Product Manager vs. Project Manager

Product vs. Project Manager

Quite frequently, I’ll be at some social event answering some question about what I do to a stranger who then proceeds to ask “So what do you do as a project manager?”

Rather than go through the nuances of the differences between a product & project manager, I usually move on into describing the responsibilities of a product manager. However, I’ve realized that the very nature of how similar the titles sound can lead to some confusion as to what the true differences are between the two jobs.

To simplify, I think Ian McAllister on Quora answered this question very efficiently:

To clarify further, let’s first breakdown the difference between a project and a product.

A project is a temporary undertaking to create a new product or service that has a defined result with a set start and end date. A product has a lifecycle and is developed and introduced to a market to satisfy user needs.

Project managers are responsible for internal completion and delivery of one project at a time. Within projects, project managers are organizing and prioritizing the tasks that need to be completed within the team. Project managers will make sure that everything is coordinated by focusing on risk/issue management (minimizing any risks of completing the project), resource management (managing task lists, infrastructure, reporting, etc..), and scope management (limiting the project undertaking through time, cost, quality constraints). When the individual project is successfully shipped, the project manager then moves forward with a new project.

Meanwhile, product managers can’t simply pick up and leave after the product gets shipped. While project managers may move on to new projects once the existing project has been completed, the product manager stays on board. The product manager will continue the day-to-day activities of gathering/prioritizing customer requirements, managing product strategy, and working with the cross-functional teams to make sure the team is shipping the right features and hitting business goals.

While the roles are different, there are skill overlaps that often occur (both roles require a great deal of leadership, time management, and interpersonal capabilities) and its not uncommon for product managers to take over project management functions / responsibilities in smaller companies (and vice versa).

However, in certain situations, its advisable to have both a distinct product and project manager. For example, if a product manager is focusing on external needs like understanding customer needs, then there isn’t time to go chase down people to complete certain tasks or manage all the deadlines to make sure a product gets shipped in time.

Now more than ever, many software products have shifted towards frequent smaller releases (vs. the traditional one-time software ship model) and each of these releases requires significant coordination around items like release management, engineering, operations, and customer service. With these new frequent release cycles, many companies require very strong project management processes and releases will be delayed if the product and project management roles aren’t de-coupled.


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