The Ultimate Guide to Product Management vs. Project Management

Product management vs. project management: the two terms are often used interchangeably. Its practitioners are often both referred to as “PMs” by different people. But they are quite different disciplines requiring their own particular sets of skills and tools.

  • Product managers drive the development of products. They prioritize initiatives and make strategic decisions about what gets built. They are sometimes considered the CEO of a product line and focus on business objectives, measurable goals, and positive outcomes.
  • On the other hand, project managers oversee previously approved and developed plans. They manage schedules and resources to get things done—but have little input to define and prioritize those goals and projects.

Product Managers vs. Project Managers

It’s common for people to confuse product managers and project managers — even within industries, like software that employs both. Just ask any product manager (PM) or project manager (also PM), and they’ll tell you they’ve been referred to like the other more times than they can count. But the responsibilities are very different.

Product managers sit at the fulcrum of the business’s goals, the customers’ needs, and the teams building the solutions that meet those needs and goals. It is a role that is both external and internal, manages up and down, and spans technical, business, and operational domains.

Project managers are tasked with getting things done. Their involvement with an initiative doesn’t begin until things are already defined, but once it’s placed in their hands, they serve an integral role in making it all happen. From scheduling to resource allocation to budget management to quality control—they have an essential part to fill in defining the plan and making sure it comes off without a hitch.

Product Manager vs Project Manager

But there are some similarities between these two roles beyond sharing a common acronym. Both are cross-functional, interfacing with various groups within the larger organization and their stakeholders. 

Both also have the challenge of responsibility without authority since they rarely directly manage the staff they’re marshaling for the task. And both can’t do their job without communicating effectively and maintaining alignment.

How they share information, including the timing, format, and tools they rely upon, has a significant impact on their overall effectiveness. And both can benefit from using roadmaps to help overcome that challenge.
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Product Management Software vs. Project Management Software

Product management software and project management software are entirely different tools designed to help address different business needs.

The key distinction: product management software helps product managers organize, develop, and communicate the product strategy. Project management software helps project managers (and others responsible for building the product) track said strategy execution.

Product Management vs. Project Management

Product Management Software

Product management software helps track the high-level requirements, document the product vision, communicate the strategy, establish priorities and rough timeframes, and indicate high-level estimates. However, there are plenty of project management tools that product managers can also use for their purposes.

These tools help product managers boil big strategic things down to smaller achievable tasks. They can also help product managers be more effective communicators and provide timely updates on their items.

Product Roadmap Software

Product roadmap software is a specific type of product management software designed to communicate the product strategy — the goals and rough timeframe needed to achieve them. It often shows the product initiatives among the company’s existing offerings.

The best product roadmap software tools generate visual, easy-to-grasp roadmaps using templates specific to the task.

These tools are often used to build roadmaps for executives and other leadership-level stakeholders to secure buy-in for product initiatives.

Product roadmap software, like ProductPlan, lets the product manager develop and present a clear vision to various audiences. By keeping the focus at a strategic level, this plan and set of requirements bring the product to life.

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Project Management Software

Project management software is a tactical tool used to track and manage all of a project’s details. You can think of project management software as the tool used after a product (or project or other initiatives) has received the green light to begin.

In other words, if a product manager uses product roadmap software to win executive buy-in to develop a new product, then a project manager might use project management software (think Atlassian JIRA) to build and then execute a detailed development plan.

This software helps project managers capture and share all of the ground-level details such as deadlines, tasks, subtasks, jobs completed and jobs outstanding, assets needed, and collaboration among team members.

But larger-scale projects, such as major IT initiatives, can benefit from a roadmap of their own, mainly when there are multiple development tracks. Choosing the right tool for the job is essential. In the end, successful companies need both product management and project management software.

 

IT-Strategy-Roadmap-Template

Gantt Chart

A popular format for communicating project status is with a Gantt chart. These bar charts graphically illustrate the project schedule and can track each specific task. They offer a quick visual overview of the big picture and are easily consumed by stakeholders.

However, as projects progress and become more complex, maintaining Gantt charts ensures their accuracy can become an arduous task of its own. And as the timeline extends, it can turn into a cluttered, clipped view of the overall project when it’s squished onto one page or screen.

Gantt charts aren’t typically a great match for an Agile environment, where everything is in flux and chopped into discrete iterations. However, they’re excellent for indicating dependencies and an order-of-operations view of a large project requiring cross-functional collaboration.

Gantt-chart

Skills, Responsibilities, and Metrics

To further clarify and delineate the differences between product managers and project managers, let’s examine what each is responsible for, how their success is measured, and the skills they need to succeed.

Skills

Product managers will never fail to share the breadth and range of skills required to do their job well. The role entails a unique combination of business acumen, attention to detail, sales savvy, marketing chops, and comprehension of technical issues that few other jobs require.

Critical thinking, prioritization, and synthesizing various information sources are also essential product management skills. They must become subject matter experts in their product’s domain to understand the competitive landscape and have enlightening and informative conversations with customers, users, and prospects.
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Project managers don’t need to be quite the same type of modern Renaissance person as a product manager to perform their duties, but they also need a diverse set of skills to thrive in their role. They’ll also frequently need to schedule, negotiate, manage risks, control costs, and lead effective and efficient meetings. 

What both roles share is the need for an excellent organization, communication, and presentation skills. Both types of PMs must have a firm grasp of the issues they’re dealing with and stakeholder concerns, plus the ability to clearly and concisely convey information and secure alignment. And, of course, they both need to deliver and narrate clear plans, schedules, and roadmaps. 

Effective and successful project management is based on several core principles. These include asking the hard questions others don’t want to or can’t ask to fully understand what’s involved in delivering a project, motivating it, and defining and sticking to the project vision to squash scope creep

Responsibilities

Product managers have plenty on their plates, but their to-do lists evolve along with the product’s life-cycle. The process begins with extensive research via interviews, surveys, and market research.

Once a real problem has been identified and verified, a product vision is created for a solution that might address this market need. The product vision is communicated to stakeholders to secure buy-in and begin the development of a strategic plan.

 

Next comes prototyping, experiments, and other exercises to hone and refine the product vision to ensure the product will meet the target market’s requirements at a price point that will give the business the ROI they’re looking for.

From here, product managers create and maintain a product roadmap, conducting ongoing user research, backlog refinement, prioritization, and other related tasks. They also work in concert with sales and marketing to identify barriers in the purchasing process and help usher in the right messaging, pricing, and packaging. Product managers also partner with the account management and customer success organizations to create onboarding and support models that increase the chances of adoption and reduce churn.

Calculate Churn Rate

Project managers are tasked with a different set of responsibilities. Once they begin managing a particular project, they must first ensure they fully understand the objectives, the constraints, and pertinent factors related to how it’s executed.

With a complete grasp of the initiative, project managers then get to work, breaking the project down into smaller, discrete tasks. With these tasks and their dependencies spelled out, project managers will create a project timeline and schedule.

To turn this schedule into a reality, project managers allocate project resources for optimal output from the contributing teams and individuals. Once the project is underway, they will monitor task completion, frequently meeting and consulting with the individuals and groups working on various tasks and laboring to remove any barriers or clear up any questions that might slow things down.

Throughout the entire process, project managers are continually communicating status and updating stakeholders while ensuring that downstream teams are ready for work when it’s their turn to take the baton. Project managers will frequently use both meetings and presentation tools such as roadmaps, project plans, and schedules to convey this information.

Metrics

Judging product managers and project managers’ success can be a bit tricky, as neither role can execute things individually and are thus heavily reliant on other people doing their jobs to achieve their stated goals. But the success, progress, and failures of each can and should be measured.

For product management, they are typically measured based on the product metrics themselves. Those could be revenue-driven metrics or usage-based ones, such as subscriber growth, churn, adoption, time on site, etc. There may also be more specific goals, such as gaining a foothold in a key target market or launching a new product line extension.
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Project management measurement is a little more under the control of project managers themselves. Since they’re setting the schedule and managing the projects, they are ultimately responsible for whether what was asked is delivered on time and meets the underlying requirements.

However, the project’s success post-delivery is rarely part of a project manager’s measurement, as they were essentially only following orders when it comes to defining the project itself. If they’re asked to build something that doesn’t find product-market fit, they can’t be blamed if delivered wholly and promptly.

Therefore they’re judged on their ability to develop on time and under budget. That includes creating and sticking to schedules, quality measures to ensure what’s delivered meets the requirements and doesn’t have many issues, and managing costs. Stakeholder satisfaction with the finished product and the project’s overall management can also be considered, including communication, escalation strategies, and optimal resource utilization.

Project Management Job Description

Regardless of the setting, project managers are tasked with delivering projects that meet requirements on time and under budget. But project management job descriptions can feature some other common elements as well. 

Many project managers are responsible for planning out how the project will be executed (and not just following a pre-existing project plan). That means scoping out each project element, ensuring the best resources are assigned to the most appropriate tasks, and flagging any significant concerns or risks before the project commences. 

Often this includes determining the actual cost of the project so a realistic budget can be set and carved out of the organization’s operating expenses or funded via other means, such as professional services fees.

Project managers are also usually responsible for building out the overall project schedule, based on conversations with the various parts of the organization involved in delivery—including design, architecture, engineering, testing, quality assurance, and operations. In some cases, this may extend into the go-to-market phase of the project and include launch plans, marketing activities, training, and a rollout to the sales team and customer base.

If third parties or other partners and vendors are involved, their contributions must also be tracked, mainly if they’re providing parts or services on the critical delivery path. This may, in some cases, require active participation in contracts and vendor agreements.

Once things are underway, project managers track all scheduled activities’ progress, continually check-in to see if there are any delays (or early finishes) and adjust the schedule or resource allocation accordingly. Similarly, if there are unexpected cost overruns, the budget must be updated, and, depending on their severity, they may need to seek additional funding.

Project managers must also communicate project status and escalate when necessary to the various project stakeholders. This typically occurs via documentation (i.e., updating project plans), written status updates, and in-person/virtual meetings.

Career Path

Project managers are typically hired because they already have experience managing projects, even if they weren’t doing so in an official project management capacity. There are also certifications, such as the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, that employers will look for to indicate that they’re a true practitioner and familiar with the standard elements of effective project management.

Project managers can come from the ranks of engineering or account management, or operations; there’s no particular path to get there. Once they join the ranks, project managers can climb the ladder by taking responsibility for more extensive, higher visibility initiatives and be given more autonomy to manage projects independently. Some may begin as project coordinators or schedulers before graduating to assistant project manager, project manager, or senior project manager.

Depending on the organization’s size and structure, senior management-level roles are available, such as Director of Project Management or VP of Project Management. In some cases, a project management career path may eventually lead to a Chief Operations Officer role. However, that typically requires an MBA or experience in other aspects of the business along the way.

Alternatively, some project managers take a different route and move into product management, swapping the tactical for product development’s strategic aspects.

Do project managers have to be technical?

This same question is often asked about product managers, but the short answer is “it depends.” This is partially based on the nature of the projects a project manager is being asked to manage and dependent on its culture.

Being familiar with the underlying technology and concepts being used in a project is always helpful. The project manager can then act as another “sanity check” on time estimates and properly scope elements.

A technical background can also come in handy when assigning the best people to specific tasks since they know which particular skills and experience will be most useful. When problems arise, they may propose solutions, workarounds, and fixes to keep things on time and under budget. And when reviewing documentation, they might be able to spot holes that should be addressed early on to prevent a downstream delay.

That said, many very successful project managers have never written a line of code, soldered anything, or used CAD tools. That’s because they partner with the technical management, establish trust and lines of communication with individual contributors, and defer to subject matter experts when appropriate.

Keeping everything moving and tracking progress is a valuable skill set of its own. Having a unique perspective can be just as valuable as being well-versed in the nuances of the endeavor’s technical aspects.

Can agile and project management coexist?

At face value, project managers might seem like an odd fit for an Agile environment. Flexibility and constant adjustment appear to run counter to rigid, detailed project plans. But project managers can play a vital role in organizations using Agile.

Agile Values

Despite the product being delivered in short, iterative sprints, it’s still intended to meet strategic goals and achieve particular outcomes eventually. Figuring out how to break down those larger initiatives into bite-sized chunks is one area a project manager can add significant value.

Project managers can also create Sprint Roadmaps that communicate what each sprint encompasses and show how they fit together. Measuring sprints’ success is another value-add project managers can provide since the rest of the team is always off to the races on the next sprint instead of looking back.

Project Management vs. Program Management

While we’re explaining the difference between different “PMs,” it’s also worth noting the differences between project managers and the other PM role found in some organizations: program managers.

There’s a lot more overlap between these two roles than with product managers, but the key difference is between programs and projects themselves. Projects are discrete, one-off exercises that have a specific objective and are complete when that’s reached. Like putting on a new roof or painting a fence, there is a clear beginning and end to these endeavors.

Programs comprise multiple related projects that work in concert to deliver large strategic initiatives for the organization and usually have much longer time horizons than an individual project. The folks tasked with defining and orchestrating all these projects to reach that strategic objective is program managers.

It’s frequently the case that program managers have project managers working for them (either directly or via a matrixed configuration) to manage and deliver the individual projects that comprise a program. By definition, program managers are operating at a more strategic level, while project managers are focused on tactical matters.

The Importance of Stakeholder Analysis

As a project manager, it’s essential to understand the differences between various stakeholders. They encompass a broad spectrum of personality types and priorities, so recognizing those variances and addressing them accordingly makes a project manager’s job much more manageable.

This process first begins by identifying all the potential stakeholders for a given project. This includes both apparent candidates, such as the executive team, product management, engineering, the testers, and ancillary parts of the organization, including UX/UI teams, operations, customer support, account management, marketing, and sales.

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Each department has people interested in how the project progresses and depends on accurate information to plan and schedule their activities. This list doesn’t even include customers or 3rd party partners who may be both the drivers and/or beneficiaries of the project in question.

Once each stakeholder has been discovered, a further inquiry should be made into what they care about most in this project, which information they need to stay informed, and their preferred method and cadence for updates. Some might be casually curious; others may care, but it doesn’t impact their work, and others are relying on particular milestones to trigger activities of their own.

With this in mind, project managers must meet the project’s various stakeholders’ demands by delivering information in a clear and concise format as frequently (or infrequently) as needed. Using cloud-based, real-time roadmaps, project plans, and timelines can make this much more manageable. 

With these tools, everyone will see an accurate, up-to-date view of the current status and expected delivery dates. Additionally, specific ideas can be created using filters and swimlanes, so everyone gets the granularity they need without overburdening everyone else with more detail and specificity than they need.

While a self-service model might work for some stakeholders, others may require a more proactive approach to keep them informed. Some may benefit from getting automatic updates every time a change in the schedule is made, while others will prefer an actual presentation of the latest status and expected schedule.

Here again, understanding stakeholders and their motivations can be a gamechanger, as this knowledge can inform what’s presented and how it’s delivered. Doing some homework during the stakeholder analysis phase, project managers can figure out who’s a visual learner, who would benefit from a one-on-one deep dive session, and who is happy to get a brief update during a more general meeting.

 

These presentations can be further customized based on what each stakeholder cares about, as some may be purely focused on “when it’s going to ship.” In contrast, others may be interested in where the slowdowns are occurring, how resources are being allocated, and what shape the budget is in. Each interaction can be maximized for value by shaping it for the audience in question.

Acceptance Criteria

There’s nothing worse than finishing a project and realizing it doesn’t achieve its stated goal. To avoid this fate, project managers should work with stakeholders to solicit and define the acceptance criteria for a given project or release.

In the Agile world, acceptance criteria specifically apply to what must be present to consider a user story complete. These need to be well-defined, easily understandable, and, most important of all, testable.

Acceptance Criteria

 

Acceptance criteria are particularly important for project managers because they clarify to all parties the expectations of a “finished” project for all stakeholders. This prevents one party from thinking something is done, while the other believes it falls short.

Project managers don’t necessarily need to write these themselves. Still, it’s essential to be sure they’re in place and agreed upon before anyone sketches out a user interface or writes any code. Removing any ambiguity from the definition of done leads to better scoping, more realistic scheduling, and no “gotcha” last-minute surprises.