Why Good Product Managers Need to Be Great Project Managers

product manager skills

How is your “project manager” job going? People always asked me this earlier in my career when I worked as a product manager. If you are a product manager, I bet you have heard the same. It is because most people still do not know that product managers exist. And they definitely do not know what we do.

Our team at Aha! has been called “project managers” so many times in their careers that we wrote a blog on the differences between the two roles. However, there is some kernel of truth to that question people always ask. Why?

As a product manager, you are good at thinking about the “big picture.” You know your product and customer better than anyone. You have ambitious goals and a clear vision for where you want to go. And you can capture it all in a flawless roadmap presentation. But that is just one part of your job. Product managers who have big ideas will struggle if they cannot also think small.

To actually build what customers care about, good product managers need to be great project managers.

Timing, cross-functional dependencies, routing work, resource planning — these project management skills are essential to building what I call a Complete Product Experience (CPE). This is because, to create a product that truly delights, you need to be aware of and consider all the touchpoints for the customer and how everyone in the company impacts that customer experience and is impacted by it.

Now, some of you may work in companies that have dedicated project or program managers assigned to each product. Even so, the company is ultimately depending on you to be responsible for everything the customer experiences. Remember that you were not hired to just think about the big picture. You need to understand and optimize the minutiae too.

Here are six ways for product managers to develop better project management skills:

Get curious
As a product manager, you need to know everything about your customers, market, product, and team and merge that all into one comprehensive plan. But this does not happen without fact-finding. You need to ask yourself questions — lots and lots of them. Before you put a plan in place, consider everything you do not know yet. “Why are we doing this now?” “When do we need to deliver this?” “Who are the teammates who can best handle the work?” “What cross-functional help do we need?” Flag any potential constraints related to resources, risks, or scope so that you can come prepared for meaningful conversation when you meet with cross-functional teams.

Be time-fixed
Get obsessed with time. I know that, for some of you, that will sound contrary to agile and lean ways. But time matters. If we had an endless supply of it, I would agree that it is just not that important. However, as you know, it is not something that you can buy more of. So start by creating a release plan that carefully considers how much time the work will take based on meaningful guidance from the teams and the resources you have available. You want specific dates that are aggressive — but not unrealistic.

Own the details
Dates are not the only details you should be obsessed with. You are also responsible for leading everyone through each area of the release. This includes cross-functional team efforts such as design, Go-to-Market activities, and support documentation. By owning these details and knowing how each piece will ultimately affect the customer, you can deliver a CPE.

Plan for change
Remember that you are the one who owns the release plan. You have to be proactive when things change. For example, let’s say that bugs are revealed while testing new functionality and your launch date moves. You should have a communication plan in place that documents who needs to be notified and what will be impacted. This keeps the work moving forward, even if a target date is missed.

Share data
You will want to create go-to reports that you update and analyze regularly. For upcoming releases, our team frequently references the release roadmap, features listed by status (including what has already shipped), and a calendar report showing to-dos across teams. Consistent reporting will reveal where you are making progress and help answer questions about upcoming work and plans. (A purpose-built product management tool like Aha! makes it easy to build and share these types of reports.)

Let go of ego
Yes, your job is to be strategic — but as you can see, that is where your work simply begins. If you cannot manage the actual work, you will be little more than a talking head. People will tune you out over time. Platitudes and vision do not mean anything if you cannot move your plan forward in practice. I know from experience that the best product managers are the ones who dive into the work wholeheartedly.

Product manager or project manager? The titles are different, but there are lessons to be learned from each discipline.

So, do not be annoyed when someone mistakenly calls you a project manager. It might just be the reminder all product managers need — that every detail matters and impacts our customer’s experience.

How do you react to being called a project manager?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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  1. Paul

    As someone who came from project management to product management (i know, unconventional) I have to say, I dont have any problem being called a project manager. Often in organisations, project managers are looked at as the senior member of a team that stakeholders can have honest discussions about a project or products progress. This is a generalisation obviously, but they’re detailed in their planning and constantly looking to mitigate risks in order to achieve milestones that have been committed. These are good qualities for any business concerned with driving revenue and achieving strategic goals.


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