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Project vs Product Manager: What’s the Difference and Why it Matters

Project vs Product Manager: What’s the Difference and Why it Matters

In the past, the concept of product management and project management, or rather, that there is even a distinction between the two, was known only to those in the manufacturing industries.

That is no longer the case.

With the world of IT development having developed so far so fast, these terms have now become basic vocabulary in practically all well-organized companies. In this blog, we will be defining the two terms by what it is that makes them so different, specifically where they do and do not overlap.  This is a very important step, as my experience has taught me that the companies which don’t draw clear lines between the two end up experiencing bigger bottlenecks, even than those which don’t even have these positions at all.

I have consulted companies that all had great teams, yet all faced the same problem: unfinished projects.  After careful analysis of their operations and issues, the conclusion I came to was always the same, to draw clear lines between project management and product management, and in each case, we were able to not only solve the missed deadlines issue, but also establish an efficient workflow to tackle the other piled up projects and prevent the same problems from arising again.

Now, it’s important to remember that the main thing separating a Product Manager from a Project Manager is not their spelling.  While the specific duties of each can be argued over, as well as how many or how often they can be transferred from one role to another, the biggest difference is in fact the roles themselves.

Product manager vs project manager

A Product Manager oversees the entire operation, focusing on the product as a whole, while a Project Manager heads specific efforts to bring the product to completion.  A Product Manager has to see to it that the product will meet customer needs and fulfill financial goals, a Project Manager is tasked with ensuring that proper timetables are upheld and that the development team is running smoothly.

With that in mind, let us focus on the two most common issues I’ve faced:

1-Product Manager and Project Manager is the same person

Now, this can work, but only if the company and the projects it works on are small. For example, if the company handles only about, say, two small projects per month, then I see no conflict here.  Merging the roles is a natural way to make the most of the company’s limited staff and resources, to do otherwise could end up being wasteful.

However, it is by no means a desirable state to be in.

Once the company starts to grow and take on more complex projects, it must in turn take on more staff to handle them, spreading out the responsibilities accordingly.  If the company doesn’t have the means or numbers to do so, then it will never be able to handle taking on two or more complex projects at a time, since one person simply cannot fulfill both roles under those circumstances. Tasking an individual with keeping ongoing communication with product owners while also prioritizing the projects and then assigning them to the team is just too big of a job.

2-Product Managers who don’t understand their boundaries and distract their team directly without communicating to the project manager

Now, why do I say distracting?

It’s because product management may often be the greatest ally developers can have, but there is still some definite tension between the two.  Product management typically wants the best product possible, which in their eyes means having as many features as possible.  On the other hand, developers and designers don’t enjoy being forced to meet unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished in a single product release.

This is where the project manager steps in.

A good Project Manager acts as a sort of middle man, negotiating between the product management, their stakeholders, and the product-development team, fielding their unique concerns and refining them into a broad solution, often in the form of setting requirements for a given product release or a roadmap of releases that is both reasonable and ideal for all involved.

Think of it like packing your bag for a vacation.  The Product Manager would tell you to pack your sandals, your sneakers, and even your dress shoes because hey, they want you to be ready for anything and able to face whatever challenges may arise as best you can.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s always good to be prepared after all but it’s better to know what you should be preparing for, otherwise you’re just wasting time and effort that could be put to better use.

That’s why the Project Manager must mediate with the Product Manager, and the two must decide on exactly what the main activity of the vacation is going to be.  That way, the Project Manager can prioritize what shoes would be best, and convince the Product Manager that maybe bringing those fancy new dress shoes to a sandy beach really won’t be necessary. 

It’s when the Product Manager does not allow the Project Manager to do their job, either by ignoring their input or limiting how much they’re allowed to intervene, that the Product Manager may end up overwhelming the development team.  One domino always knocks over another, and if the development team is overwhelmed or distracted from their priorities, deadlines are missed and projects pile up one after another, burying everyone underneath them together.

It’s not a pleasant thought, it’s an even less pleasant situation to be in, I should know, I’ve been involved with resolving quite a few.

In one particular case, when the company brought me in, I collected as much feedback from the development team as I could, and discovered that the feature requests and the project requirements actually came from the product manager downright sporadically.  Many of them were unplanned, unexpected, and worst of all, without the project manager’s involvement or, in many cases, awareness.

As you can imagine, and as I was forced to explain, the constantly inconsistent deadlines and rearranging of priorities resulted in unstable schedules and unacceptable end products.  With the right amount of cooperation and delegation, with a clear understanding of who takes care of what departments, and with Product Managers trusting their Project Managers, these sorts of issues can be avoided all together.


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