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Project Management vs Product Management

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With businesses getting increasingly competitive, steady and sustainable planning and management is needed to guide business strategies and set you up for success. Project management and product management are critical to this business strategy. These two vital roles are often confused, and while they might sound the same, there are some key differences between them.  

In this blog, you’ll learn how project management and product management are two sides of the same coin, how they are complementary and how they differ. Which role is right for you? Find out!

Defining Product Management and Project Management

Let’s first start by defining the terms product and project. A product could refer to a physical product, like a new version of an Apple phone, or a software application, such as a CRM tool, or even a service offered to a group of customers. A project, on the other hand, is the effort involved, from start to finish, to create the product. 

Product management, therefore, is the function that is responsible for managing the product lifecycle—from the initial conceptualization, through the stages of its development and until it is introduced in the market, grows in acceptance and is eventually retired. There is no fixed timeline as it will be based on the success of the product in the market. A product manager makes sure that a great product is built, and that it meets the expectations of customers and the needs of the market.

Project management is the function that is involved with the actual creation and execution of the product or service. It has a fixed timeline and is a one-time endeavour as it is completed when the project is closed, and the product is delivered to the customer. The lifecycle of the project goes through five stages—the initiation, planning, execution, tracking and controlling, and closure. A project manager oversees the project from start to finish, ensuring that all the goals are met.Project Management Life Cycle

The Role of Product Manager Vs. Project Manager

Let’s now see what makes the role of a product owner different from the role of a project manager. 

A Product Manager owns the product from start to finish. They create and maintain the product vision, and act as the liaison between the stakeholders, users and the development team. They will understand the stakeholder requirements, translate them into design goals and coordinate with the team to see that the development is aligned with these goals. Quite often, the product manager is called the CEO of the product—probably because this role entails in-depth product knowledge as well as sound business sense. 

The Project Manager understands the product vision and goals that are laid out by the product manager, creates schedules and plans, and manages the execution of the tasks that are required to achieve the goals. They take care of the nitty gritty of the budget, time and quality, and ensure successful completion of the project. The project manager can be compared to the captain of the ship, steering the project in the right direction. 

To help make the distinction between the two roles very clear, imagine that you are a product manager. You might be able to answer questions like: 

  • What is the product brief? 
  • Who are the end users? 
  • What are the problems we are trying to address? 
  • How will the product look and feel? 
  • What does the competition look like, and how can you ensure that this product scores over the others in the market? 

And these are some of the questions that might land up on your plate if you’re a project manager: 

  • How much time do we have to complete the project? 
  • What is the budget? 
  • How can I manage the timelines? 
  • Is the team delivering on the promised quality? 
  • How can I optimize resource allocation? 

Here are some of the differences between the two roles, laid out in the form of a table: 

Product Manager’s Role Project Manager’s Role
Role description
Strategic and requires product knowledge Tactical and requires planning skills
Product vision
Owns the vision Follows the vision
Product goals
Owns the goals Achieves the goals
Interactions
Interacts with stakeholders and project manager Interacts with product manager and teams
Deals with
The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the product The ‘how’ and the ‘when’ of the project
Timeframe
Will focus on the product even after delivery, trying to maximize its marketability and improve sales. The job of the project manager ends when the product is delivered. They are not required to be a part of the marketing and launch.
Skillset
Must be good at market research, strategic thinking and business-savvy Must be good at planning, budgeting, organizing and time management.

Responsibilities of Product Managers Vs Project Managers

Along with the difference in the two roles, comes the differences in the responsibilities as well. Essentially, the product manager has external responsibilities; those of dealing with stakeholders, management and end users, and understanding the technical aspects of the product. The project managers have internal responsibilities, which involve issues that have to do with functionalities, planning and execution, and they look inward toward the development team. 

The responsibilities of a product manager might involve (among others):  

  • Understanding the product and doing some market research 
  • Gathering the user requirements and collating them 
  • Working on a business analysis, and identifying risks and opportunities 
  • Defining the product features that can maximize value 
  • Technical trouble-shooting 
  • Chalking out the product roadmap 
  • Managing tasks and deciding the priority 
  • Strategizing product launches to gain competitive advantage 
  • Retiring the product when it is no longer viable 

New Product

The responsibilities of a project manager are quite different, and could be along these lines: 

  • Planning doable timelines, based on the development team’s capabilities 
  • Identifying potential risks and mitigating them 
  • Managing any issues that arise during development 
  • Planning tasks 
  • Ironing out any conflicts or roadblocks to progress 
  • Allocating the right resources to the right tasks 
  • Daily management of task lists, materials, schedules, finances and so on 
  • Managing the project scope by balancing timelines, budgets and quality 

Project Management

Is There Any Overlap Between Product and Project Managers?

There is certainly quite a bit of overlap between the two roles of Product Manager and Project Manager. Both roles have the product in focus, and work to maximize product value, enhance customer satisfaction and deliver quality products on time and within budget. They are both required to be excellent communicators and should have great organizational skills and leadership capabilities. For both roles, experience and the right training are very important. 

However, product managers drive product development, while project managers drive project execution. There are certainly instances, usually in smaller companies, where one person could wear both hats. This does not always work out well, however, and there could be several issues that could arise as a result. 

These issues could include the following: 

  • As we have seen, product managers have more focus on the product itself, and not on the process of creating it—which comes under the purview of the project manager. If one person plays both roles, either of the two responsibilities will suffer as a result. 
  • Product managers usually take part in many external activities, such as attending trade fairs to keep an eye on the competition, interacting with stakeholders and so on. If they spend all their time in looking after the daily work, these activities will languish. 
  • Project managers might not have sufficient knowledge about the product itself and may not be able to define and prioritize the features adequately, as they will not have sufficient knowledge about the market. Whereas, for the product manager, it’s all about the product, and their primary work revolves around product strategy, product vision, product goals and maximizing product value. 
  • Product managers, when tasked with managing the project, might not have adequate expertise in balancing and juggling scope, quality, financial outlays and time schedules. 

When one person is weighed down with too many responsibilities, it’s a given that something will have to fall short. Quite often, and understandably so, quality is what gives way first. 

As projects grow increasingly complex, having a product manager focus on the strategy, while the project manager takes care of the tactical aspects will lead to more successful outcomes. 

Wrapping Up: Final Thoughts  

As we have seen, the two roles are complementary, and both are equally important for successful outcomes. If you’re trying to decide on which role might suit you best, take a look at your skill sets, understand the responsibilities that come with each role and then make your decision! Rest assured, both roles will continue to be in demand in the foreseeable future, and either way you can’t really go wrong!  

To equip yourself with industry best practices and start your career on the right foot, explore these sought-after project management certifications. 

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