Back to Basics: What is The Difference Between Product Manager vs Project Manager?

While the roles of product manager and project manager can sometimes overlap, many people mistakenly assume that these two very distinct roles can be performed by just one person. However, taking on both roles for a project leads to lower success and higher burnout. Here’s why it’s best to keep the roles of project manager and product manager separate.

In the year 2001, I was working for a software services company. We had won a new project from a prominent US Bank to develop software that would maintain a record of investigations related to financial frauds.

I was assigned as a project manager to lead and deliver the project, which took us about five months to complete.

Just after completing the project, our company’s senior management decided to productize the financial fraud software. They believed that if one financial institution has a need for financial fraud investigations software, others too would have similar requirements.

Since I had already managed and successfully completed the project, senior management thought I was best equipped to lead the new product development endeavor – and that’s how my first software product was born.

Since we had already delivered the software, I thought productizing it would be a cakewalk.

Oh! How wrong I was. I had to wear two hats to complete the new work – project manager and product manager. I quickly realized it was not an easy task.

Let’s understand the difference between the roles of product manager and project manager.

Defining Product vs. Project

First, let’s explore the differences between products and projects.

A product is an output of a process or a series of activities. It can be tangible, like a building, software, or machinery that can be used, felt or seen. A product could also be intangible, like public perception or culture change.

A project involves completing the work needed for creating a new product. Successful completion of a project culminates in product delivery. A project is a temporary endeavor that has definite start and end dates. It involves risk and is typically constrained by limited resources.

A product is tangible, useful, and serves a purpose. Product development starts with “why” (purpose and benefits) and “what” (features).

A project is the work necessary to create the product. It defines the “what,” “when,” “how,” “where,” and “who” of the work that needs to be done.

Essentially, a product meets the need of a customer or end user, whereas a project is initiated to create a product. A product may evolve continuously over many years or even decades, but a project has a definite beginning and end.

The Role of Product Manager

Product managers provide overall direction and strategy to build a product. They are the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) for their product. They control the big picture.

Product managers decide and control the roadmap, versions, features, market releases, and overall direction of the product. They stay with the product until it is taken off the market.

Product managers act as user champions and are responsible for identifying and prioritizing user needs. They interface with the project manager and development team to incorporate these needs into the finished product.

Product managers also own the responsibility for a product’s profit or loss. They work closely with other functions like sales, marketing, and customer support to achieve business goals and revenue targets.

Some of the main responsibilities of a product manager are:

  1. Define the product vision.
  2. Perform market research and feasibility studies.
  3. Identify market opportunities and create a product roadmap.
  4. Plan product finances.
  5. Identify, understand, and document user requirements.
  6. Plan product launches for the market.
  7. Determine product pricing and take care of profit & loss.
  8. Prioritize development tasks and decide which ones are important.
  9. Satisfy customers and end users.

The Role of Project Manager

Project managers closely work with product managers to understand the product vision, goals, and roadmap. They are responsible for converting strategic goals into concrete project tasks.

Project managers are delivery oriented. They focus on the tactical execution of project tasks. They plan project tasks to fit within the timeline decided by the product manager.

Project managers plan, execute, and monitor & control project tasks. Their primary responsibility is to complete the project scope within the defined time and budget.

Project managers manage and work closely with the project team members. They encourage team collaboration and ensure that the project team stays focused on project goals.

Project managers also communicate, collaborate, and engage with the stakeholders. They keep them informed about the project’s progress and seek periodic feedback on deliverables.

Project managers may gather user requirements, but gathering requirements is not their primary responsibility. Even if they do, they may not be able to prioritize them.

Some of the main responsibilities of a project manager are:

  1. Ensure project goals and timelines are met.
  2. Organize the project team and assign them project tasks.
  3. Plan, execute, and track project tasks.
  4. Manage project risks and issues.
  5. Manage project changes and ensure only approved changes are incorporated into the product.
  6. Coordinate with the product manager for product releases.
  7. Communicate with the product manager and other stakeholders to give them regular status updates.
  8. Periodically monitor a project from beginning to end and resolve issues when they occur.
  9. Ensure that a project stays within its defined budget.

Product Manager vs. Project Manager

Here’s a simple comparison chart to clarify the roles of product and project managers.

Comparison chart of roles, focus and success between product managers and project managers.
Comparison chart of roles, focus and success between product managers and project managers.

Conclusion

Even though the roles of product manager and project manager overlap with each other, they are completely different. These roles should not be mixed, or it could jeopardize project success and lead to burnout. It takes two different people with complementary skills to fill these roles.

The people in these positions should focus on their individual jobs and not be expected to perform each other’s roles. A product manager should focus on product vision, product roadmap, and product strategy, whereas a product manager should focus on meeting the project goals and keeping the project within the agreed-upon timeline and budget.

Does your company have different positions for product and project managers? Have you been asked to perform both roles at once, and what was your experience? Which role do you think is more challenging? Which one is your career goal? I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Related Articles:

Back to Basics: What is the Role of a Project Manager?

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Written by Praveen Malik
Praveen Malik, PMP, has two-plus decades of experience as a project management instructor and consultant. He regularly conducts project management workshops in India and abroad and shares his project management thinking in his blog, PM by PM.
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    As usual – a great article – Ron

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