Product manager and project manager are two roles often confused and the fact that both can be referred to as ‘PM’ doesn’t help either! Many organisations will have the two roles working together, so, let’s find out what makes them distinctive.

First things first, let’s distinguish between a product and a project.

What is Product?

Products refer to goods or services that are created and improved to meet a customer need, such as a new software, a theater play, or a customer service line.

What is Project?

Projects are the set of activities implemented to deliver a specified output (product) according to scope and quality targets and within constraints of time and budget.

Both products and projects are temporary in nature and have defined lifecycles. A product would be conceived, designed, delivered, maintained and, later, retired. Unless referring to technology (iPhone, anyone?), the full lifecycle tends to take a couple of years. As for projects, they also have a stage of conception, design, and delivery, closing after the product is complete and ready to be transitioned to operations. The product is, therefore, a result of the project, meaning that projects are short-lived when compared to products. Whereas the remit of the project ends when the product is ready for launch (or a new feature has been introduced), for products, that’s just the start of a new stage, where adoption and business value maximization are the priority.

While projects are completed by a temporary assembled team, aiming to deliver to time and to budget, products are managed as a full-time and dedicated function responsible for monitoring usage, identifying opportunities for improvement, and consolidating the product in the market in line with the corporate strategy. For that reason, products are long-term oriented while projects are short-term driven. Find these key differences summarized below:

Product Project
Scope Evolving and broad Well-defined and narrowed
Time Horizon Medium to long Short to medium
Teams Permanent Temporary
Priorities Maximise business value Deliver to targets

Despite these differences, ‘product manager’ and ‘project manager’ are complementary roles. For a simple analogy, think of the product as a baby. I’m sure you were not expecting babies in this article, right? For the product manager, the product is his/her baby – they have conceived it, have all sorts of hopes and expectations about what it can become, and will hold it dearly to their hearts, caring and monitoring for its growth, hoping that it will be successful amongst customers and receive all the support from the mother-organisation too. As for the project manager, he/she is kind of a midwife. Project managers will gain an understanding of the vision for the product from the product managers as well as specifications to be met and will ensure that all preparations are in motion to give birth to a healthy and strong product, resilient enough to face the challenges that life always brings you. From the moment the product is delivered, the project manager leaves it to the good care of his/her mother/father and leaves to the next project. This being said, the touch points between the two roles – specially at the concept and closure stages of the project, as moments of integration – are fundamental to enable project and product success.

It can be tempting to ask a product manager to manage a project or to extend the remit of the project manager, however, this is not advisable. While both roles require a sound understanding of the business context and strong planning skills, they serve different purposes. Yet, it is not uncommon for the product manager to act as the project sponsor or as the senior user in the project. In one way or another, these two roles work in close collaboration to bring the product to life.

Some authors – see the #NoProjects movement, for instance – argue that the business world is evolving towards a scenario of continuous product-oriented delivery (from project to product management), where the role of the project manager is outdated and even superseded by product managers. In fact, many start-ups don’t have the role of the project manager and are (still) doing great. What does this tell us? While a believer of project management as a vehicle for impactful change, I must agree that sometimes project management is presented (and done) in isolation from the rest of the business, ending up forgetting that, as professionals, we are responsible not just to deliver (the common ‘just do it’ approach) but instead to build a legacy and enable business value through our projects.

No, project management is not dead, however, a little more attention to the product, rather than just meeting the time and cost targets, wouldn’t do us any harm either.

Long live project management! Long live product management!

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By: Marisa Silva (The Lucky PM)

Marisa Silva (The Lucky PM)
PPM specialist with extensive experience in industry with a focus on collaboration, PMO conception & strategy, method and capability development. Marisa also retains depth expertise in Microsoft PPM having led a large number of client deployments.

Published: 25 August 2022

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