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The Difference Between Product and Project Management

Product management and project management—they sound similar, and there’s (literally) only two letters that separate them. To top it off, these two concepts are commonly confused with each other, even by people experienced in product development! So it’s a classic case of tom-A-to tom-ah-to (tomato), right? Well, not so much.

While they do sound similar, and there is a bit of an overlap between the two concepts, there are important differences.

successful Product Manager understands that without the proper project management, product development will hit a snag. They’re able to work closely with a Project Manager to create a successful product.

Product management and project management are complementary but distinct. To understand this distinction, let’s define the words Product and Project.

Project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. There is a clear definition of what needs to be delivered the date when it needs to be delivered.

Product is anything that can be offered to a market to solve a problem or satisfy a want or need. It has a life cycle with multiple stages. A product is conceived, developed, introduced and managed in the market, and retired when the need for it diminishes. A product can only be developed within the context of a project, and multiple projects can occur within a product’s life cycle.

With a product, there’s no clear definition of what has to be delivered. Customer needs evolve over time, and the product has to evolve as well. There is also no clear deadline. A customer expects a product to meet their needs right NOW, not at some distant point in the future. Thus product development is not a temporary or occasional endeavor. It is a continuous process of delivering new features and improving the product.

You can see how these definitions sculpt the roles of Product Manager and Project Manager. The goal of a project is to complete a certain aspect of the product, so the Project Manager’s focus is internal and tactical. But a product must solve a problem and meet customers’ needs, so the Product Manager’s focus is external—they must craft the product strategy to meet those customer needs.

It’s possible for one person to take the role of both Project Manager and Product Manager—but, as you’ll see later, it’s better to separate these roles between two people.

Before we get to that, let’s dive deeper into each of these roles.

Project Manager

A Project Manager is responsible for the successful delivery of a project within a specific deadline and budget. They manage the development of the product by aligning available resources and managing issues and risks.

One of the most difficult tasks for a Project Manager is managing the scope of the project. They must balance time, cost, and quality—for example, if the deadline is shortened, they must either increase costs or reduce the scope in order to maintain quality.

In short, Project Managers aim to maximize quality and minimize risk.

So, what kinds of tasks might a Project Manager work on?

  • Build a product
  • Add new features to a product
  • Create new versions or extensions of a product
  • Manage a team of designers and developers, and track their work.
  • Keep the project on time and in budget with giving transparency to the client. Who in  often times is the Product Manager type-role in application development.
  • Use a variety of project management tools to accomplish their task like InvisionappDashableBasecampTrello, and Github.

Product Manager

While a Project Manager is only responsible for the success of a specific project, a Product Manager is responsible for the overall and continuous success of a product. Once the product is built and the Project Manager moves on, the Product Manager remains throughout the ENTIRE product lifecycle.

Product Managers focus on the “what” more than the “how”—they take a long-term view, and decide what direction the product should go based on customer needs. They are with the product from the beginning to the end.

In short, Product Managers aim to maximize value and create new revenue streams.

Here are some tasks of a Product Manager:

  • Gather and prioritize product and customer requirements
  • Define the product vision
  • Work with sales and marketing to ensure revenue and customer satisfaction goals are met

Here’s a common way many people explain the dynamic between a Project and Product Manager.A Project Manager is akin to a midwife—they deliver the project and move on to the next one. They care for the product up until the product is delivered, and then hand to responsibility over to the ‘mother’ (in this case, the Product Manager). The Product Manager is like the mother because they conceive the idea, run with it for months (developing, testing, etc.), eventually bring the product to market, and are responsible for it until it goes obsolete.

There’s a natural progression from Project Manager to Product Manager. Each has their own tasks and objectives. But what happens when these two roles are assigned to one person?

When the Product Manager also has the role of Project Manager, they’re forced to focus both on  customer strategy and project completion. Essentially, they work towards two different objectives, and it’s difficult to perform well on all points.

When a Product Manager wants to add many features to meet customer needs, the Project Manager is responsible for keeping the scope small so that the project is delivered on time and under budget. But when these two roles are assigned to the same person, it creates a conflict of interest.

Conclusion

Product and project management are similar concepts— but in order to create a successful product, you need to understand how these concepts differ.

Project management focuses internally to achieve specific objectives and complete the project on time and under budget. Once the project is done, that project is no longer ‘managed’. Product Management takes a broader view, and focuses externally on the customer and the overall and continued success of the project.

Although it’s possible to have one person fill both the product and project manager roles, it’s ideal to separate these roles to avoid conflicts of interest and underperformance.

In your company, does one person take on both the role of product and project manager? Have you had difficulties distinguishing between the concepts of product and project management in the past?

Other insights about the topic? Tweet us or shoot us an email at mvp@koombea.com!

Kate Swanberg Product Specialist

Loves building apps, getting users & keeping them. Data-driven marketer with a strong background on project management.

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