7 Project Management Principles Product Managers Can Learn From

Product managers often think of project managers as tactical professionals. This is only partially true, but it’s an understandable misconception. When they work together on a product, the product manager supplies the strategic plan. The project manager turns that plan into a list of tasks and other tactical details. But they also apply a set of strategic project management principles to their work. In fact, many project management principles are universal and can benefit other teams.

Let’s review some of these project management principles and discuss how applying them can help product management with their own product principles.

1. Start by asking and answering the big questions.

Project managers know they can’t dive into the details until they understand the project’s big-picture objectives. If they start assigning tasks without knowing the goals, project managers risk wasting resources on the wrong things.

This is why smart project managers start by thinking through the strategic questions: Why are we doing this project? How will it benefit our company? What will success look like?

Answering those questions will help a project manager make better strategic decisions.

The product manager’s takeaway:

When you begin planning a new product or set out to overhaul an existing one, you will already have a long list of ideas. Feature ideas. Design and UX ideas. Product-name ideas. Pricing ideas. Before you can take action on any of these, you need to determine your product’s big-picture strategy and objectives.

You might start by building your product roadmap, a great way to help your team identify the product’s strategic vision. Or you might start with a high-level brainstorming session with your cross-functional team. But you need to ask and answer these big questions before you start the tactical work on your product.

2. Define the scope and stick to it.

After a team begins working on any complex project, new issues will come up. A colleague or executive might request work on an area related to the project but not part of its original plan. Or someone on the team might have an idea that requires expanding the project just a little.

Because project managers have limited resources (people, time, and budget), they know they often need to say no to these requests.

In fact, experienced project managers know that one of the first steps to take when kicking off a new project is to define the project’s scope (or else they risk inviting scope creep). There are some great project management tools to help them accomplish it. They need to be clear (and to make clear to everyone on the team) what the project will and will not encompass. This will give the project the greatest chance of staying on track.

The product manager’s takeaway:

Product managers should set the scope of their products’ development as early in the process as possible.

Learning how to say no to product requests is a valuable skill. But it is also a reactive method of keeping your product’s development on track. Instead, be proactive. Define your product’s scope from the beginning, and keep development within that scope.

For specific strategies, read our article: 5 Ways Product Managers Can Reduce Scope Creep.


3. Identify your stakeholders and decide how best to involve them.

Project managers know that their work on a complex project will involve more than just the employees working directly on it. Company initiatives often affect many people and departments across the organization.

So, smart project managers figure out early on who all of these stakeholders are and how best to involve each of them.

Some executives might show interest in the project but not in the day-to-day details. The project manager needs to be careful here not to overwhelm these stakeholders with communication. At the same time, they will want to make these people feel connected to the project so that the team doesn’t lose their support.

By contrast, for the sales team, whose ability to close deals will be directly affected by the project’s success, the project manager might choose to give these stakeholders more of a hands-on role. This could include asking these salespeople for input in brainstorming sessions and sending them detailed progress updates.

The product manager’s takeaway:

A product’s development also involves many stakeholders beyond the team working on the product.

To navigate their products’ development, product managers need ongoing support from many stakeholders. Failing to involve a stakeholder from the earliest stages of a new product, or mishandling a stakeholder during the process, could create obstacles to that product’s success.

Product managers should conduct a stakeholder analysis before kicking off a product’s development. The goal will be to identify everyone who will need to be involved in the project and then to determine how specifically to involve each type of stakeholder.

For more tips, read our page on Stakeholder Analysis.

4. Develop your action plan and communicate it to the team.

When they’ve identified their project’s strategic objectives, determined its scope, and figured out who its stakeholders will be, project managers can start breaking the project into tasks, roles, timelines, deliverables, and other details.

During this action-plan stage, smart project managers also make sure they are communicating with their project’s team, and that this communication runs in both directions. In other words, during the planning phase, a project manager seeks input from the team, asking questions such as:

  • Have I sufficiently explained the project’s strategic objectives and what success will look like?
  • Do you understand the tasks assigned to you, and why they are necessary to the project’s success?
  • Do you have the tools and time you need to complete these tasks?
  • What resources are you lacking to be successful?
  • Is there anything that might block your progress?

The product manager’s takeaway:

Eventually, product managers need to translate their product vision into an action plan. This should be a blueprint showing the major areas of functionality and the strategic reasons for including them.

For a product manager, this blueprint should be a product roadmap.

5. Keep the communication flowing.

One of the most important factors in a project’s success is ongoing communication. Projects can lose momentum and focus if team communication breaks down.

This is why experienced project managers develop a plan to keep the team, including all stakeholders, connected and informed from the project’s kickoff to its completion.

A project’s communication plan should be more than just a schedule of planned team meetings at regular intervals. Different categories of stakeholders will require different types and frequencies of communication, for example, and the project manager should have a plan for appropriately communicating with each type of stakeholder.

The project manager should also make it easy for team members to reach out to each other at any time with questions or to update colleagues with information relevant to them.

And during team progress meetings, it is the project manager’s job to find out if any team members are experiencing problems or need additional help or guidance to complete their tasks.

The product manager’s takeaway:

To drive a product successfully from concept to market launch, a product manager needs to communicate regularly with several different teams.

In fact, a big part of your job as a product manager is to bring together diverse teams and help them make progress toward a common organizational objective.

And just as a project manager’s communication plan requires more than setting up regular status-update meetings, your communication strategy as a product manager will be more complex as well.

You will need to keep your product roadmap up-to-date and accessible to your cross-functional team. That way anyone working on the product has a way to check in and make sure they are still strategically on track.

You will also need a way to communicate your roadmap to stakeholders throughout the process. Some stakeholders (executives, for example) will want only high-level updates, while others (such as your development team) will want deep-dive discussions of the product’s progress.

Because you will be updating your roadmap regularly, and because you will want to easily switch between different levels of detail as you present it to different teams, you will want to build your roadmap using web-based roadmap software.

6. Watch the road ahead for obstacles.

Once they’ve kicked off a project and their team has started working on it, project managers need to stay on the lookout for roadblocks that could slow their team’s progress.

A project manager can accomplish some of this through regular communication with the team—asking if anyone is having problems completing any of their tasks, for example. But project managers need to keep a broader view as well. For example, they should be monitoring what else is happening within the company (or outside it) that could affect the progress of the project.

The product manager’s takeaway:

Product managers need to keep a high-level view at all times, to help them identify obstacles or threats to the product that the team itself might be too busy working on the product to see.

After you have communicated your product’s strategic goals and plans to developers, designers, and the other members of your cross-functional team, those people will start working on the product.

At this point, it’s your responsibility as the product manager to monitor the landscape for possible threats to the product’s development—such as a new company priority that will divert budget away, or the possibility of a key member of the team leaving the company.

7. Have a plan to identify and measure success.

The final project management principles we’ll discuss are measurement and accountability.

When they kick off any initiative, smart project managers develop a plan to determine how to hold teams and individuals accountable for their areas of responsibility, to figure out when they can deem the project completed, and to know what success will look like.

Some project managers do this by creating a project scorecard. Using a scorecard gives the team a quick and easy way to check in any time to monitor the project’s progress. Also, because they know everyone else on the team (including external stakeholders) can view the scorecard, this method motivates teams and individuals to stay on schedule and do their best work.

The most effective project scorecards also publicly recognize and honor team members’ successes. Project managers can do this easily by using award icons such as gold stars to signal the completion of a task or finishing before a deadline.

The product manager’s takeaway:

Who says a project scorecard can’t also work for product development?

Product managers’ work involves corralling people across several different departments to work together on complex assignments. Many of these people might work in the same physical location and might not even know each other.

One way to keep the entire team on track and functioning as a team is to create a product scorecard that everyone on the team can check at any time to see both how they are doing individually and how the product’s overall progress is coming along.

Product development is a long, slow process, involving many people, each with their own needs and priorities. As the weeks, the development sprints, and the months wear on, a cross-functional product team can easily lose focus of the bigger strategic goal they’re all working toward. They can even lose focus that they’re on a team at all. To create a product scorecard, show everyone where it is, use it to celebrate the team’s successes—and make it fun!