A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
Product managers and project managers can and often do work closely together on the same initiatives, but in most cases, they have two different sets of responsibilities. This page will discuss the differences between product vs project managers in detail, as well as the ways the two roles overlap. But first, here is a high-level summary of the two roles:
Product managers have strategic responsibility for driving the development of products, whereas project managers are responsible for overseeing the execution of those development plans.
Before we discuss the specific differences between product and project managers, let’s clarify what we mean by each role.
In describing the product manager’s role, our friends at Mind the Product cite Marty Cagan’s book Inspired, which explains succinctly that the job of a product manager is to “discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible.”
Mind the Product defines the role in more detail. The product manager, they explain, will first set a vision for the product (based on research), then communicate that vision throughout the organization. Throughout this process, the product manager attempts to persuade executives and other stakeholders to become passionate about the planned product. If successful, the product manager will develop a strategic action plan (typically, via a well-designed product roadmap) to help the organization bring the envisioned product to reality.
The Project Management Institute offers a very helpful description of a project manager‘s role.
As they explain, the project manager is responsible for breaking down strategic plans into actionable, task-oriented initiatives. This process involves coordination, delegation, and leadership, as the project manager must navigate interdependencies, team dynamics, and one-off challenges, all while meeting a deadline with limited resources.
Using the explanations above, we can summarize each role with the following shortlists:
|Product Manager’s Functions||Project Manager’s Functions|
|Researching||Breaking down large initiatives into tasks|
|Setting product vision||Planning project timelines|
|Communicating vision to stakeholders||Allocating project resources|
|Developing a strategic plan||Monitoring and tracking task completion|
|Creating and maintaining the product roadmap||Communicating progress to stakeholders|
|Overseeing and driving development||Ensuring project completion in a set timeframe|
Despite what this polarizing side-by-side comparison may suggest, there is in fact some overlap in responsibilities between product management and project management.
There are times when a product manager has to dig into the tactical, task-based details of a product’s development—work that might otherwise be done by a project manager. These situations will take a product manager into close coordination with a project manager, and in some cases, the two might even share some of this task-management responsibility.
On the flip side, when circumstances call for it, project managers too can shift from their primarily tactical role to a more strategic stance.
Most of the skills required for project management can be transferred over to the wider analytical scope often deployed by product managers. For example, a project manager with strong troubleshooting abilities is really just a skilled problem solver. To channel that core problem-solving skill on a big-picture scale would be to take on the role of a product manager.
It is also worth noting that product managers and project managers alike lean on similar soft skills in order to succeed in their roles. We wrote about 4 essential product management soft skills—listening, communication, organization, and product evangelism—all of which serve successful project managers as well.
In the textbook definitions of their respective roles, product managers and project managers each have clearly delineated areas of responsibility. But in real organizations, as we’ve discussed above, the two roles inevitably bleed into one another. The extent to which they overlap is largely dependent on the specific organization. In the end, of course, professionals in both of these roles are working toward the same all-important outcome: a successful product.