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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, such as 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. Here’s how we summarize the role on that page: Product management is the practice of strategically driving the development, market launch, and continual support and improvement of a company’s products.

In other words, product managers are responsible not for a specific project or team, but rather for one or more of a company’s products—from the moment the concept for that product is conceived until, well, forever.

What is Program Management?

Whereas a product manager generally focuses straight ahead on all of the elements needed to strategically drive her products forward, a program manager takes more of 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. Eventually, a marketing team will need to create the collateral and other deliverables to support the launch campaign. A web team will be needed to build and code the web pages for the trial download, the FAQs page, and other online content. And the customer support department will need to be trained on the product so they can begin fielding user questions as soon as the product goes live.

Here is where a program manager can help—identifying all of these interdependencies across various departments, working with the relevant stakeholders in each of these departments, and coordinating their efforts to make sure 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: Product 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 the efforts of different teams working toward a shared company objective.

The typical difference between program management and project management—and this can vary because different businesses and industries treat these roles differently—is that program management is more of a strategic-level responsibility and 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, and then they will guide project management in breaking down this cross-functional initiative so the project managers can construct the specific tasks they’ll need to track.

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

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 ultimately 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?

Portfolio Roadmap
Roadmaps help product managers communicate the “why” behind their product strategy. This portfolio roadmap aggregates several roadmaps to give a big picture view of initiatives across multiple product lines.

Program management, by contrast, requires taking more of an organization-wide view of any strategic initiative, including 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 a strategic advantage to a company initiative. For a smart organization, then, it really isn’t a question of which role to use—product management vs. program management. Ideally, an organization will leverage both for every strategic undertaking.