Product Manager vs. Project Manager: What's the difference?
What's the difference? And why does it matter?
A lot of people confuse the two roles, and even between industries and companies, the line might be blurred between the two jobs. Both are abbreviated PM, and sometimes there is an overlap in responsibilities. But it is crucial to understand the differences between the two careers because they have different responsibilities and skill sets. The two roles are often complementary, but if they are too incorporated, it can lead to inefficiencies and confusion in your team. That can seep into other aspects of your product, like delays, cost overruns, and unmet customer needs.
Let's break it down.
Before we even think about management, we should distinguish between the differences between products and projects: Products are things presented to the market. They usually aim to address a common pain point or a problem. Projects, on the other hand, are ongoing and impermanent. They might be to design or tweak a product or feature. And typically, there is a deadline or guided expectations as you prepare for execution.
When it comes to product and project management, the roles can be intertwined. And in a small company or start-up, a successful employee might have to juggle multiple titles–or at the very least, be considerate of their team's roles. But it's best to know your job description to avoid feeling overwhelmed or burnout. There are a few key differences that you should keep in mind.
Product managers are responsible for the big picture. A successful product manager keeps an eye on overall strategy, vision, and direction. They decide what features to build, when to release them, and how to enter them into the market. Broadly, product managers are responsible throughout the lifecycle of a product. Product managers balance business and revenue goals with the needs of customers and team members. They're the ones that get things done–from researching and developing a vision and crafting a plan to maintaining the roadmap.
A typical week in the life of a product manager might include the following:
- Developing vision and strategy
- Conducting market research
- Identifying customer needs
- Considering and defining product features
- Managing roadmaps and release schedules
- Collaborating across teams–especially cross-functional ones like the engineering, design, and marketing teams
- Identifying key performance indicators
- Implementing go-to-market plans and strategies
- Tracking product budgets
Product managers' main goal is to create profit and value as well as research potential revenue streams.
On the other hand, project managers are responsible for the planning and execution of a specific initiative. A successful project manager keeps track of deadlines, budgets, and risks. They're more into the fine details of the project and look after resource management, due dates, and deliverables. Project managers can also thrive in a company that uses agile frameworks because project managers can break down initiatives into small, bite-sized pieces that can break up the short, intense sprints. Because of that, project managers can also create sprint roadmaps that can become a great asset to your team.
A typical week in the life of a project manager might include the following:
- Developing a project plan and schedule
- Identifying and managing project risks
- Managing project resources
- Communicating project status to stakeholders
- Managing project scope
- Ensuring project deliverables are completed on time and within a budget
- Monitoring project performance and making adjustments as needed
Project managers' main goal is to reduce risk while managing scope and deliverables.
What are the key differences between product managers and project managers?
In short, product managers are focused on strategy. Customer needs, visions, roadmaps, and working with cross-functional teams are at the forefront of successful product management. Project managers, however, focus on the tactical aspects of delivering a project, like managing resources, ensuring the timely completion of deliverables, and considering budget restraints.
It's often said that product managers are responsible for the "what," and project managers are responsible for the "how."
How do product and project managers work together?
Working cross-functionally is vital to both positions, and as a result, you'll see a lot of each other. A product manager might plan the overall strategy while the project manager crafts a plan to execute it. A product manager may prioritize features for a product backlog, while the project manager would ensure the work is completed on schedule. The two will work together to mitigate risks, plan customer relations, and consider stakeholders and upper management.
How do you become a product manager or project manager?
One of the most complex parts about becoming one of the two is that there is no set path for either. But because of that, both product and project managers often have varying professional backgrounds. Some start early, while others hone their skills later in their careers.
That being said, in general, many product managers have a background in business or marketing. But not always! Since the career is so dynamic and is always evolving, professionals from all professional and academic backgrounds make great product managers. A bachelor's degree is often required. Depending on the company and industry, some might be required to hold an MBA or another advanced degree. It is essential that you have a strong foundation in strategic thinking, problem-solving, and leadership.
Similarly, project managers typically possess a bachelor's degree in a field like business administration or management. Additionally, it is becoming increasingly common to obtain a Project Management Professional, or PMP, certification. To be a successful project manager, you must have strong problem-solving skills, with the ability to work under pressure and meet deadlines.
Product managers are responsible for the big picture, keeping an eye on overall strategy, vision, and direction. They decide what features to build, when to release them and how to enter them into the market. Product managers balance business and revenue goals while keeping the needs of customers and team members in mind.
On the other hand, project managers are responsible for the planning and execution of a specific initiative. They keep track of deadlines, budgets, and risks. They're more into the details of the project and look after resource management, due dates, and deliverables.
In short, product managers are focused on strategy, and project managers are focused on the tactical aspects of delivering a project. Both positions work cross-functionally and must communicate effectively to ensure the success of the project.