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 number of times I've been incorrectly labeled as a project manager.
To start, the two disciplines have fundamentally different purposes. Let's take a look at the definitions of each type of manager.
Table of Contents
What is a Product Manager?
A product manager is responsible for the success of a product which means they should have excellent skills in the fields of business management, marketing, finance, and technology.
They are required to work closely with other departments such as engineering, design, and/or sales to make sure products meet the needs and expectations of a customer.
A product manager should have the ability to prioritize and move a project forward while keeping an eye on its value and cost, making sure it fits within the company's current budget and long-term goals. They must also be able to create and lead a project team to make important decisions throughout the product's lifecycle.
What is a Project Manager?
A project manager (PM) organizes and manages different project management activities. The project manager is responsible for planning, leading, organizing, and controlling project work within the project time constraints and budget. Project managers have the job to coordinate all project resources like project staff members, contractors, or external consultants in order to successfully deliver projects on schedule and within budget.
A project manager must have project management skills and project management knowledge in order to successfully plan, manage, and control project activities. Different project managers are responsible for the successful planning and completion of different types of projects, like IT projects or new product development projects.
Responsibilities of Product Managers vs Project Managers
These are some of the most common tasks a product manager and project managers have to complete:
Product Manager's Functions
Key tasks of a product manager are:
1) Take an idea and turn it into something customers really want.
2) Make sure the product is on track.
3) Be able to make adjustments to meet changing customer needs.
4) Decide what features will be included in the next release of a product and which ones will not.
5) Prioritize the features within a product based on importance.
6) Determine the budget for the product.
7) Create a marketing plan and organize a team to support it.
8 ) Deal with competitors.
9) Work with other departments, like web design or engineering, if needed.
10) Create specifications and manage the development process.
Project Manager's Functions
Key tasks of a project manager are:
1) Planning a project from scratch.
2) Defining project goals and project deliverables.
3) Creating project rules and project guidelines.
4) Selecting project staff members and contractors.
5) Assigning project tasks to project staff members.
6) Tracking project progress (using project-related software, for example, MS Project for tracking projects using Microsoft Project).
7) Avoiding project delays and project risks.
8) Controlling project costs, project quality, project scope, and project time (using project management tools).
9) Monitoring project performance.
10) Managing project communications with stakeholders of the project so that they are updated about project progress.
Product Managers Vs. Project Managers Goals
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 Manager Responsibilities
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.
Product Manager Responsibilities
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.
Check out what it takes to become a product manager by joining the PMHQ bootcamp.
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.
Clement Kao is a Co-Founder of Product Manager HQ. He is currently a Product Manager at Blend, an enterprise technology company that is inventing a simpler and more transparent consumer lending experience while ensuring broader access for all types of borrowers.