Product Manager vs. Project Manager: Tackling the Differences

One of the questions I frequently get asked when training our Optimal Product Management and Product Marketing Training™ (OPM) course is, “What are the differences in a Product Manager vs. Project Manager?” Today I want to tackle this question, but also talk more about the vital relationship between Product Managers and Project Managers that can make both successful in their roles.

First Things First

To answer the main question above, we should first step back for a second and discuss the difference between a product and a project. It may seem a little rudimentary, but since we are tackling a fundamental question, let’s first start with a few simple definitions.

At 280 Group, we define a product as follows:

A good, idea, method, information, object or service… which serves a need or satisfies a want.
It has a combination of tangible and intangible attributes (benefits, features, functions, uses)
that a seller offers a buyer for purchase.

The Project Management Institute defines a project as follows:

“A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.

A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.

And a project is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal.”

So, projects have a fixed beginning and end to accomplish a set of goals. Put simply, projects can be used to develop products—either a whole new product, a new version of an existing product, or an upgrade to an existing software product.

What is a Product Manager?

A Product Manager is ultimately responsible for making sure that her product is as successful as possible both short-term tactically, and long-term strategically. This means that the Product Manager must:

  • Deliver products that better meet customer needs
  • Increase revenues and profitability
  • Create delighted customers who generate positive word-of-mouth referrals
  • Capture and own markets long-term as a result of solid product strategy which drives overall company efforts

In other words, the buck stops with the Product Manager—they are responsible for defining, building, and delivering their product, and making it successful in the market.

What is a Project Manager?

Project Managers have a very different, but complementary, role to that of a Product Manager. A Project Manager is responsible for delivering a project that meets its requirements on-time, on-budget, and to the required degree of quality. This is often expressed as the need to meet the constraints of the Iron Triangle:

Figure 1: The Iron Triangle of Project Management

If any one point of this triangle changes, then the other parts must change also. The Project Manager keeps these constraints in balance as the project executes.

Simply put, a Project Manager must “get it done.” But this is no simple task! It requires understanding deeply the scope of the project, coordinating resources and budgets (the costs), keeping a schedule, and being passionate about delivering the needed quality.

So, what’s the difference?

While a Product Manager has overall responsibility for a product’s success or failure, a Project Manager has overall responsibility for a project’s success or failure. A project is the effort required to build the product. So, a Project Manager is responsible for making the project a successful effort to build or enhance a product.

Another way of thinking about how Product Managers and Project Managers are different is to consider the Five W’s, and the one H: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Product Manager is responsible for defining the Who (the customers), the Why (those customer’s needs) and the What (customer requirements, competitive requirements, market situation) of the product. The Project Manager is responsible for executing this project to deliver the What through the Who (the cross-functional development team), the How (the technologies, materials, budget, and other resources needed), the Where (where will production happen, and how will all of the teams be coordinated globally) and the When (the schedule).

Returning to the Iron Triangle, the Product Manager is responsible for providing the Project Manager with the Scope of the project (the Who, Why, and What), while the Project Manager is responsible for delivering Quality within the Costs (the How) and the desired Time (the When). The Product Manager and the Project Manager must collaborate closely on Scope—the product needs from the Product Manager perspective and the project goals from the Project Manager’s perspective. The more detail the Product Manager can provide, particularly about what is the highest priority, and what is lower priority or even optional, the more effective the Project Manager can be in successfully executing the project.

Product Manager vs. Project Manager: A Powerful Collaboration

When a Product Manager and a Project Manager both understand their roles, and bring expert skills to these roles, it leads to a powerful collaboration that produces great products through great project execution. The Product Manager combines deep understanding of the customer with knowledge of the competitive landscape and the market situation to provide the Project Manager with the Scope she needs to then determine the right resources needed (Cost) and schedule (Time) to deliver the project successfully. In return, the Project Manager uses her abilities to organize a team, work with complexity and ambiguity to handle change effectively, keep the “big picture” while understanding the details, monitor progress, and knockdown barriers as they come up so that the whole team can deliver the project on time, and on budget to fulfill the product’s needs.

Celebrating Each Role

To sum up, a Product Manager is responsible for a product’s overall success. Their job is to define what this success means in terms of customer needs and company goals, so they can deliver an effective Scope definition to the Project Manager. The Project Manager is responsible for executing a successful project defined by the Scope, Cost and Time required, so that the product can be successful.

Both roles are extremely demanding—and extremely rewarding. A Project Manager is in her happy place when she can deliver a project that meets its goals. The Product Manager celebrates this accomplishment with the joy of seeing a new product, or a product improvement, take the market by storm to delight customers. Successful product launches are a time for both roles to celebrate – and recognize the valuable contributions each brings to this crucial partnership.

If you’d like to learn more about the Product Manager career, read our comprehensive primer on the role of Product Management.

If you think you’ve got what it takes to be a Product Manager, take our online skills assessment to see how you stack up against our Benchmark of 15 different Product Management skills.

About the Author

Roger Snyder - VP of Marketing
Roger Snyder is a Principal Consultant/Trainer, and VP of Marketing at 280 Group.
Roger has worked in the field of Product Management for over 20 years, with experience in startups, growth companies, and various technology sectors. He specializes in improving product strategy development, implementing full product lifecycle processes, and roadmap development and evolution.
280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

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