I was recently on an interview for a new assignment with my firm with a new customer, and I was asked several interesting questions including this one:
“What is the difference between a Product Manager and a Project Manager?”
I know there is a textbook answer to this, but I tried to answer the question in terms of my experience. This article tries to present the answer.
The Product Manager
The product manager ‘owns’ the success or failure of the product. In my experience as a product manager, I was responsible for a large functional slice of an even larger application. Our product was a Product Lifecycle Management software that assisted retailers – primarily private label importers – to get their product from an idea or inspiration to the shelves. My responsibility started from the order creation and ended with tracking the import containers to their final destination. Any change to the functionality of the application came across my desk before it made it into the product. Obviously, I spent a portion of my time looking ahead and assisting with the overall product roadmap, as well as managing a backlog of ideas and requests. I decided whether to change the function of the application for any reason: from small enhancement requests to large customer-funded enhancements.
The key here is that this role does not necessarily have a start and end. Sure, there are incremental projects within this role that have their own lifecycle (the Product Manager is involved in all of them), but the overall role is there for the long game.
The Product Manager is responsible for the “What” gets built, not the “How it gets built.” The Product Manager makes sure that any changes to the product are in alignment with the strategic direction of the business. On this strategic side, the Product Manager sets the direction for the product. On the tactical side, the Product Manager will typically either do the Business Analysis and/or Product Design work or be responsible for someone in that role. That includes the User Experience (UX) portion of the design in software development. My role was always to produce the design specifications, balancing our technical capabilities with what our clients needed.
Product Managers may have technical ability, but it is not necessary that they be able to build the product. Similarly, while the Product Manager is responsible for the quality of the product, they don’t do all the QA testing. None of these folks on our team reported to me, but I was responsible for their output. This meant a lot of almost daily communications between Engineering, QA, and Product to make sure there was a common understanding of the final product.
The Project Manager
The Project Manager is responsible for getting the project done on time, on budget, and meeting the business requirements and technical specifications. At a minimum, they manage the schedule, manage the scope, and manage the costs. By definition, a project has a start and end date, so this can be a temporary role. The Project Manager is responsible for communications, risk and issue management, quality management and procurement. The sign of a good project manager sometimes goes unseen. Issues are avoided due to good risk management. Delivery becomes more predicable with better planning and estimates. Implementations are smoother due to a well-executed communication and testing plan. The Project Manager must also keep a close watch on change management for the project. Any significant changes to the original assumptions or agreements made for the project must also be agreed to by all stakeholders (usually through a change request signed off by all), and the Project Manager facilitates that agreement.
Formerly, a Project Manager role did not have as much emphasis on understanding the business need, the technical implementation, or even ‘why’ the project is being performed, but it helped immensely. My most successful projects have been where I was involved in writing the business case all the way to supporting the implemented software after go-live. In those projects I learned the business through creating and evaluating software RFP’s and demos, read all the technical specs the engineers wrote for integration, managed the development and QA teams to completion. I had my hand in everything, but I never did any of the ‘actual work’.
The role of the project manager continues to evolve, now including more of a strategic focus, with its additional emphasis on understanding the business case, continuous validation that the project is achieving the business need and leading all stakeholders in this direction. The larger the project, the more likely it is to have an increased number of groups, and therefore potential silos that can be formed. The project manager should seek to understand the big picture, the interactions among the groups to achieve the overall business need and facilitate decisions accordingly.
For those of you who follow The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) from The Project Management Institute (PMI®), we know there is evolution in the profession based on emerging practices. In fact, PMI broadened the skills of a project manager in 2016 with its three dimensions: Technical Project Management, Strategic & Business Management, and Leadership. Going a step further with recent trends including Analytics and Artificial Intelligence, some of the traditional project management tasks such as schedule management may be further automated. We recommend that Project Managers look to strengthen skills in the Strategic & Business Management and Leadership aspects of the profession.
The roles of Product Manager and Project Manager are distinct roles that bring value to an organization in their own way. While it is never ideal, in some cases these roles will be combined in one person. However, it is important to know what role you are performing and where the responsibilities lie if you are asked to take this on. Stay tuned as we follow onto this series by looking into roles that are common in Agile-Scrum environments.