“Effective leaders help others to understand the necessity of change and to accept a common vision of the desired outcome.” ~ John Kotter, Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School
Managing change, creating common vision, and reaching desired outcomes are the three most vital priorities for anyone responsible for leading teams.
In many agencies, this includes project managers, product managers, or both.
While the names and day-to-day tasks of project managers and product managers may be similar, it’s worth understanding the significant differences between the roles.
At a basic level, it’s as simple as it sounds. Project managers handle projects, while product managers oversee a specific product from start to finish. But as you dig deeper, the distinctions and the overlap become more complicated.
In this blog post, we’ll walk you through a comparison of these two important roles and how they work together to move your agency forward.
Product management vs. project management: A comparison of roles and responsibilities
Defining product management
Product management is the overseeing of a specific product from its inception to its completion. A product could contain multiple projects over the course of its lifetime, and “product lifetime” itself is a concept that looks different depending on the type of product being managed.
Products can be anything from software to marketing deliverables to tuxedos to fishing lures. The type of product being managed will affect how the product life cycle looks and operates.
Product management is concerned with what the product is and can do and why the product needs to be made. The ultimate goal is achieving product success over the entire product life cycle. It’s less concerned with the how of it all — that’s something the project manager tends to handle.
Product management roles and responsibilities
Within product development and product management, you’ll find several strategic priorities. Most of the time, these functions are performed by a product manager, though sometimes the responsibilities here are absorbed by others. For example, in smaller settings where an agency can’t hire a dedicated product manager.
Understands and represents user needs: The product manager owns the user needs (along with some stakeholders) and keeps team members focused on those needs.
Analyzes the market and builds competitive analysis: The product manager looks at what the market wants and what others are already producing to meet those desires.
Prioritizes product features and capabilities: The product manager decides which features get built right now, which get saved for later, and which get cut. Because product managers are the ones focused on users’ needs, they are best suited to do this prioritizing.
Defines product vision, strategy, and roadmap: At a high level, the product manager defines the reason the product should exist and the general strategy and product roadmap for how the product will get from where it is to its final state.
Note on that last point that the product manager’s role is high-level or general. The product manager sets the product strategy and vision, but the project manager usually handles the specific implementation of that strategy. Generally, it falls on the project manager to build out the detailed schedule required to achieve what’s on the roadmap.
The product manager’s job is to look at the bigger picture of how a product can meet business objectives and create customer satisfaction continuously over the product’s life.
People pursuing the role of a product manager often obtain one of several product manager certifications. There isn’t a single credential that dominates here, like there is for project management. In agile and scrum contexts, the Agile Certified Product Manager and Product Owner certification, offered by AIPMM, is a popular choice.
Exploring project management
Project management is the discipline of overseeing, planning, scheduling, problem-solving, and assigning the various tasks within a project, from the start of that project to its completion.
We know that sounds an awful lot like our definition of product management, but the key differences (besides the obvious product vs. project) are focus and scope.
A project can be as small as a single deliverable or as large as an entire marketing campaign (or building or operating system or NASA mission — you get the idea). Projects typically have defined start and end dates — a distinguishing factor from products, which can live on for an unspecified number of years.
Project management happens on projects of all shapes and sizes. Team leads and department leads do informal project management all the time. But as your agency grows, it’s common to hire dedicated project managers.
The Project Management Professional (PMP) certification is a sought-after credential in this career path, offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI).
Project management roles and responsibilities
The role of a project manager involves four main areas of responsibility. If a project has a dedicated project manager, that person will typically handle or lead each of these tasks.
Plans and develops the project idea: The project manager answers (or solicits answers to) foundational questions. What will the project produce? What will be included? Excluded? What is the goal of the project?
Analyzes project progress and creates project timelines: The project manager is the one who builds the detailed project schedule and monitors how well the project team keeps to that schedule.
Manages project budget: The project manager usually tracks where the money allotted to the project goes and keeps the team on budget.
Ensures stakeholders satisfaction: The project manager typically interacts with the stakeholders, reporting on project progress and ensuring the project is on course to meet stakeholder expectations.
The project manager’s job is to ensure that assigned projects meet business goals on time and on budget. The job involves both hard and soft skills. Project managers need attention to detail and enough technical skills to use project management tools and other software, plus skills specific to the discipline.
But the project manager also needs to be a listener and problem-solver that can hear team members’ concerns and find novel solutions to them.
Product manager vs. project manager: Key similarities and differences
Product managers and project managers engage in similar types of tasks, but their areas of focus are different. Product managers stick to big-picture vision casting, research into what products need to be and do, and building the overarching strategic plan and features roadmap for a product.
In contrast, project managers break down those roadmaps into projects and then into actionable tasks and subtasks. They build out the detailed project schedules and timelines that will achieve specific goals (such as building a piece of a product).
Project managers concern themselves with the details of who’s doing what and when. For example, making sure that the graphic designer is available to do specific tasks on the day the project finishes the previous step.
A product manager doesn't get involved at this tactical level, but their product vision and roadmap certainly inform the schedules that the project manager builds.
The collaborative dynamics of product managers and project managers
Some products, especially larger and more complex ones, will consist of multiple projects managed by one or more project managers. This means that the product manager will, at some point, be working with the project managers.
Given the slight overlap in responsibilities and the similarities between these two jobs, working together can be a great strength — or a major point of tension.
Here’s how product managers and project managers can collaborate effectively across several business functions.
1. Project planning and scheduling
Building a project schedule can be a very complicated process. But it’s much easier when the product being created is clearly defined.
Similarly, defining and imagining a new product (and creating a product plan for it) can be uncomfortably open-ended. It’s possible — maybe even common — to have a vision for a product that clashes with reality.
So the project manager helps the product manager by providing that dose of reality. ”We only have x people and y hours and six months to complete this project, and what you’re envisioning would require much more.”
And the product manager helps the project manager by creating a clear framework and direction for the project being managed. ”By Q3 of this year, we need a new brand identity for client x that achieves these three objectives.”
2. Iterative development and agile methodologies
There are several styles of project management that operate using differing models and strategies. Agile project management methodologies are popular for projects that are quick and less intensive, as well as those that follow an iterative approach.
Agile project management, originally created for software development teams, is becoming increasingly popular. Especially in marketing project management, with 51% of marketers reporting using Agile methods.
It’s a good fit because many agencies work on projects that move quickly and often iterate based on client feedback. With an agile approach, you’re dealing with ongoing prioritization as you decide what to work on in the next iteration and what to save for later (or throw out entirely).
The product manager can provide vital input here, prioritizing features based on customer needs as the team iterates. The project manager provides support as well, managing those agile processes and ensuring that teams deliver those iterations on time.
Which project management methodology is best for you?
With so many methodologies, how do you know what will fit your team? Get a complete breakdown of the most popular methodologies to determine what works best for *you*.
3. Continuous feedback and improvement
Agencies should always work toward improvement via continuous feedback, and both types of PMs have a role to play here.
The product manager gathers customer feedback, researches market trends, and gathers market insights.
The project manager incorporates these and other types of feedback (e.g., stakeholder feedback) into project iterations.
On smaller projects or in settings where there is no dedicated product manager, the project manager may take on some of these feedback-gathering tasks. Sometimes, a separate research department or team member handles market research as well.
4. Change management and adaptability
Even in the best of circumstances and with the highest performing teams, change is simply a project reality. It’s not a question of whether a project (or product) will undergo changes — it’s a question of when.
The project and product managers can make change management go much more smoothly by working together to manage scope changes and adjustments. They bring vital contrasting perspectives to the conversation.
The product manager pushes passionately for what the customer wants, while the project manager knows what the project team can do with the given personnel, budget, and timeline.
Both of these perspectives matter. Think about what happens when one of these dominates the conversation.
Focus too much on customer requests, and you end up with scope creep, budget and schedule overruns, and team burnout.
But focus too much on rigid adherence to the original plan, and you run the risk of creating a product no one actually wants!
The best product manager / project manager teams enhance each other’s work, using agile decision-making and problem-solving to accomplish what’s best for the big picture.
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