Project Management vs. Product Management

By BrainStation January 29, 2020
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While Project and Product Managers often work hand-in-hand, there are a few more differences between these roles than just two letters.

This article will attempt to shed light on what makes each of these roles unique by focusing on what they do, what they dread, what they deliver, and the skills they need to pull it all off. 

Now, let’s get into it. 

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Project Management vs. Product Management: An Overview

If you have any professional experience, you’ve likely either avoided a Project Manager in the office hallway or desperately sought them out. These individuals play a critical, and often fleeting, role in an organization. Their goal is to steer a specific project through its lifecycle – initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and completion – with an eye towards striking the delicate balance between time, cost, and quality. 

Project Managers have a bird’s eye view of a project. They’ve mastered the art of laying out a plan that maps out the timeline and resources needed to bring a project to life, breaks down the budget, identifies and removes roadblocks, and minimizes risks. On top of all of that, Project Managers need to motivate the team through the typical highs and lows that come with project delivery and manage communication with stakeholders of all stripes. 

A Product Manager’s role can be slightly different depending on the organization. For example, some organizations include marketing as a responsibility while others don’t. Ultimately, a Product Manager is responsible for the success of a product from concept to launch to continuous improvement. They determine the what, why, and when of the product that the engineering team then builds out. They communicate this through a product roadmap (more on this further below). 

Product Managers eat, sleep, and breathe the needs of their customers. They’re constantly working to create value for them that’s also aligned to business goals. For this reason, many people describe Product Managers as “mini CEOs” that sit at the intersection of business, technology, and user experience. 

What Keeps Them Up at Night? 

“Scope creep” might sound like a villain with fresh breath to you, but it’s enough to make a Project Manager’s blood run cold. In reality, it means that the project work that was once agreed upon is now slowing expanding, putting timelines and budget at risk. This is usually because a detail was overlooked, not shared or simply unknown in the initial planning phase. 

Project Managers have to nervously laugh through the suggestion that the timeline for the project was yesterday and that they only have 80% of the resources required to get it done. They also have to constantly grapple with stakeholder expectations that may differ, and in some cases, conflict.  

In a similar vein, changes in corporate strategy can upend even the most carefully planned product roadmap. Like Project Managers, Product Managers have to contend with the often messy politics of stakeholder disagreements. It’s their goal to rally an organization around a single product vision. 

But it’s really the two C’s that have the power to rob a Product Manager of a good night’s sleep: competition and customers. A new startup on the block might directly compete or (gasp!) launch an awesome substitute to your product. Not to mention there’s always the potential that customer demand can fall flat after spending months on development. 

What are Their Deliverables?

The answer to this lies in each of their titles. A Project Manager delivers a complete project, while a Product Manager delivers a usable product. The difference here being that a product isn’t “complete” in the same way a project is once it’s launched. 

Project Managers own:

  • Project plan: A detailed document that includes scope, timeline, resources, and costs that maps out the optimal path to project completion.
  • Stakeholder communication: This can be something as simple as an email or as detailed as a presentation, but typically outlines progress and next steps.
  • Project handover: All of the documents and artifacts needed for the next or future teams to operate and maintain the outcome of a project (ie. a new product). 
  • Post-mortem: A report or presentation that explains what went well and what didn’t. It’s meant to help future Project Managers better predict obstacles and identify helpful shortcuts. 

Product Managers own: 

  • Product strategy: A document outlining the vision of the product that includes how the product will evolve, how it will get there and why it’ll be successful with customers. The customer’s needs must have a starring role in this document. 
  • Product roadmap: The roadmap is a visual representation of how your product will evolve over time. It helps ensure that even the smallest tasks roll up to the grander goal. It used to prioritize tasks, coordinate teams and track overall progress. 
  • Product backlog/user stories: This is essentially a working list of things to be done during product development from the perspective of the user. The product manager is constantly maintaining the backlog. 
  • Product analytics: Once the product is launched, a Product Manager monitors its usage, analytics, and customer feedback to look for areas of improvement or new opportunity.  

Skills Needed to Get the Job Done

To be a successful project or Product Manager, you need to have a good mix of hard skills and soft skills. The table below lists some of the typical skills needed to get the job done, but it shouldn’t be considered exhaustive.

Project Manager Product Manager
Hard Skills Risk management

Work breakdown

Budgeting 

Scheduling

Performance tracking

Meeting facilitation

Data analytics

Technical (coding, design)

Business sense (P&L)

Soft Skills Leadership

Communications

Negotiation

Relationship management

Time management

Problem-solving

Empathy 

Communication 

Storytelling

Creativity 

Critical thinking

It goes without saying that a Project Manager needs to have keen time management and organizational skills. They have to keep themselves and the team on track, monitor progress, and tweak as the project unfolds. When things go awry – and they almost always do – Project Managers need to act quickly and creatively to solve problems to avoid derailing the entire project. They need to exhibit leadership skills by setting goals for the team, keeping them motivated, and removing any obstacles that get in their way or threaten the project. 

A Project Manager needs to be diplomatic. They should feel comfortable negotiating with executives, stakeholders and members of the project team. Anything from added constraints to personality clashes fall within their jurisdiction. Finally, communication is paramount. Stakeholders expect to be updated on project status clearly and in a timely fashion. 

Product Managers need to have empathy and an acute awareness of the needs of their customers. Their creativity takes the wheel when it’s time to brainstorm solutions to the problems they’ve identified, and storytelling comes in handy when rallying a team around a product vision. Like Project Managers, Product Managers also need to be able to solve problems as they arise.  

Having at least an understanding of technical skills like programming and UX design can be the “Rosetta Stone” to speaking the language of the product team. You don’t necessarily need to write code or design a hi-fi prototype (depending on the specific role), but you should be able to translate more technical aspects of your product to the less technical parties involved. When it comes to analytics though, it’s really important that Product Managers have the ability to draw insights from data to determine future iterations and drive decision making. 

How They Work Together

Imagine a company spots an opportunity to launch a new product. As mentioned earlier, a Product Manager would put a lot of legwork into determining the what, why and when of the product ahead of its development. 

A Project Manager might enter the picture when it’s time to start bringing this product to life. Both the product and Project Manager help determine the when, but the Project Manager influences the how and by whom. Once the product is launched, and all parties celebrate, a Project Manager steps back while the Product Manager prepares for the next iteration. 

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