Product Manager vs Project Manager

So, I gotta clear this out: Product Management IS NOT Project Management (and vice-versa) If I had a quarter for every time I was asked what the difference between Product and Project Management is....I'd still be paying off my student loans 🙁 (shameless plug to reduce tuition fees!)

People have had a harder time figuring this one out over figuring out where my accent is from (and this is no easy feat) To be honest, I don't blame them (for the Product vs Project bit - not the accent bit. Screw them, I'm not the one with the accent - they are) 

Getting back to the point. 'Product' vs 'Project' -- it’s literally only two letters that separate the two roles. So what’s all the fuss about?  Why even have two different titles for roles that sound and seem so similar!

Well, the truth is that these roles are exceedingly different, yet used interchanging. In fact, even the most tech-savvy companies tend to blur the lines between these roles. It’s quite understandable though and I’ll get into why in a bit. First, let’s draw distinction & define the two roles in the simplest way we can:

  • Product Managers ask ‘Why?’ and ‘What?
  • Project Managers ask 'When?' and 'Who?'

A Product Manager is deeply rooted in vision, feature prioritization, customer interactions and marketing of the product. The success of a Product Manager is dictated by the bigger picture - the product roadmap & lifecycle. His role revolves around asking questions like ‘What’s the business value of this feature?’ ‘Does this feature solve a problem? If so, what problem?’ ‘What’s the business impact?’ ‘What are our competitors doing that we aren’t and vice versa?..and why? ‘

A Project Manager, on the other hand, is responsible for executing on a predefined objective. Now, these objectives are broken down into 'projects' that a Project Manager will oversee from start to finish. He or she is responsible for owning and communicating - budget, resources, delivery timelines, project risks, and capability. The Project Manager will ask questions like ‘Do we have the resources to achieve the objective?’, ‘When will/can the project be completed?’ , and ‘Who will be the people doing the project?’.

  • Putting it all together

The Product Manager is responsible for setting direction and leadership. He will work cross-functionally with the engineering, sales & marketing team in order to execute on product development and selling it after. He will work hard to communicate vision & goals of the product. The Project Manager will execute upon these goals and overall vision. The Project Manager will work across teams in a much broader sense to ensure the resource availability & timelines of the goals are met.

Often, especially in smaller companies, you’ll find the Product Manager taken on the tasks of a Project Manager. While this can definitely work, it is not the ideal situation since there is often a conflict of interest. More importantly - it’s extremely difficult to perform exceedingly well in your Product Management duties and also doing so in your Project Management duties. Under-performance (and/or burnout) is surely to occur eventually!

Hopefully this post will clear things out :)​

About the author

Shawn Dexter

Shawn Dexter is a Product Manager, Entrepreneur & Software Developer. He is passionate about innovation management & technology.

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