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Product Manager vs. Project Manager: How the Roles Differ

 

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Here’s my swing at the product manager vs. project manager conundrum.

I’ve managed in the digital space long enough to recognize the lack of understanding—or time to care—for what a Product Manager does and what a Project Manager does, and the difference between Product manager and Project manager roles.

Typically, the conversation goes something like this:

“Jennifer will be your Product Manager.”

“Oh, you mean the Project Manager?”

“No, the Product Manager. She will be responsible for the value and success of your prod—”

“Eh, same thing. As long as we stay on time and under budget!”

Product Manager GIF

Or maybe you’ve heard something like this:

“Why do I need to hire a Project Manager when George is already our Product Manager? He can be both!”

Happy family Screenshot

How about this:

“My title is Product Manager…it’s pretty much a Project Manager…but I also have Product Owner on my business card because we do Scrum.”

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It makes sense that ambiguity exists here (the titles differ by only four letters!?), but the difference is important enough to acknowledge and put into practice.

Product Manager vs. Project Manager: The Basics

Let’s start with the basics.

Products vs Projects

What is a product?
What is a project?
A product is something created to be sold or leveraged as a solution to satisfy end user needs or customer needs.A project is something with a start and finish in which a defined task or set of tasks is completed.
A product may grow and evolve continuously.A project has a defined beginning and end.
A product is the “WHAT” with a “WHY”.A project is the “HOW”, “WHEN”, “WHERE”, and “WHO”.

Does this help turn the gears a little? Good, we’re just getting started.

Product Manager vs Project Manager

What is a Product Manager?
What is a Project Manager?
A Product Manager is someone who is responsible for the quality of a product and creating a successful product for the user market that ensures customer satisfaction.A Project Manager is someone who is responsible for a successful project from start to finish as it relates to scope, budget, and project timeline.
What do Product Managers do?
What do Project Managers do?*
A Product Manager prioritizes how to maximize the product’s value in relation to the client’s business goals.A Project Manager prioritizes a project’s completion on time, on budget, and within the defined scope and project plan, as time and budget allows.
A Product Manager manages the prioritization of product requirements throughout the development process, as it relates to the product vision and client’s business goals.A Project Manager manages the project team and task lists, their execution of deliverables within the defined scope, the timeline within which the scope must be completed, and the budget allocated for the project.

*Here’s an article where you can find more on the project manager job description.

A Product Manager should not be the Project Manager because they are focused on the product vision, product roadmap, product strategy, product requirements and goals, the success of a new product as it exists, and the product’s continued growth.

A Project Manager should not be the Product Manager, because they must remain balanced in managing the agreed-upon constraints of scope, timeline, and budget.

The Project Manager cannot afford to always prioritize the product over all other elements of that Iron Triangle, or they risk jeopardizing the success of the project (e.g. scope creep leading to development team burnout).

In summary, these two roles are impossible to combine because:

  1. Conflicting priorities exist
  2. No one human has the capacity to tackle all of these responsibilities (no, not even you)

If you have one individual, they can only fulfill one of the roles.

If you’re going to fulfill both roles, it takes two individuals with differing but complementary skill sets.

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Product Manager Certifications vs Project Manager Certifications

There are various certifications out there specific to either product management or project management.

These project management certifications cover the skills and technical knowledge needed for the project management side of things.

These product manager certifications cover the skills and procedures for planning, developing, and managing products. The product manager career path is distinct from the project manager career path, so make sure you choose the certifications specific to your desired career path and the role you will play on product or project teams.

Keep in mind that you’ll need different skills for project management vs product management.

Similarities between Product Management and Project Management

Now that I’ve preached why these roles are so different, let’s look at how they’re similar.

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Both the Product Manager and the Project Manager may impact the scope, timeline, and budget.

Let’s read that again, but slower:

Both the Product Manager and the Project Manager may IMPACT (not manage) the scope, timeline, and budget.

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So, who has the final say?

Let’s consider an example where both a Product Manager and a Project Manager work together on a project. The Product Manager comes to the table with a scope in mind that will benefit their product.

The Project Manager comes to the table with a project scope in mind based on what is defined within a statement of work (SOW).

Product Manager:

“Feature ABC is priority one because it will increase our user engagement and drive sales. Functionality XYZ is priority two because it is applicable to fewer users, but will still benefit the business goal.”

Project Manager:

“Feature ABC fits within our budget and can be completed by the deadline, but Functionality XYZ will require more budget and will extend the timeline. We do, however, have a simplified solution for Feature ABC which would allow the time and budget for both priorities.”

In this example, the Project Manager is managing scope, timeline, and budget while providing the Product Manager an opportunity to impact scope, timeline, and budget based on the options put forth.

At this point, the Product Manager may:

  1. choose to prioritize the original Feature ABC, which would in turn backlog Functionality XYZ
  2. choose to work with the client to increase the budget and adjust timeline to allow both Feature ABC and Functionality XYZ to be executed
  3. choose to prioritize the simplified version of Feature ABC to allow Functionality XYZ to fit within the existing timeline and budget

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As it relates to scope, the Product Manager is focused on the value these features bring to the product and how that will benefit the product vision. Their prioritization of product requirements impacts the scope of the project.

As it relates to scope, the Project Manager is focused on managing the scope of those features to fit within the budget allocated and timeline determined. If the scope must change, then the Project Manager is focused on managing an increased budget or new timeline.

Why It’s Hard Having Both Roles On The Same Team

When a project does not have a Product Manager, the Project Manager typically interfaces directly with the client.

Without a Product Manager, the Product Manager responsibilities essentially fall on the client stakeholder.

Generally, your team’s project isn’t your client stakeholder’s full time job. In fact, it’s likely your project takes up a fraction of your client stakeholder’s day.

Typically, the client stakeholder will provide insight throughout the product lifecycle, during the discovery phase, approvals during the design and documentation phase, testing during the UAT phase, and final blessing before release. Ultimately, the client stakeholder does not prioritize the project’s product as a Product Manager would.

So when a project does have a Product Manager who is fully dedicated to maximizing the value of their product, the Project Manager can expect a lot more than deliverable reviews and sprinkled in sign offs.

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If a Product Manager is doing their job well, they are continuously gathering product and client requirements and further defining the product needs in order to maximize the value output.

This means they are going to stay connected to the Project Manager to ensure current scope is being executed within budget and on time. They’ll also be challenging the Project Manager and project team to do whatever they can to pump in as much quality as possible in as little quantity as possible (in other words: more bang for the buck).

If the Project Manager is doing their job well, they are listening and hearing out what the Product Manager has to say. They will truly consider the options available to produce the best quality work while managing budget, timeline, and product team members accordingly.

Communication between the two roles is key here.

The Product Manager must voice their needs and prioritize work clearly based on their understanding of the client’s business goals. The Project Manager must understand these needs and priorities and manage the project accordingly with the best interest of both teams in mind.

If requirements are not sufficiently defined or understood, the project team will be less clear on the task at hand.

If work is reprioritized often or unclearly, the project team loses focus and efficiency to execute.

The Product Manager and Project Manager must be in sync on these fronts for project completion to be successful.

Teamwork GIF

It’s best when it isn’t product manager vs project manager, but instead there’s teamwork like in this gif.

Benefits Of Having Both Roles On The Same Team

When you have both a Product Manager and Project Manager on the same team, the client has the peace of mind that there is a dedicated individual whose top priority is the quality of their product as well as a separate dedicated individual whose top priority is their project being executed within scope, on time, and on budget.

The client can trust that the Product Manager will be the product champion while the Project Manager will be the project champion.

Instead of one individual being pulled in two directions (between prioritizing the product and balancing the Iron Triangle), there is a collaboration between two individuals which results in a shared understanding of how work will be executed.

Collaboration

While the collaboration between a Product Manager and Project Manager is not always easy, the potentially challenging dynamic between the two can be a healthy one.

The Product Manager should challenge the Project Manager to consider what is best for the product in relation to the client’s business requirements while the Project Manager should challenge the Product Manager to manage those business goals by prioritizing requirements in a way that adheres to budget and timeline.

If practiced properly and respectively, both roles may coexist and be productive. If practiced improperly or disrespectfully, each role will burn out in its own way and jeopardize the success of both the product and project.

Alignment

If both a Product Manager and Project Manager exist, it is wise for these individuals to have their own recurring meeting—apart from any team meetings—at least once a week to align on project and product development status, prioritization of the backlog, what’s in the pipeline, and complete any necessary problem-solving together.

This ensures the Product Manager has the information they need to validate the progress of work on their product and the value that work will bring.

This also ensures the Project Manager has the information they need to plan team execution of the work and assist with time management, as well as how that impacts budget, timeline, and scope.

Product Manager vs. Project Manager: Who Is Better?

Man Talking Screenshot

To the individual who wonders which role is “better” for them to have: it depends on where your priority is.

From a product perspective…

  • If the product is ever evolving and you need someone to manage that product and optimize its value throughout its life cycle, it’s wise to have a Product Manager.
  • If your product can be built from start to finish within a timeline and has minimal evolution or growth beyond that timeline, then a Project Manager may suffice (though their inherent need to balance timeline, budget, and scope management may not prioritize the product’s growth as much as you’d like).

From a project perspective…

  • If the project is one of many related to one product, it’s wise to have a Project Manager to focus on the execution of that project and manage the Iron Triangle as well as the project team.
  • If the project is one where budget or timeline is not of concern (what planet are you on?), then a Product Manager may suffice (though their priority will sway toward the quality of the product, which tends to result in scope creep, which would have a direct impact on timeline and budget).

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the Product Manager role and Project Manager role are different and equally valuable in their own ways. They may be successful on their own, but they can absolutely coexist and execute projects with valuable results.

While both a Product Manager and Project Manager have the capabilities to impact scope, they may do so with different priorities in mind. The challenge this presents is a healthy one and, if each role is doing their part, growth is inevitable.

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Our friend and supporter:

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Kelly Vega

About Kelly Vega

Kelly is an Executive Producer at Mirum Agency, a global agency of digital savants, storytellers, makers and relentlessly curious minds who are united by an uncommon drive to make what’s next. Kelly has a passion for DPM and specializes in evolving process, delivery, and documentation, with experience in projects ranging from full custom e-commerce builds to digital strategy and custom applications.

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