Product Manager vs Project Manager: What's the Difference?

Updated on August 16th, 2020
Product Manager vs Project Manager: What's the Difference?

What's the difference between product manager vs. project manager? It certainly doesn't help that both are named so similarly, and I can't tell you the # of times I've been incorrectly labeled as a project manager.

To start, the two disciplines have fundamentally different purposes.

The goal of product management is to maximize return on investment, and that means that product managers are making bold bets. As a product manager, you'll focus on your product vision, and a successful product will unlock exponential value that didn't exist within your company before.

On the other hand, the goal of project management is to minimize downside risk. The focus of the project manager is to ensure that initiatives complete on scope, on time, and on budget. Therefore, a successful project is defined by how well-scoped it was, and whether resources were used efficiently or not. The project team is pre-assigned with duties at the very start of the project, and each team member knows exactly what their deliverables are, months in advance.

To boil it down, in the words of Ian McAllister, who is Director of Amazon Day at Amazon:

  • Product managers own "what" and "why"
  • Project managers own "how" and "when"

To clarify further, let’s break down the difference between a project and a product.

A project is a temporary undertaking to create a new product or that has a defined result with a set and end date. In other words, once a project is complete, you can move on from the project.

A product has a product lifecycle and is developed and introduced to a market to satisfy user needs. In other words, products are never done. Products live and breathe a life of their own, and they grow according to their product roadmap.

Project managers are responsible for internal completion and delivery of one project at a time.

Within the defined project scope of a product, project managers are organizing and prioritizing the tasks that need to be completed within the team.

Project managers will make sure that everything is coordinated by focusing on risk / issue management (minimizing any risks of completing the project), resource management (managing task lists, infrastructure, reporting, etc..), and scope management (limiting the project undertaking through time, cost, quality constraints).

On project completion, the project manager then moves forward with a new project.

Meanwhile, product managers can’t simply pick up and leave after the product gets shipped. While project managers may move on to new projects once the existing project has been completed, the product manager stays on board to continue with product development.

The responsibilities of product managers include driving the day-to-day activities of gathering and prioritizing customer requirements, managing product strategy, and working with cross-functional teams such as product marketing, sales, and customer support

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Product Manager Job

Part of the confusion between product manager vs. project manager is that the two share many skill sets:

  • Problem solving, conflict resolution, and negotiation
  • Mastery in working in agile environments
  • Ability to work with software development teams
  • Focus on customer satisfaction
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to manage a sudden crisis or a sudden change of plan
  • Time management
  • Leadership and team building

In fact, it's not uncommon for these lines to blur in smaller organizations. Many times, product managers will also tackle project management responsibilities, and many times, project managers will also tackle product manager responsibilities.

Where possible, however, it's best to have both a distinct product and project manager. For example, if a product manager is focusing on external needs like understanding customer needs, then there isn’t time to chase down people to complete certain tasks or manage all the deadlines to make sure a product gets shipped in time.

As more and more software products shift towards frequent and smaller releases (vs. the traditional one-time software ship model), each of these releases requires significant coordination around items like release management, engineering, operations, and customer feedback.

With these new frequent release cycles, many companies require strong project management processes to ensure releases are successful.

If product management and project management aren't decoupled from one another, both functions will suffer. Product managers won't be able to drive exponential upside, and project managers won't be able to manage risk.

Interested in learning more about product management? You might want to check out our popular course: One Week PM. You’ll learn the fundamentals of product management, how to launch your own side project, and how to dominate product manager interviews.