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 qualifications or specific skills, such as leadership and time management, they’re in fact two sides of the same coin.
NOTE: If you’re a project manager that runs a small team and looking for a time-tracking system, check out these easy time-tracking software.
The product manager sets the vision for the product that needs to be built, gathers requirements, and prioritizes them. In contrast, the project manager acts upon this vision and ensures that it is executed on time and within budget. Complementary roles indeed, but distinct at the same time.
Product vs. Project
To iron out their differences, let’s start with defining the words product and project.
A product can be anything from a physical product to 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, growing in acceptance until it matures, and retired once it’s no longer needed.
A project is a one-at-a-time endeavor to create a product or service. It has a start and end date and 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.
Also, both types of managers constantly look for new and effective ways to work in a hybrid setting or for tips on how to work remotely.
Let’s move forward and see how differences play out regarding 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. They are responsible for understanding the user needs, translating them into a design or MVP (Minimum Viable Product), and leading 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. And this is just one of the skills a product manager should have.
Product managers are also responsible for a product’s profit and loss function. That’s why they collaborate with the sales, marketing, customer success, and support teams to ensure that they nail the overall business goals regarding revenue, competitive advantage, and customer satisfaction.
On the other hand, a project manager’s role 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. On the other hand, the resource scheduling part has to do with the daily management of task lists, materials, infrastructure, reports, and people to provide the project team with everything they need.
NOTE: If you’re a project manager looking for user-friendly software with good reporting tools to help you with project planning, check out these top project planning software.
- Scope management – perhaps the most demanding activity of them all, it requires balancing the time-budget-quality trio to favorably modify the project scope and bring it 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 the user requirements but have little to say in defining and prioritizing them, thus aiding the product manager in writing the user stories. This reassures them that instructions are as straightforward as possible for the team so they can easily stick with them.
NOTE: If you’d like to see the expectations for a project manager position, 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 customer interactions, or 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 estimating how much time each task would take to be completed.
- Potential bottlenecks – Better said: bottleneck, in the form of a single person on which the product and project success depends on. There are too many stakes against a product manager who takes all the risks on themselves.
It might be feasible to have a person wearing both hats, as with most small or very small companies. In this situation though, the person might be using project management and invoicing software to manage the entire business (or an invoice generator, if they need a quick online tool). But once the project is more complex, spans 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 they deliver a quality product on time and within budget.
Speaking of budget, understanding how profitable a project is—with the help of project estimates, constant monitoring, and project profitability formulas— is crucial to both roles.
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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First published on January 27, 2020.