Product Manager vs Project Manager: 6 Main Differences

Piotr Golianek

Aug 31, 2021 • 16 min read
Product_Manager_vs_Project_Manager

The difference between a product manager and a project manager may not be clear at first glance. Many people confuse these two terms or use them interchangeably.

They might sound the same but product manager and project manager are two entirely distinct and vital roles within an organization. Both roles can be found in a variety of industries and they are vital to the success of a business.

When we look at the key functions of both roles the differences between product management and project management are evident. A side-by-side comparison of the two roles is the best way to clear up any confusion.

In this article we’ll give you an overview of the roles of product manager and project manager. Then we’ll explore six of the main differences between the two roles and discuss what it takes to excel in product and project management.

Who is a product manager?

In the simplest terms, a product manager is a person that oversees the management lifecycle of a product. They are in charge of product teams, product strategy and product roadmap.

The product manager is responsible for answering fundamental questions such as:

  • Is there a gap in the market for our product?
  • What user problem does our product solve?
  • How does our product achieve this better than the competition?

The responsibilities of a product manager can vary dramatically depending on the size of the organization and the industry they operate in. The very best product managers will not only focus on building the right product, they will attempt to fulfil UX, technology and business goals.

In the past, people understood product managers to be the CEO of the product. This idea of product management suggests they own the product and the outcome because they are the ones making the all important trade-off decisions between UX, business and tech feasibility. Today the ‘CEO definition’ is a bit too simplistic as product management roles have become more flexible.

A product manager will help to provide answers to questions like:

1. Why are we building the product?
2. What problems does the product solve?
3. Who is the potential customer for our product?
4. How are we going to implement our product?
5. Who should be involved in product development?
6. Are our assumptions correct and verified?

Product managers are responsible for motivating a team, defining the problem and specifying what success looks like. Their day-to-day tasks will vary depending on the size of the organization.

For example, product managers in smaller businesses may need to conduct most of their duties personally, such as research and analytics. Whereas product managers in medium and large organizations will be able to delegate their tasks to specialized units responsible for particular areas, allowing them to focus on problem-solving and the bigger picture.

The role of product manager in the product life cycle

The product manager role can also depend on the product’s life cycle stage or size and the composition of the team. Sometimes the product manager role also depends on the level of ownership the customer is willing to give. A product manager might be involved in all project life cycle stages, from discovery to delivery, depending on the size of the team.

Product managers are important for:

  • Culture and team
  • Ideation
  • Discovery and Strategy
  • Validation, data, metrics and analytics
  • Delivery
  • Growth, marketing, sales
  • Software choices
  • Improvements and evaluation
  • Pricing and monetization

According to McKinsey & Company, product managers spend around 18% of their time defining a product strategy. A product manager’s job is to create a cohesive product vision that satisfies stakeholders and customers. They have to be strategic, technical, detailed-oriented and capable of using the relevant software. The skills required to be a successful project manager are immense!

So, we’ve heard one side of the product manager vs project manager debate. Now we let’s take a look at what it takes to be a project manager.

Who is a project manager?

Project managers lead the planning, executing, monitoring and completing of projects within an organization. They are vital for the orchestration and delivery of successful development projects. A project manager will set the project timeline and can be in charge of a project that lasts for a week or six months. Ultimately, they are accountable for the entire project and must ensure resources and team members are used efficiently.

Similarly to product managers, the role demands a multi-faceted skill set and a knowledge of the market. Project managers should be experienced in:

  • Supporting the product vision
  • Facilitating the continuous improvement in the team and processes
  • Overseeing the timeline and budget execution throughout the cooperation

The best project managers are organized, great communicators and experts in multitasking. They know what kind of software to deploy and make strategic decisions that impact the direction of the project. They interact with stakeholders, product teams, marketing, IT, sales and other project managers.

Without a project manager there is no guarantee that the goals of the project will be fulfilled. When undertaking a particularly complex or lengthy project it helps to have somebody to oversee everything and ensure the team is delivering on the promises made when the project began. A project manager helps the team ship the right product to the client at the right time.

A project manager is also the first point of contact for the client, which means they have to:

  • Be on the same page with the client and team all the time and supply all team members with up-to-date information
  • Communicate with the client, team, and other stakeholders
  • Provide scoping sessions and kick-offs
  • Ask the right questions

A day in the life of a project manager can be varied and exciting. They can be writing and organizing project documentation/materials, testing tools for the project team to use or acquiring new software.

The technical requirements of the job will vary from industry to industry. The best project managers know when to delegate and when to involve themselves more heavily in a project to get the results they need.

6 key differences between a product manager and a project manager

Below we’ve outlined some of the main differences between a product manager and a project manager. This should help to understand the functions of both roles and clear up any confusion.

Product vs project

There is a fundamental difference between a product and a project. A product is a thing that is created to be sold in order to solve a customer’s pain points. The life cycle of a product is often undefined. You can go on selling the same product, or a variation on the same product, for years and years.

On the other hand, a project is a task or a set of tasks that must be completed.

A project is not necessarily limited to a single product item. Instead a project is often limited by time and budget constraints. Unlike a product, a project has an established beginning and an end. As a product evolves over time several projects may be undertaken to improve that product.

Through the clear differences between a product and a project we can see how the roles of product manager and project manager are distinct, each with their own focus and journey. Product managers are concerned with the whole life cycle of a product. Whereas project managers deal with projects which may concern, but are not limited to, the success of an element of a product.

For product managers it’s all about the product

While a product manager can have lots of responsibilities, their scope is in some ways more limited than a project manager’s. A product manager is usually entirely focussed on product related tasks: product strategy, product vision, product roadmap, product goals and managing product teams.

Product managers base most of their daily tasks around the success of one specific product. Whereas a project manager cannot prioritize one product over the rest of their responsibilities. Unlike a product manager, a project manager must also deal with managing the budget, the general welfare and productivity of their team and other tasks unrelated to specific products.

A project manager will move on from a product after their project role is completed. Whereas a product manager can focus on a single product for a long time - from creation to delivery to continuous maintenance. One of the key differences in the product manager vs project manager debate, is that for product managers it’s all about the product!

A different skill set

Many of the skills you learn as a project manager or product manager are transferable to other business roles. However, the key functions of a product manager are different to those of a project manager. As a result the roles require a slightly different skillset.

It is important for a product manager to:

  • Master research skills because research may heavily impact a decision to build a product that fits the market needs and solves customer’s paint points
  • Use strategic thinking for the whole product development process to analyze different factors and variables that can impact product development, recognize and remove the blockers, and prioritize activities according to what must be delivered first
  • Be business- savvy to make an impact in the market. Successful product managers understand competitors, market trends, and business model, and show an entrepreneurial thinking to ensure the product is viable.

On the other hand, the skill set of a project manager may be more about:

  • Planning: Drawing up a detailed project plan is key to project management. It involves thinking about tasks that need to be completed before the project is over, as well as milestones that happen at a certain point in time.
  • Organization: Being organized and keeping track of all elements of the projects might be divisive in ensuring that all processes run smoothly and all tasks are completed according to set goals.
  • Time management: Project managers always try to “beat the clock”, as they need to use allocated time wisely to ensure that all tasks are delivered within certain deadlines.

Outcomes and measurement of success

Often a product manager will define success in a different way to a project manager. The two may have different ideas of success because they are often looking for different outcomes.

Product managers aim at creating a product that will fulfill a customer’s needs and wants. On the other side of the product manager vs project manager debate, the ideal outcome for a project manager is to allow their team to complete a project on time, on budget and to the satisfaction of external stakeholders.

Of course, a product manager will be unhappy if their product is costly and late. However, their priority is the product. Their ideal outcome is to outline a product roadmap, create a great product, monitor its successful progress and develop it over time to suit the customer’s needs.

The ideal outcome for a project manager can also include the successful delivery of a product. However, a project manager may also judge their success on their ability to improve the skills of their team members and deliver a project that is timely and financially efficient.

Scope

We’ve touched on this topic earlier, but the scope of the role of a product manager vs a project manager can differ greatly. It goes both ways too!

For example, over the course of a year a project manager may work on several projects that involve a variety of products. A project manager may be brought in to deal with one element of a product in order to ensure that it is executed and managed properly. Project managers must have a wide vision and be able to easily jump from one project to another in a relatively short time span.

Paradoxically, the scope of a product manager’s responsibilities can be both larger and smaller than those of a project manager. A product manager must be able to focus on one product or one customer need for a whole year or longer.

As a product manager, you have to focus on every little detail and ensure your team is able to deliver an excellent product. In this sense the scope is limited. However, a product manager must also be able to manage the whole lifecycle of a product. They may have to deal with uncertain timeframes and will have to adapt as the product evolves to meet the market’s needs.

Ultimately, the scope of your role as a product manager or a project manager will depend on the organization and the industry you belong to. Both roles have the ability to expand or contract to suit the requirements of the specific product or project.

Day-to-day tasks

So, we know the scope may differ, but what about the day-to-day? How is a day in the life of a project manager different from a day in the life of a product manager?

Both will run team meetings and set tasks for their team members to complete throughout the week. Similarly, the two roles both require checking in with stakeholders and managing team workflow.

A day in the life of a project manager will likely involve more administrative and organizational meetings than a product manager is expected to deal with. Equally, the day-to-day tasks of a product manager may include more

  • Data analysis
  • Technical trouble-shotting
  • Product development meetings
  • Product backlog management

These tasks will also depend on the stage of the process. At the beginning of a product’s lifecycle, a product manager may have more creative and hands-on tasks. When a product has already been delivered, the day-to-day tasks for a product manager will be more about maintenance and market research.

Understanding the main differences between product manager and project manager

You should now have a good idea of what makes a product manager different from a project manager. While a product manager is generally more focussed on the specific creation and development of a single product, a project manager is more concerned with the complete lifecycle of a team and project - from development to execution and delivery.

Product managers drive the development of products whereas project managers oversee the logistics and execution of those development plans. Inevitably, while there are significant differences between the two roles there is also an element of overlap.

Both project and product managers are concerned with the experience they are providing their customers, how they can best manage team members and how they can produce the best end product with the tools they have. Both roles require excellent communication and organization skills, as well as a knowledge of the relevant market.

A successful project or a successful product depends on a manager knowing their role and using their skills to fulfill their functions properly. If you think either of these roles suits you, check out our project management and product management opportunities.

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Piotr Golianek

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