Product manager vs project manager has been a highly debated topic over past one decade. The IT sector has undergone such a sea change that even veterans are awestruck at its current form. Information Technology, as we know it, has become more sophisticated, with several fragments with intricate functions within them, each one specializing on a specific objective, expertise, and outcome that no other function can interfere with.
Project management and product management are two such functions that have grown in prominence and popularity in the recent past. A little ago, project management and product management were used interchangeably. There was little or no distinction between both the functions.
However, with the passage of time, and as explained earlier due to the polarized growth of each function, these two functions have become extremely different from each other. And so, product managers and project managers have become two distinct specializations with unique traits, responsibilities and even career paths.
In this blog, you will see how project managers and product managers are different from each other. At the other end of this blog, you will understand what makes both sets of professionals as different as two species sharing the same world.
Who is a product manager?
The textbook definition of a product manager would be “a product manager is someone who turns the idea of a product into a market-ready product with strong competitive advantages, unique differentiators, and also market feasibility.”
A literary way of describing a product manager would be, “A product manager is someone who turns a rough stone of an idea into a diamond that customers would be willing to buy.”
It is worth noting that a product manager has a hint of entrepreneurship embedded in the job profile. He or she has to turn an idea and take it to market as a finished product. This calls for having a vision for the future, building a team to accomplish the vision, paving a roadmap for the product’s growth and also managing it with a hands-on approach.
Phrased differently, the success or failure of a product is dependent on the skills and expertise of the product manager.
Who is a project manager?
A project manager is a recognized professional. Those who pass the PMP® certification examination conducted by the Project Management Institute are qualified as Project Managers. The profession is well-managed and is recognized by organizations worldwide.
What makes PMP® a really professional course is that it also demands aspirants to acquire professional working experience as part of the curriculum. It helps aspirants to have a worldview of their role and what is expected of them once they pass the certification and step into the real world of opportunities.
According to the PMI® PMBOK® Guide, the Project Manager “is the person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives.“
Broadly, the role of a project manager involves seeing a project to completion. This involves breaking down bigger projects into smaller tasks with milestones and deliverables attached to them. They are also entrusted with the task of resource allocation and budget maintenance in tune with the project’s requirements. The success of a project manager is determined with the efficiency with which the project is completed, ideally within the set timeframe and within the budget.
Can a project manager be a product manager?
Yes. A project manager has the basic skill sets that a product manager is required to have. Product management is an ancillary discipline that a project manager can step into with relative ease.
What differentiates both the roles itself is the nature of product and project. A product is always a work-in-progress. It continues to evolve with changing customer needs and preferences.
On the contrary, a project is a one-time event. It is terminated once the last deliverable of the project is signed off by all stakeholders as completed.
Also, a project has a definite timeline within which it is expected to be completed. Whereas, a project does not have a fixed timeline. It could have multiple projects within it — like new feature releases, security updates, etc. However, these smaller projects forming part of the product does not set an overall timeline for the product completion.
Since managing timeline is a must-have skill for a project manager, they can easily undertake product development and management roles. However, the reverse is not possible.
To get a better understanding of a product manager and a project manager, it is necessary to understand the key functions of both the roles.
Here is a deep dive into the same.
Key functions of a product manager vs project manager
The role of a product manager can be explained as one that conceives the product from scratch and takes it to market as a completed offering. The minute details of the same are discussed below:
- Sketching the product strategy
The product manager is entrusted with the responsibility of setting the strategic direction of the product. He/she has to decide what problem the product will solve, the immediate priorities in product development and so on. It is their product and market intelligence that helps in developing a full-fledged product strategy.
- Conducting competitor research
One of the core traits of a product manager is conducting competitor research and taking proactive measures to position the product with USPs that prospects would be interested in buying. This calls for extensive competitor research. The product manager also has to conduct a SWOT analysis so that the home-grown product’s immediate strengths can be maximized, weaknesses suppressed, opportunities leveraged and threats avoided.
- Outlining the product roadmap
At the onset of product development there is one dilemma that every organization and the product managers within them ponder upon. To whom should the product be sold to? What should be the ideal feature set of the product? What should it do better than competition?
All this boils down to creating a product roadmap. As the name indicates, it is the roadmap that determines the future growth story of the product. Whether the product will see an uptick in adoption or will fizzle away as another entrant in a crowded market is determined by the goodness of the roadmap.
- Managing engineering and product development
If a product designer is someone who creates the mockup of a product, it is the engineering team which puts into action and builds the real product. The product manager acts as the bigger authority who brings together software developers, UI/UX designers, and product analysts to make the idea of a product a real one.
- Driving signups and revenue growth
Driving business growth for a product is definitely a duty of sales and marketing teams. However, the product manager also plays a role in driving signups and revenue growth. As someone who has a bird’s eye view of the industry and its nuances, they are better equipped to create a product strategy that will bring in more signups and also increase revenue growth. In fact, most product managers do have driving sign ups as one of their KPIs.
Key functions of a project manager
Compared to a product manager, a project manager plays a bigger role and is answerable to a long list of stakeholders. A project manager can be rightly regarded as the lynchpin of a project and upon whom the successful completion of the project is dependent. As a result, their functions are also varied from that of a product manager.
- Acting as the hub for the entire project
A project manager acts as the single touchpoint for the entire project. He/she decides the sprint for the next week, the deliverables for the month, and how soon the project should be completed. In addition to that, the project manager also determines the resource required for project completion, assigns it to respective functions and also manages the cost incurred for them.
- Resource planning and allocation
One of the critical functions of the project manager is to plan and source resources necessary for the project. This could include huma talent or material supplies. For example, for an IT project that requires setting up a digital workplace, the project manager might be required to hire talent while for a construction project the project manager would have to source construction supplies for the project.
- Lesioning with internal and external stakeholders
A project manager acts as a bridge between the internal and external stakeholders. Internal stakeholders consist of functional heads, managers, or vendors. External stakeholders are clients for whom the project is undertaken. The project manager must ensure that both sides of the project are in sync with expectations and strive to deliver on quality output.
- Monitoring timelines and task completion
One of the trickiest tasks that a project manager has to undertake and also monitor is determining timelines and keeping the team on track of the timeline. The timeline has to be judiciously planned keeping in mind the long-term and short-term dependencies, possible roadblocks, and unforeseen delays. Also, once the timeline is determined, the project manager must drive the team forward to stay on track and deliver work as promised to the external stakeholder.
- Ensuring budget control and project completion
According to HBR, every project has at least 27% budget overrun. Without a tiger control over the money purse, the chances of budget overruns are high causing the entire project to be a loss. It is the project manager who must ensure that there is tighter budget control and also that the budget controls do not hamper timely completion of the project.
Product Manager vs Project Manager: When the two parallel roads meet
By now, the stark differences between product and project management must be evident. Although product and project management aim to deliver outcomes that are well-defined and of strategic value, how each role works is where the difference lies.
As mentioned earlier, it is possible for a project manager to aspire and become a product manager. However, a product manager, or anyone wanting to become a project manager will have to secure the PMP® certification. That makes product management and project management parallel roads which can possibly meet at specific junctures.
Neal Taparia, a serial entrepreneur runs Mahjong Challenge, explains, “The best product managers have good project management skills. If you can learn to manage projects effectively, you will have the organizational and execution skills to be a great product manager.”
Final Thoughts on Product Manager vs Project Manager
As mentioned in the beginning, it is only during the last one decade that the difference between product management and project management has become so stark. Product management has secured itself a distinct identity that is separated from project management. However, when it comes to job opportunities, project managers can still aspire to become product managers. Project managers do have the necessary skills to become able product managers who can bring world-class products to the market.