“Products” and “projects” may look alike—only two letters differ—and sound alike, but they’re quite different. Yet the same mental conflagration that necessitates a clarification between product managers and project managers also plagues products and projects.
This dilemma extends far beyond misused terminology. It also impacts our mindsets as well. Two parties thinking about the same thing may have wildly different assumptions and expectations.
What’s the Difference?
To begin exploring this disconnect, let’s first establish a common understanding of what projects and products are at a basic, fundamental level.
What makes a project a project?
Projects are, by definition, temporary endeavors. A set of individuals and organizations take on the required tasks to reach a specific goal. There is a schedule, a budget, a kickoff, and an endpoint. The project’s progress gets measured, and it ends after achieving predetermined objectives and milestones.
In short, a project begins with a clearly defined, well-understood conclusion. From there, the team strives to avoid deviating from the plan or schedule. Stakeholders know what to expect, when, and how much it will cost.
What makes a product a product?
Products are ongoing concerns. While they may eventually reach an end of life and sunset, that isn’t the goal. Instead, organizations track usage, growth, and loyalty while optimizing operations to maximize profitability and other KPIs.
A new product may result from a project—or multiple projects—but, even after its introduction, numerous iterative improvements and updates follow. A product team’s work is never done as long as the product remains on the market.
In a nutshell, products continually evolve based on learnings, feedback, changing market conditions, and financial fundamentals. There’s always room for improvement, enhancement, and expansion into new markets and use cases.
Why Does that Difference Matter?
Because projects are discrete undertakings with a predetermined “definition of done,” there’s little strategic thinking once execution gets underway. Wrapping it up on time and under budget while meeting the acceptance criteria is the one-and-only goal for everyone involved.
While that shared, singular focus is excellent for getting things done quickly and efficiently, a project mindset doesn’t work as well when applied to a continually adapting, morphing, and evolving product. The same attributes that keep projects humming while swatting away distractions and avoiding detours might hurt in a product setting.
For starters, products are rarely completed in one fell swoop. Unless it’s a commodity or a specific, physical product, they’re instead created via a series of iterative releases. Most products are too complex to finish that quickly. They require multiple phases and releases until the complete functionality is in place.
A product’s lifespan
Beyond the logistical causes for a product’s lengthier lifespan, however, products have plenty of other reasons for taking a slower, more contemplative journey. The search for product-market fit can be a windy, unpredictable affair. From MVPs to experiments to pivots, products and those who build them continually push to deliver value to the market, learn what works, and then continue the journey while making steady improvements and enhancements.
This core difference between projects and products requires two different approaches. Project mindsets focus on time, budgets, and deliverables. Team compositions shift based on resourcing needs, and Gantt charts rule the day as it’s all about execution and outputs.
A product mindset instead focuses on outcomes. The details, timing, and methods take a backseat to increasing customer value, and the team rallies around the product vision and strategy, with the product roadmap taking center stage.
Switching gears from one mindset to another doesn’t always happen so quickly. The goals and incentives change significantly, and there’s much less black-and-white thinking when a product mindset kicks in. But this grey area can also create confusion and uncertainty for those seeking predictability and routine.
How to Shift Your Own—or Someone Else’s—Mindset
A project mindset is attractive to those craving certainties. It can be a hard sell to give up that comfort for the unknowns that accompany a product mindset. But creating some structural and procedural fundamentals can speed up the transition and align everyone around the ultimate goal of growing the business by delivering customer value.
Create semi-permanent product teams
Adopting a product mindset is easier when team members have a vested interest, which is tough without continuity. Assigning staff to specific product teams gives them a sense of ownership and shared goals with their colleagues.
This arrangement also fosters camaraderie among the teams since they work together more often and on related tasks. This steady level of engagement also means staff has a greater familiarity with the product. Moreover, they understand the target market, the strategy, and their coworkers.
The continuity of these teams also makes them more efficient and effective over time as they learn and adjust to each member’s style in terms of communication and collaboration. Additionally, when team members know they’ll potentially be working on the same product for years to come, they’re less likely to take shortcuts or pile up technical debt.
Welcome change and adaptation
A product mindset is rooted in creating unique experiences for users based on learnings and feedback. To foster this environment, the team must remain open to frequently adjusting plans… and sometimes scrapping them altogether.
This is a far cry from a project mindset, where the team fixates on delivery over all else. A windy road with detours and U-turns is a project manager’s worst nightmare, while a product team embraces the opportunity to adapt on the fly to create the best possible product.
Enabling this openness requires the entire chain of command to embrace a product mindset and not judge strategic moves based on time-to-market or maximizing short-term revenues. Problems must be viewed as opportunities versus delays.
Don’t tie down teams to timelines
Even the most open-minded, customer-centric organizations require some sense of when products will ship, but announcing a target date for a release puts a lot of pressure on teams to deliver at all costs. A product mindset demands flexibility to adapt, even if it delays things from time to time.
Team leaders and individual contributors must know the business supports deviating from plans and schedules when it’s the best outcome for the product. This means leaders and executives must not get punitive or overly negative when product timelines change, be it a delay or a change in scope.
This uncertainty may feel uncomfortable, but transparency and trust can mitigate that unpleasantness. When leadership knows the reason for an alteration is due to a strategic shift rather than sloppy planning or poor execution, it’s easier to build a supportive base in the upper tiers of the organization.
Of course, some milestones may be non-negotiable, such as a customer-driven deadline or industry event showcase. But an overall openness to schedule flexibility creates a workplace that fully embraces the product mindset.
Don’t fall in love with the first idea
Projects, by definition, have a well-defined objective. The path to execute is largely predetermined before the project plan is even built, and there’s no appetite for entertaining new solutions once work gets underway.
But a product mindset keeps the door open to alternatives at all times. This forces stakeholders to be more open to concepts that challenge their assumptions and force them to revisit earlier decisions. When the conversation shifts from “who was wrong?” to “what’s best now?” then you’re on your way.
Product operations can make this easier by analyzing feedback and delivering actionable insights to the rest of the team. A steady flow of data-driven recommendations creates more urgency and openness to optimizing the customer experience.
Match your roadmap to your mindset
Suppose there’s one single artifact that can best set the tone for a product mindset. In that case, it’s the product roadmap—creating a roadmap using themes shifts the paradigm from dates and deliverables to outcomes and priorities.
A theme-based roadmap’s lack of specificity and detail creates ample room for flexibility and change without ushering in a total free-for-all. The entire business knows the big-picture items the team is working on.
A theme-based roadmap stands in stark comparison to a detailed project plan. Using this as the springboard for interactions with stakeholders and direction setting with the implementation team hammers home the value-based approach to product development.