Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager: Tackling the Differences
One of the questions we frequently get asked when training our Optimal Product Management (OPM) and Digital Product Management (DPM) courses is, “What are the differences between a Product Manager, a Project Manager, and a Program Manager?” Today, I want to tackle this question, and also talk more about the vital relationship between Product Managers, Project Managers, and Program Managers, and how all three types of managers can leverage that relationship to be successful in their roles.
First Things First
Let’s first step back for a moment and establish the difference between a “product,” a “project,” and a “program” 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 a one-time or recurring purchase.” A product has a lifecycle, typically with no defined end date. Success is driven by continuous value and successful outcomes.
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.” Once its output has been accomplished, the project is complete.
The Project Management Institute and Wrike define a program as follows:
“A program is a group or series of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually. Just as project management involves the coordination of individual tasks, program management is the coordination of related projects that are grouped together.”
Context is King
With these definitions in place, we next need to consider what kind of organization these roles operate in, because they relate to each other differently depending on this context.
While every company is different, here are three broad categories that many companies fit into:
- Companies using a waterfall development methodology: The Project Manager is usually part of the Development team, and has responsibility for coordinating the development team (engineering, UX, and QA), and often other project members from other departments. Here, Program Managers may oversee multiple related development projects.
- Companies using an Agile development methodology: The development teams are self-organizing, so Project and Program Managers often belong to a Program Management Office (PMO), with responsibilities coordinating projects across departments, or be assigned to coordinate projects with key customers or partners. Here, projects often aren’t about building the product, but instead incorporate product efforts into the larger project context.
- Companies using hybrid or a mix of development methodologies: The Project Manager may be part of a PMO or Development organization, and takes responsibility for coordinating development across the teams using different development techniques. For example, a smartphone is often developed with both a software and hardware team, with a combination of project and program managers coordinating these complex relationships.
For the rest of this article, we’ll discuss how these three roles typically relate to each other in a waterfall or hybrid context.
What is a Product Manager?
Ultimately, a Product Manager is responsible for making sure that their 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 revenue 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 that 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 sure it’s successful in the market.
Ways a Product Manager can help a Project Manager
Deliver the right level of detail for the project’s Scope, so the Project Manager is clear about what the goals of the project are, what the metrics of success look like, and what the priorities are for each goal.
- Too much detail can limit the Project Manager and project team’s ability to innovate and find the best solution to achieve the project goals and improve or deliver the product.
- Too little detail, and the Project Manager doesn’t know what matters most, or why the requested benefits matter at all, making it harder to guide the project team effectively.
Trust your Project Manager to make good decisions. If you’ve given them a good understanding of the Scope of the project, they should be able to make the priority calls to keep the project moving forward effectively.
Be available to the Project Manager when they need to discuss significant changes in the Iron Triangle.
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:
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 that’s no simple task! It requires a deep understanding of the project scope, the ability to coordinate resources and budgets (the costs), keeping a schedule, and being passionate about delivering on quality expectations.
Ways a Project Manager can help a Product Manager
Stay on top of the dependencies of the project and “herd the cats” – so the Product Manager can stay focused on customer research, market research, competitive analysis, and product strategy. That way they can deliver an effective Scope to the project.
Agree with the Product Manager on when a Scope change warrants the Product Manager’s attention and when the Project Manager can handle it. It’s helpful to agree with the Product Manager what the boundaries are of Scope changes that do and don’t require the Product Manager’s input when the Iron Triangle has to change.
Be a great communicator and collaborator. These are critical skills for both Project and Product Managers, but they must communicate effectively with each other – frequently. In particular, the Project Manager should update the Product Manager concisely on a regular cadence of current project status (Scope, Cost, Time), accomplishments, and risks going forward. This helps build the trust the Product Manager needs to show the Project Manager.
What is a Program Manager?
Program Managers come into play when there are multiple projects that need to be coordinated across different development teams, multiple sites, many departments, or across multiple partners or companies. They coordinate the projects that need to be tracked and completed as teams work toward accomplishing their final goal. They focus on strategy and implementation at the program level, rather than on individual projects, leaving this work to the Project Managers they work with. Their eye is on the long-term implications of the program as a whole, whether it be a customer-facing program, or a complex development program, like building a ship or a smartphone.
Program Managers accomplish these goals by:
- Defining the long-term vision for the program
- Developing and implementing a program strategy
- Maintaining technical competence
Essentially, Program Managers work to ensure Project Managers and Product Managers are working in sync to support the overall vision for the program and accomplish the desired business outcomes. They ensure all activities are aligned with the overarching strategy, and that all pieces of the puzzle come together on-schedule and on-budget.
So, What’s the Difference?
Three very different roles
The Product Manager defines the strategic business objectives for the product, which results in the creation of different projects. They’re responsible for the entire product, from the initial design all the way to production, and must evaluate customer needs — and adapt the product to meet them — along the way.
The Project Manager creates a project plan for each of the individual projects, delegates various tasks and assignments to team members, and tracks the progress of all of those tasks and assignments. Additionally, the Project Manager must coordinate budget and resources, and ensure all parts of the project are completed on time.
All of the individual projects involved in product development can be categorized into programs – and that’s where Program Managers come in. Program Managers define the various projects, and focuses on strategy and implementation for the program as a whole. They’re primarily concerned with the long-term implications of the program.
Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How
Another way of thinking about how the roles relate to each other is to consider the Five W’s and the one H: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. 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 distributing assignments and work needed to be done (by Who) in 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.
Meanwhile, the Program Manager focuses on strategy and implementation of the entire program, beyond the completion of individual projects. They are responsible for program strategy (the How) and the long-term vision of the program.
Product Manager + Project Manager + Program Manager = A Powerful Collaboration
When a Product Manager, a Project Manager, and a Program Manager understand and bring expert skills to their individual roles, powerful collaboration occurs:
- 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 they need to then determine the right resources needed (Cost) and schedule (Time) to deliver the project successfully.
- The Project Manager uses their 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 knock down 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.
- The Program Manager oversees all of the work that Project Managers do to deliver on their individual projects, to ensure everything is aligned, coordinated, and progressing as planned for the program.
Working as a team, they can accomplish much more — faster — accelerating time-to-market with great projects through exceptional project and program execution.
Celebrating Each Role
While all three roles are extremely demanding, they can also be extremely rewarding. A Project Manager is in their happy place when they 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. The Program Manager has the satisfaction of seeing the many moving parts of the overarching strategy come together in support of the organization’s goals. Successful product launches are a time for all roles to celebrate – and recognize the valuable contributions each brings to this crucial three-way partnership.
Thinking of Becoming a Product Manager?
280 Group offers comprehensive information and training about the various roles in product development. Check out our Optimal Product Management course, which discusses role clarity in more depth and how you can optimize these roles in your organization.
This blog was originally published December 2019 and updated October 2021.
About the Author
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™.