Companies are complex entities comprised of different personalities, teams, priorities, and methodologies. Agile, Scrum, Waterfall, Kanban, and XP are all topics floating within the headspace of executives looking to keep the growth trajectory moving up and to the right. The difficulty of trying to manufacture synergy between teams operating within diametrically opposed methodologies further complicates how delivery can be achieved.
The growing trend of Agile transformation across industries forces companies into binary ways of thinking when it comes to delivering products versus projects. It’s easy to start thinking that traditional project management must be ousted in favor of a product-focused mindset, but focusing on products/outcomes should not be considered an attack on the more traditional forms of project methodologies. Companies today are highly fragmented with teams operating at different stages of an agile transformation or doing what they can to resist changes to an established process or way of thinking. We should examine the differences between management roles within a product-focused mindset versus a project execution mindset. While the differences can be stark, there are plenty of opportunities to identify how the two can work together to support and enhance the overall delivery pipeline.
Projects vs. Products
A product is “anything a business sells that solves a market problem or a customer’s need or desire.” Marty Cagan explains that technology products are summarized by the equation Product = Customer x Technology x Business. A successful product must solve for all three components: delivering value to the customer, while ensuring ROI for the business, and delivering the product within the feasible confines of the technology available.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as a temporary effort designed to deliver future value through a product, service, or result. Once the product is delivered, the project is considered complete.
Role Differences: Product Managers vs. Project Managers
Since it is possible for businesses to conflate the roles of product managers and project managers, it’s important to clearly define the roles, as they are NOT interchangeable.
A product manager is highly concerned with providing value to customers by solving their problems via the product they are offering. Product managers should serve as the chief empathizer with the customer. They need to be intimately knowledgeable of the issues the customer is intent on solving. Data is a core piece of a product manager’s toolset to keep their products relevant. The trajectory of a product’s development needs to be backed by real-world data: user surveys and feedback, product usage analytics (session frequency and duration, rage clicks, time since last login etc.), and group or one-on-one interviews. The product manager must be obsessed with the data customers generate interacting with their products. These insights enable the business to prioritize the further delivery of value or quickly pivot to higher ROI features.
An effective product manager must know when to say no. As the face of the product for the company, it is inevitable that competing priorities are placed within the product manager’s orbit. Executive stakeholders may aggressively bid to have their pet feature in the next release. Saying no does not exclude these requests indefinitely. Instead, they should be placed in the product backlog for future consideration while the features identified as providing the most value to customers are prioritized.
Traditionally, a project manager has been chiefly concerned with the day-to-day delivery of a given project: What percentage complete is the total scope, what percentage of budget has been used, are there sufficient team members to do the work, what potential risks could hinder the project schedule, and are we aligned to achieve the business objectives? This traditional view has changed in recent years to emphasize the business need of the project and, consequently, for the project manager to be closely aligned with that business need. While the project manager is executing to deliver the product, they must be keenly aware of the project’s potential to drift outside the stated business need. A product manager can determine the long-term strategy of a product, while a project manager is deep in the ground-level tactics of how the eventual product can be delivered.
A project manager may be heavily involved in the delivery of a product and the context of the business case driving that delivery, but does not have the same focus on the end product as the product manager.
Why Do We Need Product Managers?
A core benefit of incorporating product managers into your business is that they serve as a single point of responsibility for a product. Instead of committees negotiating away impactful features to eventually arrive at a product that only contains some of the intended value, product managers provide a North Star to guide products and teams to deliver the highest value features.
By being that central point of responsibility, product managers can save time on development overall. By ensuring the right features are being developed, the product manager can keep a team aligned to the overarching goal and prevent them from endlessly pivoting from one initiative to another. Rather than relying on the whims of a single powerful stakeholder or committee, the product manager uses insights gathered from market data and customer interactions to make decisions.
Another core benefit product managers provide is having someone exist simultaneously with their head in the clouds while their feet are firmly planted on the ground. They can determine the long-term strategy of a product: What are the high-level outcomes we need to achieve this quarter vs. this year vs. next year? At the same time, they are working with teams to define the specific features that must be built to realize those outcomes. The business gets the benefit of a manager who is looking ahead to determine what immediate value can be provided, but also what will be developed a year from now to ensure a steady stream of new users, sticky existing users, and reduced churn.
The most impactful benefit is generating a customer-centric culture. Product managers are customer obsessed, which eventually trickles down to teams. By creating a culture that puts the customer first, development teams are empowered to suggest what will make the customer experience better, determine creative ways of implementing a feature, and ensure that bugs are mitigated or at least fixed quickly.
Why Do We Need Project Managers?
While product managers perform much of the strategic planning as well as document/prioritize critical features, the project manager executes on the development of those features. Most projects today cross many teams to build a new product. Project managers are key to tracking the progress of this complex work and anticipating and removing roadblocks before they affect the delivery. They are especially needed if various teams throughout the organization are operating with different project methodologies (Agile vs Waterfall) and/or within a matrixed organization.
Teams working across different project execution methodologies can produce significant dependencies and risks. Product managers may not have total visibility into the breakdown of the work among teams. The project manager is there to help surface those risks and dependencies to give a full view of the project work. Just as product managers serve as the single point of authority on a product, the project manager does the same for a project.
Product and Product Managers Compliment Each Other
By reading blog articles on either role, one would assume that it’s possible to have all the benefits of an engaged product manager and leave the project manager out of the equation. Or that it’s possible to shoehorn product management responsibilities into the role of an already busy project manager. These roles are complimentary and must exist together if the business wants to deliver new products to market.
The product lifecycle begins as a new project. During this stage it is crucial to have deep alignment between the two roles. Everyday businesses must make tradeoffs when it comes to what can be prioritized, built, paid for, etc. A product manager can do all the market research and develop a backlog of high-impact features, but at the end of the day, they are constrained by the realities of the business. Project managers help to inform on those realities, enhancing the product manager’s decision-making process. As a result, the product manager can determine what is truly a priority for the product.
Project managers provide information on the implementation to the product manager: potential or realized risks to delivery, alignment to business need, schedule and resource constraints, and budgetary constraints among others. If the development of a new feature requires a skill set the business currently does not have access to, then that feature may need to be pushed to a later phase. If the budget does not allow building the top five features the product manager has selected, then what is the minimum feature set that can be delivered and still make an impact on the customer? By informing each other of these tradeoffs, a realistic view of what can be delivered can be agreed upon by the business. The exercises performed by the project manager can also lessen the burden on the product manager to think strategically and increase their time spent with the customer.
The Product Power of AND
One may argue that product managers and their teams should be left alone to lead and deliver, but one key KPI demonstrates a harsh reality which not only impacts the bottom line, but is also fixated upon by executives: “dollar spend vs dollar gained per feature.” In our experience, without a product manager AND project manager at the helm, product initiatives tend to land heavier in the dollar spend side. There are arguments that suggest a typical project manager’s role can be further rationalized/optimized for a closer fit toward product management, but the natural synergies that exist between the two have the power to create a product that is forward thinking, provides exceptional value, and is delivered at the lowest cost possible.
Zach Lindberg, Senior Consultant with Aspirent’s Project Execution practice