Product Manager Vs Project Manager: What is the difference between them

It has been said that “A Project Manager is like a midwife – s/he delivers the baby, hands it over to the mother and moves on. The baby being the product and the mother being the Product Manager.”

Translating that analogy to business speak, it does sound like the project manager is a facilitator, while the product manager enjoys ownership. The difference between the product manager and the project manager will however percolate into every activity they handle, every role they take on and each responsibility that they shoulder. Let us take a closer look by understanding what they each stand for.

What is Product Manager

First, let us define a product. A product is anything made at a cost, to be offered for a price to users–it may be a physical good, a service or a software solution.

Which brings us to the product manager definition: A product manager is one who conceives the idea of a product and brings it to fruition. Product management involves gathering information about product requirements, development process and testing stages.  A product manager, like a mother, conceives and labours over the product to bring it to market, and further supports it till it becomes obsolete.

A product manager owns strategy, releases, ideation, features, go-to-market, organizational training and profit and loss. So naturally, s/he concentrates on the goal of building and managing the product. The questions uppermost in a product manager’s mind would be

“What problem does this solve? What are we building? What are the benefits?”

So as any product management course will tell you, it is all about:

  • Value delivery – what to build that the market will value
  • Priorities – what to build first (when) and what should not be built at all (what)
  • Iterative approach – timing incremental releases (when)
  • Focusing resources on the biggest impact on the business

What is Project Manager

Now let us define a project. A project is a plan with a series of activities that has a defined outcome and a fixed start and end date. The project is completed when that outcome is accomplished.

With that in mind, the project manager definition that follows is: A project manager is one who works to align resources, manage issues and risks, and coordinates with all the stake-holders to complete a project. Project management involves setting a timeline based on potential constraints related to resources, risks and scope. A project manager, like a midwife, sees the mother and baby through the gestation period, until birth.

A project manager is in charge of budget, delivery, resources, capacity, cross-functional team organization, problem resolution and status updates. S/he is focused on completing the project, and is not overly concerned with specific product goals.The answers a project manager seeks are: “What are the resources required? Who will do what ? When will the project be delivered?

In effect, project management is about:

  •  Maximizing resource utilization (how & who)
  • Order taking
  •  Delivering on-time and on-budget (how & when)
  •  Managing the details of complex projects

 Difference between Product Manager and Project Manager

It may be necessary to also take a look at the roles and responsibilities of a project manager and the roles and responsibilities of a product manager to understand the difference between product manager and project manager.

It is really important to slice the topic into finer layers, else you will not understand the nuances because both the product manager and project manager work towards ensuring the success of a product. 

Roles and Responsibilities of Product Manager

One of the key product manager roles is to define a product vision, strategy and roadmap. Following this is the most predominant of product manager responsibilities: delivering a differentiated product to market that addresses a market need and represents a viable business opportunity. Out of this responsibility, emanates another important role.That of ensuring the product supports the company’s overall strategy and goals.

A good product manager will therefore investigate the market and probe all aspects of a customer’s needs. After gathering the information, a crucial element of product manager responsibilities  is to prioritize and manage it in such a manner that a customer’s needs are fulfilled. To do this, s/he has to embrace another of a dozen product manager roles – as an advocate of customer/buyer or user needs.

After the ideation, the product life cycle includes development, introduction, growth, maturity, saturation and decline. There are very specific product manager responsibilities spelt out for each phase. Different development methodologies are taught in product management training courses. Depending on which methodology the company is following, each phase may be further divided into stages. 

For instance, in the agile methodology, the strategy phase includes 

  • Conceiving stage (discover opportunities, validate product market fit, develop preliminary documents) and the 
  • Plan stage  (create roadmap and strategy, complete business plans and deliver documents).

During the execution phase, there are stages called Develop, Qualify, Launch, Maximize and Retire.

In the ‘develop’ stage, product manager responsibilities include developing plans including beta plans and features list. The ‘qualify’ stage has many product manager roles weaved in. S/he has to run the beta test, complete a launch plan and conduct ‘test’ messaging and positioning.

In the next three stages of ‘Launch-Maximize-Retire,’ the product manager roles and product manager responsibilities expand to releasing the product, gathering the feedback, monitoring marketing activities, supporting sales, preparing an end of life plan and doing a post-mortem.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Project Manager

There are many project manager roles one has to perform when managing a project through its five stages: initiation,planning, execution, monitoring and closure. Also called the project lifecycle, these five phases include many project manager responsibilities. Let us take a look at them.

During the initiation phase, a project manager has to develop a project charter. It is a short document that describes the entire project. It lists the objectives, how it will be accomplished and who the stakeholders are. This stage is the starting point for myriad project manager roles –here the role is that of a change agent who has to perform one of the main project manager responsibilities: identification and management of stakeholders.

Next is the planning phase. Preparing a detailed blueprint to execute the project is the foremost of project manager responsibilities. It should comprise the scope of the project, resources required, anticipated time period, financial outlay, strategy for communication among relevant stakeholders, plan for execution including procurement policy and risk mitigation, and a proposal for maintenance and follow-up.

During the execution, monitoring and closure phases of the project, many project manager roles come into play such as:

  •  Leader
  •  Communicator, 
  •  Supervisor
  • Time Manager
  • Budget Allocator
  • Trouble-shooter
  •  Quality Controller 
  • Documentation analyst and 
  • Maintenance Officer.

Product Manager Skills
Any certification course will teach the theoretical stuff, but only a good MBA in product management  will equip you with industry-relevant product manager skills.

A good product manager will need a mix of strategic, managerial, analytical, marketing and  interpersonal skills. Each of these categories need a blend of hard and soft skills. For example, product management skills alone include: product strategy, feature definition, visual representation, financial analysis, functionality, documentation; but technical expertise alone will not suffice, you need to have a knack for attention to detail, critical thinking, prioritization,time management and ability to work independently too.

Strategic product manager skills are data driven while strategic thinking is also needed to define the product roadmap, to manage costs and to mitigate risks. Without inductive and deductive reasoning skills, it is not possible to do beta testing, SWOT analysis, data and statistical analysis.

A product manager cannot sit back and let customer satisfaction happen through the marketing and sales teams. Knowing how to interpret industry trends and understanding KPIs like customer acquisition costs and net promoter score, translating customer feedback into product modifications, developing pricing frameworks are all mandatory product manager skills.

Add to this growing list, basic business skills, presentation skills, decent understanding of UX, time management, delegation tactics, story-telling prowess, listening skills, ability to hold meetings and so on. Indeed, there simply is no end to product manager skills required, as each product is unique.

Project Manager Skills

 As a project manager needs to act at different levels, they need proven knowledge, experience and personality skills. Project manager skills include general management skills like:

  •  Leadership
  •  Vision
  •  Conflict Resolution
  •  Decision-making
  •  Negotiation
  •  Team-building and 
  • Communication. 

Knowing how to use project management tools and techniques is an added advantage. Fundamentals of project management together with organizational savvy are also must-have project manager skills.

Project managers with experience in managing inter-dependencies, ability to identify and cater to requirements and capable of achieving milestones within timelines may be considered really skilled at project management.

In addition, project manager skills include personality characteristics like:

  •  Aptitude
  •  Confidence
  •  Common sense
  •  Open-mindedness
  • Creativity and 
  • Trustworthiness.

 Those with people management skills including the power to influence others, to build and manage interpersonal skills, command respect and listening skills with a sense of fairness will definitely succeed as project managers.

Project Manager vs Product Manager: Key Points that Differentiate

        Project Manager

        Product Manager

Execution of tasks and activities to complete a project

Vision and mission with the goal to create a product

Delivery of project within set period of time

Managing lifecycle of product and continuous development for future

Goal-oriented, evidence-based decision-making approach

Strategy-based empathetic voice of the customer approach

Creates project plan, timelines & budget

Creates product ideas, user cases & personas

Focus on company resources, stakeholder interests, efficiency

Focus on business case, roadmap and go-to-market strategy

Ensures cross-functional optimization & interaction through group discussions

Holds meetings to monitor marketing, support sales, train content

Risk analysis, quality & procurement

Competitor analysis, pricing & testing

Moves on to next project after end of project evaluation

Stays through product life cycle, works with another project team if required

Overlap Between Project Manager and Product Manager

There definitely is an overlap of technical, managerial and analytical skills of a project manager and a product manager –in fact the roles and responsibilities may even converge at some points during the project or product lifecycle.

More so because most projects are linked to products. Projects may be undertaken to build a new product from scratch or add new features to an already existing product, or create new versions or extensions of a product. When the project is complete, the project manager usually moves to a new project, which may be related to a different product.

At times, some companies entrust both project and product management to the same person as project and product managers need the same set of skills such as :

  • Domain knowledge
  • Organizational tactics
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Leadership qualities
  • Technology expertise
  • Financial management
  • Time management
  • Risk Management

However the overlap of skills does not mean the overlap of deliverables.The two roles will be at odds with each other with the person wanting to add more features to the product while wearing the product manager hat, and struggling to limit the project scope and costs when s/he takes on the project manager avatar.

One way to reconcile the clash between the two, is to look at the project manager role as:

A defined span of vertical leadership (working closely with the product manager) for a specific length of time (duration of project) with a focus on effectively managing the scope, schedule, and cost of the project.”

While the product manager is one with

 “A fluid horizontal span of leadership (working closely with a series of project managers) over (various aspects of) the entire product lifecycle, responsible for the overall and ongoing success of a product.

The debate about product manager vs project manager will no doubt recur frequently. Though we now know the intrinsic difference between product manager and project manager, let us not  forget that both the roles enhance each other. If both roles are aligned around co-creation of value for the customer, enterprise success will follow.

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