There aren’t two more confusing, yet vital roles in a tech company that get so mixed up these days: the product manager and the project manager.
Even though they might overlap in terms of certain skills, such as leadership and time management, they’re in fact two sides of the same coin.
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The product manager sets the vision for the product that needs to be built, gathers requirements, and prioritizes them, while the project manager acts upon this vision and makes sure that it is executed on time and on budget. Complementary roles indeed, but distinct at the same time.
Product vs. Project
To iron out their differences, let’s start with the definition of the words product and project.
A product can be anything from a physical product, to a software or a service that satisfies the needs of a group of users. It goes through a life cycle, being developed and introduced on the market, grown in acceptance until it matures, and retired once it’s no longer needed.
A project is a one-at-a-time endeavor with the aim of creating a product or service. It has a start and end date, as well as a defined outcome. It usually goes through five stages – initiation, planning, execution, monitoring and control, and closure.
Now here’s the thing that sets them apart: the timeline. Unlike a project, a product is not a temporary endeavor. It evolves and adapts to the current user’s needs to prove its utility and avoid being retired. Hence, it can include several projects that aim to maintain, improve, or diversify it.
Let’s move forward and see how differences play out when it comes to their roles and responsibilities.
A product manager’s role is strategic, much like a CEO but for the product.
They’re the ones who set and own the overall product direction, staying with it until they remove the product from the market. It is their responsibility to understand the user needs, translate them into a design or MVP (Minimum Viable Product), and lead a development team to build the product and meet those needs.
This involves typical tasks such as:
- Talking to users to gather requirements
- Identifying problems and opportunities
- Deciding which ones are worth going after
- Creating a roadmap and defining features
- Prioritizing development tickets
But, above all, it involves product sense. That is having the intuition to know when to move a product from alpha to beta tests, when to delay a release because of a buggy feature, or remove a product or part of it because it doesn’t make economic sense anymore.
Product managers are also responsible for the profit and loss function of a product. That’s why they collaborate with the sales, marketing, customer success, and support teams to make sure that they nail the overall business goals, in terms of revenue, competitive advantage, and customer satisfaction.
A project manager’s role, on the other hand, is more tactical, focusing primarily on the execution side.
They have to take the product vision from the product manager, develop a project timeline around it, and plan the work for the development team to hit important goals and deadlines. Or, to put it simply, their responsibility is to successfully bring a project to completion within the agreed budget, time, and quality – one project at a time.
This goal usually breaks down into three activities:
- Risk and issue management – involves spotting early on and minimizing potential risks that might delay the project completion.
- Planning and resource scheduling – the planning part refers to adding up tasks with a start and end date, assigning the necessary employees to them, setting up the initial time budgets, and preparing the project timeline through specific project management methodologies and tools, like the Gantt Chart. The resource scheduling part, on the other hand, has to do with the daily management of task lists, materials, infrastructure, reports, and people to provide the project team with everything they need.
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- Scope management – perhaps the toughest activity of them all, it requires balancing the time-budget-quality trio to favorably modify the project scope and bring in line with the initial set outcome. For example, if you shortened the project timeline, then more resources are required which in return increases the budget. Or, you need to modify the scope to meet the quality agreed upon.
The project manager might also gather up the user requirements, but have little to say in defining and prioritizing them, as well as aid the product manager in writing the user stories. This reassures them that instructions are as clear as possible for the team so that they can easily stick with them.
NOTE: If you’d like to see what the expectations for a project manager position are, have a look at our complete analysis of 200+ project management job descriptions.
Can you handle both roles at the same time?
After briefly reviewing their roles and responsibilities, we can observe that product managers deal with technical issues and are thus externally oriented. Meanwhile, project managers tackle more functional issues and work internally. To quote a popular industry saying:
Product managers deal with the What? and Why?. Project managers with the How? and When?.
We can assume that product managers can be project managers too. But the real question is, should they?
Let’s analyze the problems that might arise from overlapping both roles:
- Decreased focus – Product managers have an external orientation. Their daily activities might involve talking to clients, running usability tests, shadowing the sales team in their customer interactions, or even attending fair events. These are all activities that happen outside the office, making it hard to keep an eye on the product vision and the development team internally.
- Insufficient skills – Product managers might not be technical enough, which would leave them at the developers’ mercy when it comes to estimating how much time each task would take to be completed.
- Potential bottlenecks – Or better said bottleneck, in the form of a single person on which the product and project success depends on. There are simply too many stakes against a product manager who takes all the risks on themselves.
It might be feasible to have a person that wears both hats like it happens with most small companies. But once the project is more complex, spans across a longer timeline, and involves people from different departments and geographical areas, it’s best to separate them.
This way product managers add value by focusing on the product vision. Meanwhile, project managers deal with project execution and ensure that they deliver a quality product on time and on budget.
Casting the confusion and overlapping skills aside, product managers and project managers form a powerful duo after all. Their differences complement each other and guarantee the long-term success of a company. Treat them appropriately and they’ll take care of your business.
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