Product management vs. Project management
By Jeff Lash
If you want to be a bad product manager, confuse product management with project management. The words are so close because the two concepts are so similar. Product managers should manage projects since they need to ensure that the projects get done. They’re both management roles (right?) so the skills and experience are virtually the same. Project managers just get in the way and try to take control of the project away from the product manager.
If you want to be a good product manager, learn the difference between product management and project management. Despite the similar names, there are big differences between product management and project management. Confusing them is common, even among those experienced in product development.
Project managers are responsible for the successful delivery of a project — a one-time endeavor with a goal, scope, deadline, budget, and other constraints. A project manager will work to align resources, manage issues and risks, and basically coordinate all of the various elements necessary to complete the project. As they relate to products, projects can be undertaken to build a product, to add new features to a product, or create new versions or extensions of a product. When the project is complete, the project manager will usually move move to a new project, which may be related to a different product.
Product managers are responsible for the overall and ongoing success of a product. Once the project to build the product is complete and the project manager has moved on, the product manager remains to manage the product through the entire lifecycle. Other projects related to the product may be initiated, with the product manager being the one constant stream throughout, defining the project goals and guiding the team to accomplish the business objectives that have been defined.
One challenge of the two roles is that they can appear to be at odds with each other. A product manager may want to add a lot of features to meet observed customer needs, but the project manager may want to keep scope as small as possible so that the project is delivered on time and under budget. Traditional definitions (and probably those above, too) often mischaracterize the project manager as singularly focused on getting the project finished on time and under budget without any concern as to whether it meets the market or customer needs.
Good product managers and good project managers are able to create a balance of these conflicts. Good project managers know that the true success of a project is not whether it is on time and within budget, but whether it meets the defined goals and objectives. Good product managers know that all the features in the world will not matter if the project is continually delayed and never makes it to market or if it is too over budget to be completed.
Especially for web-based and technology products, the confusion between project and product management is common and potentially harmful to organizations who do not acknowledge the distinction. There are some important points to keep in mind related to project management and product management:
- Just like every product needs a product manager, every project needs a project manager.
- Just because product managers think they can manage their own projects does not mean they should.
- The skills, talents, and traits involved in project management are very different from those involved in product management.
- Just like it is hard to find one single person who can fill the product management role and the product marketing role, it is hard to find one person who can be successful at both the product management and the project management role.
- Project management is not a stepping stone to product management, nor vice versa.
- Good project managers are just as valuable as good product managers.
- Finding a good project manager to manage your projects will help you be an even better product manager.
- The less time product managers spend on project management, the more time they will be able to spend on product management.
- To avoid conflicts between product management and project management, product managers, project managers, and project teams should all agree on shared goals and objectives as much as possible.
Jeff Lash currently works in product management at Elsevier as the Product Director for MD Consult. Jeff runs “How To Be A Good Product Manager”, a blog that provides regular tips on good product management practices.