titles you use, you can help drive that love by communicating often with your colleagues and being transparent about your plans. You may still be called the wrong title from time to time. But I bet that overall comprehension about what you do (and how much you contribute) will increase greatly when you share information freely with others.
How would you explain the similarities and differences between these three roles?
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