Product Management vs. Program Management: What’s the Difference?

Product management vs. program management. These terms are often confused, used interchangeably, and given entirely different meanings across industries and organizations.

They’re also often conflated with other areas of responsibility within a company. A few examples include project management and process management. (Could somebody please develop a few professional roles that aren’t abbreviated PM?)

Here’s a brief overview to help you better distinguish between product management and program management.

What is Product Management?

We’ve devoted an entire page of our website to answer the What is product management? Question.

Product management is strategically driving the development, market launch, and continual support and improvement of its products.

In other words, product managers are not responsible for a specific project or team. They are responsible for one or more of a company’s products. This means from ideation until, well, forever.

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What does it take to be a product manager? Is there a cookie-cutter template, a perfect mold into which all PMs should seek to fit? Are the skills finite and easily definable? In the next Product Stack webinar, we’re going to find out together if there is a such a thing as a paragon of product management—and if you’re on track to be that kind of PM.

What is Program Management?

Whereas a product manager generally focuses straight ahead on all the elements needed to drive her products forward strategically, a program manager takes a lateral view across the organization.

Program management involves identifying and coordinating the interdependencies among projects, products, and other important strategic initiatives across an organization.

Imagine a product manager moving a product through the development process. A web team needs to build and code the web pages for the trial download, the FAQs page, and other online content. Eventually, a marketing team will need to create the collateral and other deliverables to support the launch campaign. Finally, the customer support department will need training on the product. This is so they can begin fielding user questions as soon as the product goes live.

Here is where a program manager can help. A program manager identifies all these interdependencies across various departments. Then they work with the relevant stakeholders in each of these departments. Finally, they coordinate their efforts to ensure everything that needs to get done to support the “program.” In this case, the launch of a product—is on track.

What’s the difference: Project Management vs. Program Management

So how is a program manager different from a project manager? That’s a fair question because, like program management, project management involves tracking and coordinating different teams’ efforts toward a shared company objective.

The differences between the roles vary. This is because different businesses and industries treat these roles differently. The typical difference is that program management is more of a strategic-level responsibility. At the same time, project management is more tactical.

In many organizations, part of a program manager’s responsibility will be to provide strategic guidance and direction to project managers. They will identify an interdependency, for example, between the product team and marketing. Then they will guide project management in breaking down this cross-functional initiative. This is so the project managers can construct the specific tasks they’ll need to track.

What’s the difference: Program Manager vs. Product Manager

Now that we’ve distinguished between the disciplines themselves, we can examine how the individual roles compare. Besides being in some of the same meetings, their day-to-day lives actually have very little in common.

Program managers focus on successful execution. They spend their time worrying about how major initiatives will happen and when key deliverables will be ready, and milestones met.

This includes activities such as :

  • Identifying risks.
  • Building out program schedules.
  • Requesting and allocating resources.
  • Creating a program budget.
  • Justifying major expenditures or adjustments.

They do not only make sure the trains run on time but also concern themselves with all variables. Such as whether there are enough cars for each train, enough fuel to power the engines, and whether or not the right tracks are in place to run the desired routes.

This stands in contrast to product managers. Although product managers must be cognizant of these and other execution-related realities, that’s only within the context of creating a realistically achievable strategy.

Product managers know the market wants sausage. They must understand where the opportunities lie to seize more of the overall sausage market. First, product managers confirm with stakeholders which flavors the market will respond to. Then they collect and analyze customer feedback on what they like and don’t like about their current sausage offerings. Lastly, they build out the personas of sausage lovers.

But they do not care about the process of making sausage or when it ships from the factory to the stores. They only care that it’s there before grilling season begins. That’s what program managers are for.

Product Management vs. Program Management: One Final Distinction

Here’s another useful way to understand the product management vs. program management distinction.

Because product management is responsible for the product’s success (or failure) in the market, a product manager will primarily concern herself by answering the question, “Why?” Why build the product this way, why target this user persona, why prioritize this functionality over that, why set our prices at this level?

By contrast, program management requires taking more of an organization-wide view of any strategic initiative. This includes the development of a product. This means a program manager will be primarily concerned with “How?” and “When?” questions. How can we carve out enough time and personnel from customer support to conduct pre-launch product training? When do we need to start the marketing department working on collateral creation? How much budget can we allot to these initiatives?

When executed properly, these two functions can provide real synergy and strategic advantage to a company initiative. It really isn’t a question of which role to use for a smart organization—product management vs. program management. Ideally, an organization will leverage both for every strategic undertaking.
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The Three PMs: What’s the Difference Between Program Managers vs. Product Manager vs. Project Manager?

Program managers, product managers, and project managers are roles that many other colleagues and superiors may confuse, conflate, and combine. But each job is quite different than the others, despite their shared acronym.

What are the differences?

Products are “going concerns” with users (often external) to ease pain points and improve or facilitate task completion. Programs are also ongoing entities (although they often have an eventual endpoint) encompassing many tracks and specific projects. Projects are discrete initiatives with set start and endpoints.

Due to the differences in each of these roles managing, their job descriptions are quite different. There’s plenty of overlap between a program manager and a project manager, as both works to usher along with important initiatives for their organizations.

Scope in Program Management

But the scope of program management is much broader and rarely gets into the nitty-gritty details of specific resource allocations and scheduling for individual projects (that responsibility lies with the project managers). Additionally, it’s not unusual for project managers to report to program managers, who may have a team to deploy as needed to advance the program.

Strategy in Product Management

However, product management is an entirely different discipline. Product managers don’t spend their time worrying about staffing projects and individual deliverable deadlines for the most part and often don’t have much oversight over budgeting.

Their focus is on prioritizing what’s most important for the organization and its strategic objectives, synthesizing input from various stakeholders and users (and staying as far away from Gantt charts as possible.) They define the product and explain why it’s important to build it.

If you’d like a brief walkthrough of the differences between project management and product management, visit our Product Management vs. Project Management page.

Why Does Product Management vs. Program Management Get Confused?

To those immersed in one of these professions, it can be endlessly frustrating that so many other intelligent people can’t seem to keep things straight. Each job is quite different, but the titles are often used interchangeably.

There are a few potential causes for this bewildering phenomenon. The first is, somewhat understandably, the names. All three begin with “pro” and are often shortened to “PM” in mixed company. It’s natural for someone to get them mixed up, given that context.

But beyond the titles themselves, there are other reasons for confusion. For one thing, unlike nearly every other role in an organization, all three “PM” variants don’t have any deliverables in a traditional sense.

Neither program managers, product managers, or project managers are closing deals, writing code, authoring website copy, generating marketing collateral, etc.

In the product delivery and go-to-market worlds, that lack of discrete output is a bit unusual. While the people holding these jobs create presentations, schedules, roadmaps, and lots of other artifacts, they’re almost exclusively intended to inform and align internal stakeholders versus actual customers or users.

All three PMs also perform oversight roles. They communicate via many different channels, schedule, and run meetings, and in general, ensure loose ends are accounted for, information is aggregated and shared. Things happen when they need to happen.

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