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Product Management vs. Project Management: What’s the Difference?

Product management and project management are important roles in software development, but they are often mistaken for being one and the same. The truth is, however, product management and project management are quite different, yet equally important to the innovation process (whether building a new product or evolving / improving an existing one). 

So what’s the difference between product and project management? In broad strokes, a product manager is responsible for the vision of a specific software product or platform. In contrast, a project manager oversees an entire project and ensures it is completed on time and within budget. The two roles often work together to bring projects across the finish line, but each has its own unique responsibilities and requires equally unique capabilities.

To really understand the differences between a PM (as in Product) versus a PM (as in Project), we first need to delve into the differences between a product and a project. 

Product vs. Project

A product is whatever solution a company is creating for use by its clients, customers, and / or employees. A product can be hardware (like a VR headset or remote medical monitoring device), software (like a mobile or web app), or even a collection of services (like consulting packages).

Products go through what’s known as the product lifecycle, which involves strategic planning, design, development, introduction to the market (aka product launch), updates, and, eventually, retirement.

Alternatively, a project is a one-time, budget- and timeline-focused effort within a company. An example of a project would be launching a new product to market. This project would involve: 

  • Understanding the steps involved to take a product to market,
  • Outlining a timeline for these steps to be completed, 
  • Executing and monitoring these steps as they’re carried out, and 
  • Reporting on the final results of the project once the product is launched.

Once the final goal of a project is completed, the project is closed, and new projects are created for new initiatives within the company.

Both products and projects have managers that oversee their creation and execution, each utilizing a unique set of skills to help the overall business reach its goals.

What is a Product Manager?

Now that we understand what a product is, let’s look at the role of product manager, and the important part product managers play in the product life cycle.

The product manager is typically a person with some level of expertise in the type of product being created. For example, at Revelry, our product managers have deep understanding of the software development process. Their greatest value is in their ability to see the “big picture” – how to successfully create and launch the right product to solve the right business problem.

In software development, product managers work closely with a team of front-end developers (aka UI / UX designers) and back-end engineers to build the best product to support the organization’s strategic goals.

Typical Responsibilities of a Product Manager

Since a product manager oversees the creation of new products, their typical duties relate to establishing a successful product strategy. These include:

  • Market and user research
  • Developing the product vision
  • Creating a product roadmap
  • Developing new features
  • Managing the development team

Ultimately, the product manager ensures the product team creates a minimum viable product (MVP) that can successfully enter the market.

What is a Project Manager?

While product managers focus on building great products, project managers take on a broader role of supervising various projects that crop up as a business grows. First, they have to understand the vision for a project (for example, a new product launch) and then break that vision down into the many steps necessary to complete it successfully.

Project managers don’t necessarily need specific expertise in the technical aspects of the projects they oversee, but they do need to be able to communicate with the technologists working on the project to understand the specific requirements.

Typical Responsibilities of a Project Manager

Project managers are all about goals and resource management. Their typical duties revolve around continually assessing the health and productivity of a project and determining how to best allocate resources to ensure it is completed. These duties include:

  • Determining the project scope
  • Planning KPIs
  • Resource allocation and scheduling / management
  • Risk and issue management

Project managers are there to support and enable the technicians on a project to do their best work and act as the “eyes on the project” for company leadership / management, so they can understand unexpected challenges, opportunities, etc.

Can One Person Be Both Product Manager and Project Manager?

Yes, one person can fulfill both roles, but only if the environment (process + tools) supports it and the designated individual has the broad capabilities required to both product and project manage. Otherwise, it’s best if the two roles remain separate and the leaders work side by side, understanding their responsibilities will occasionally overlap. In determining the needs of your situation, ask and honestly answer these questions: 

  1. Can a single professional successfully remain focused on the product being built and the user problems that need to be solved AND simultaneously prioritize internal needs specific to timeline and resources?
  2. Is there deep organizational understanding that a “push and pull” dynamic must exist between the two roles (even if they’re assumed by a single person)? Combining product management and project management can make balancing this dynamic especially challenging. If one set of priorities is allowed to outweigh the other, severe inefficiency and bottlenecks may result.

What to Look for When Hiring a Product Manager

If you’re looking to bring an experienced and proven product manager onto your team, you’ll want them to have a good balance of hard and soft skills related to getting a product to market. These include:

  • Excellent problem-solving abilities. A product manager’s first and foremost job is to solve problems, both internally and externally. Great products solve pressing user problems, and knowing how to solve those problems falls on the product manager and his or her team. Beyond the user, creating a product is always full of pitfalls and roadblocks, so a great product manager will know how to skillfully navigate such problems and develop actionable solutions.
  • Strong communication skills. Product managers must be able to communicate with their team and various stakeholders about the product, its goals, and the progress of development. They need to be as comfortable communicating with the c-suite as they are communicating with an engineer.
  • Leadership experience. Product managers are tasked with successfully guiding and inspiring product teams, so leadership experience is critical.
  • Technical skills. Product managers aren’t developers, so they don’t need a four-page technical resume demonstrating their ability to build a piece of software or hardware with their bare hands. However, some technical experience can be beneficial when it comes to envisioning new product solutions and communicating with developers throughout the building process.

What to Look for When Hiring a Project Manager

If you’re looking to bring on a project manager, you want to find someone with a passion for keeping things moving. The best project managers have a combination of:

  • Organizational skills. Project managers must have exceptional organizational skills. From resource scheduling to budget management, they need to be task masters, ensuring the projects they oversee stay organized and forward-moving.
  • Leadership experience. Project managers, like product managers, need to be able to effectively lead large and small teams. Much of project management is working in collaboration with various stakeholders, and effectively communicating the goals of a project and leading people to complete them is vital.
  • Risk management expertise. Project managers are constantly assessing risk. There are inevitable costs, slowdowns, and other negative factors that impact the success of a project, and project managers must be able to continually assess these risks against the desired outcome.

When you hire the right people as your product manager and project manager, and they can work in harmony with each other, it’s a productivity dream team.

Not sure where to start on your product development journey? We can help. Let’s connect.

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