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Product vs Project Management, are they not the same?
It's not that hard to explain the difference. The two roles often overlap in a few organizations, and it's pretty common to see project managers acting as product managers
I might have a particular perspective about it; I started my career as a Project Manager. At a certain point, I shift to product development/management. I learned a few things along the way that could help you understand the difference between them.
You must be asking yourself, what is the actual difference between product and project management? It's not that hard to explain the difference. The two roles often overlap in a few organizations, and it's pretty common to see project managers acting as product managers inside those overlaps areas. So, let's in and talk about the differences between these two notable and complex roles.
We already know that product managers are responsible for the success of a product, but are they accountable? And what does success mean for a product? Success is usually defined by KPIs, OKRs, or other metrics; a few examples of metrics for digital products are:
Number of sign-ups
Number of downloads (Apps)
Cost of Acquisition (CAC)
Net Promoter Score (NPS)
Lifetime Value (LTV)
A product manager is responsible for reaching specific metrics and doesn't much about the how; we'll have an entire article on metrics later. Product Managers have a metrics goal that means success. They need to reach that goal, and the method by which they reach that goal is not defined; it is totally up to them and their team to decide how they want to achieve that goal.
An example: you run an eCommerce company, and you hired me as a product manager. You want me to increase the checkout conversion by 10% this quarter. As a product manager, I can choose different ways to tackle this challenge:
Do a user research
Look at all the available data (views, clicks, flow, etc...)
Build an experiment
I might want to do several other things to decide how to solve that problem or reach that goal. For the sake of the example, let's assume that I might decide to redesign the checkout process because users complained before that it's not easy. I also choose to increase the processing power of our servers, due to complaints about slowness.
We find out that such slow drops past the conversion percentage because many people leave before checking out. No matter which of these approaches you pick, you succeed. After all, the goal is to get that +10%.
As you probably already know, one of these approaches will be better than the other. That all depends on the upfront research and user testing you do with your designer and developers team.
So, how about a project manager?
A project manager is different because they are responsible for accomplishing a project, not just one goal. A project usually has a timeline, a budget, and quality requirements as a constraint.
Project management as a skill is definitely something you will still need as a product manager.
I worked as a Project Manager in IT, Construction, and Manufacturing. When you need to build a new production line or a building, you'll call a project manager. You'll want to hire a person who knows how to best react to weather delays, supply shortages, budget restrictions, or that sort of thing.
Let's work together in an example: We want to build a twenty-story tall building that will accommodate more than 10,000 people. In this instance, I would not consider hirer someone that will start to research, experiment, and maybe deliver on time.
Product managers and their teams are supposed to do a lot of experimenting to see what will work best. You definitely don't want to be testing when you're building a skyscraper; you want to know for sure that you'll have precisely the building we had a plan, budget, time, and specs-wise.
Like I mentioned before, as a product manager, you definitely need to know the skill of project management. An example of that is on the front end; you collect requirements and ideas and define potential future initiatives. Those initiatives should be considered as projects; why?
Well, yearly, you'll have to approve a roadmap, and the time and results that you'll believe that your initiatives will add should be approved by your strategic board. So, we actually will have a few constraints, but honestly, they're at this point a bunch of guesses that you will have to prove or disprove along the year.
Then, only then, you're really putting those things into execution/development mode with your team. You're in them into an exit.
The example of the project manager I gave was simple to identify the difference between the two PMs. But, in tech, can you think of projects where project managers are essential?
A few and typical examples are:
When two tech companies combine together and want to merge their technology platforms.
When a tech company needs to change its entire tech stack.
When a tech company needs to build a dedicated solution for a client; pretty standard in B2B and one of the worst nightmare for a product manager.
At this point, you need to understand how to manage things in a software sense. I want to reinforce that project managers aren't useless in software. In fact, there are things that they're critical for outside of buildings, skyscrapers, and bridges, and that sort of thing.
Otherwise, the companies probably wouldn't merge in the first place. There are so many moving pieces during a merge that someone needs to check and make sure that things are really happening constantly. And not just happening, but also in time, on budget and other restrictions.
Another example will be a software consulting or an advertising agency that the client will ask: we want you to make a campaign or build specific software. Everything is defined as what needs to be built.
So after the scope and restrictions and agreed and approved, it becomes, again, that execution mode. Where the project manager really needs to make sure everything is executed on budget on time. Usually, there isn't space for experimenting with trying to do things differently or reach a particular business goal.
Is there a gray area between the two PMs?
Depends. I know, annoying to read this answer, but it's true. It'll depend on the sector, company, and especially the project and product management methodology your company adopted.
Methodologies can be approached rigidly as a discipline without deviations, or more à la carte, where a hybrid of two or more is used to respond to the singular aspects of a project. But you can't use a methodology you don't know, which is why good project/product managers are intellectually curious and never complacent.
I will not explore the difference between the several different methods for project and product manager. But, I need to express that one thing should be the same for projects or products independently of the method: the company decision-making process.
A new product can be treated as a project and product at the same time. Let's imagine a new laptop. Is it a project or product? I'd say both.
A laptop contains hardware and software. Let's breakdown it:
and much more
operational system (OS)
and much more
If you look at every component separately, we can for sure say they are a product on their own. For example, the keyboard is a product on its own and can be management likewise. However, when we look at the laptop's perspective, the keyboard is a component.
Now we know that there is some project management inside the role of product management. Still, as far as careers go and having those titles as a profession, they're supposed to be entirely separate things.
A brief recap
Even that it is easy to identify the difference between the two PMs' roles, it's a lot of info to digest.
So, product managers are responsible for accomplishing a goal by any means. They feel they will be best after they consult and collaborate with their team and do user research and all sorts of stuff like that.
Project managers are responsible for accomplishing a set of different things, usually working with several restrictions. Like a building or big pieces of software, either in a physical world, do it within this timeframe budget.
I will see you guys in the following article.