Despite there being literally only a smattering of letters difference between product vs project manager, there is, in fact, a massive gap in roles and responsibilities between these two jobs.
Even if the role of the project manager is to produce a product- even if the development of a product feels like a project – the two are still different roles with different starting points and various responsibilities.
Therefore, it is a good idea to explore the two different roles separately and then explore how this shows up the differences between the two positions.
Product Manager: The Roles and Responsibilities
A product manager is given the responsibility of producing a specific deliverable. The PM then becomes the person to champion that product through the different stages of development and beyond – essentially creating and managing a product roadmap.
The product manager retains responsibility for the product throughout the whole lifecycle. It means the PM takes the product to market, delivers updates and improvements at set points and then works to draw the product from the market at a planned point.
The role begins with product planning. Here the product manager works across departments to develop detailed specifications for design and manufacture.
This means creating the best product for the market and the company and seeking solutions that give the best return on investment. This planning is marked by two clear steps: concept and development.
The sort of activities a product manager would undertake at this stage include:
- Customer visits
- Market research
- Product proposals
- Business cases
- Competition research
It is likely that almost 80% of a product managers workload is researching market needs and writing proposals for product concepts and then monitoring the development of the idea.
The essential skill is the ability to say no to stakeholders when the evidence suggests the requests being made are ill-advised. A further capability is prioritising the needs of the customer against those of other stakeholders.
However, the main question answered by the product manager start with “what”.
What is needed, to what specifications for what market. Of course, the product manager is expected to justify these decisions but mostly the focus in on what features and requirements are needed for the product.
From the development stage comes the product launch. Here the product manager is responsible for bringing the product to market.
Here the PM will coordinate with Marketing and Sales – working as an intermediary with the executive level, ensuring there is launch approval. At this stage the PM may be responsible for:
- Writing white papers
- Visiting trade shows
- Offering demonstrations
- Seeking approval for pricing
- Helping to produce sales tools and aid in sales training
Ultimately, the product manager needs to be highly creative, collaborative, organised, a clear communicator and have all the business skills too – the strategic, the financial and the negotiation skills.
The role of the product manager does not stop at launch. They are also responsible for the ongoing success of the product through growth, maturity and then managing its decline and eventual withdrawal from the market.
This could be as simple as managing production numbers but as complex as dealing with customer concerns and reactions to the product.
The period where the product is on the market is most likely to be defined by the analysis of endless reams of data that will help to map out the life of the product.
This makes the role and responsibilities of the product manager feel endless. It spans the full breadth of a company’s activities.
But, primarily, the role of the product manager might be the best thought of like the function that sets the vision and strategy for a product and then communicates this to all necessary stakeholders.
In short, they are the cement that holds it all together to ensure stuff gets done.
Project Manager: The Roles and Responsibilities
The project manager is the person tasked to bring a task to completion within a set time and budget. It is the management of a workflow, with all its accompanying communication, negotiation and organisation.
The beginning of a project manager’s role is in the drawing up of a project plan, with a clear sense of scope, with estimates of time and money needed, with an understanding of risks likely to be faced and how they will be mitigated and the general overarching approach to be taken.
This will involve financial planning, assigning responsibilities to staff and setting down a clear idea of resources needed.
This initial plan will need to be presented to stakeholders and signed off – with the key questions answered by the project manager starting with “why”.
The next role of the project manager is to execute the plan. As each stage of the plan comes into view – called the planning horizon – the project manager makes more specific the details of how the plan with come to fruition.
This will mean coordinating directly and indirectly with staff responsible for the completion of the project.
Tasks during the project will include:
- Tracking deliverables
- Producing documentation
- Undertaking quality assurance
- Negotiating between stakeholders and different areas of the company
- Reporting on project progress when requested by executives or by customers
Once the project is accomplished, the PM will ensure that all financial issues are finalised and that there is a comprehensive review of the process and the staff involved.
A project manager is expected to reflect the iterative nature of delivering projects, understanding that each time you learn how to do something more effectively and efficiently.
The ultimate aim of a PM is to make themselves redundant, as the team, they work with understand the policies and procedures for successful project delivery.
An active project manager will be an excellent negotiator, skilled at risk-management and conflict resolution and be an influential leader – able to tolerate stress while maintaining excellent communication skills.
The project manager is the single point of contact for that project up until the moment of completion.
Product vs Project Manager: What Are the Main Differences?
It is easy to see why the two roles are used interchangeably. The two functions share the responsibility for managing the delivery of an outcome.
The skills of negotiation, leadership, communication, organisation, and more are shared by both roles. However, they are different.
The product manager is tasked with driving forward the development of products. This requires the manager to prioritise and make strategic decisions about what gets built. The keyword here is “what”. They make executive decisions about what is built and in what way.
The project manager, on the other hand, oversees the delivery of a plan to a set completion. A project manager is more about saying why a project should be undertaken in a certain way and then execute this.
The project manager has a fixed start and end date, whereas the role of the product manager lasts for the whole lifecycle of a product.
The product manager will feel their success defined by customer experience, whereas the project manager will be judged by how well they have completed the workflow regarding time and budget.
Can They Be Done by The Same Person?
Even if the outcome of both roles is a product or a service, the roles and responsibilities of these two functions are distinct.
The product manager is highly focused on all aspects related to the product – from strategy, to release dates, through marketing, training of sales and the estimation of profit and loss.
The project manager may be delivering a product or service, but they are more focused on the workflow to completion and not the details of the product itself. They will be interested in budget and resources, risk management and capacity issues.
The simple answer to the question is no.
The skillsets overlap, but realistically the focus of each role is distinct. It might be that the two positions collaborate at times – with a product manager of one service or product coordinating with a project manager who is delivering the whole strategy that this single product or service is a part.
However, a product manager is highly focused, and the project manager deals more broadly across the organisation.
It might be that they are looking at the same piece of work in a company, but the truth is they are viewing it in two different ways.
Realistically, both the product manager and project manager are focused on workflows and outcomes.
However, the focus of the product manager is on what should be produced and by what methods.
In contrast, the project manager will be much more interested in considering why individual decisions must be made, whether this is because of budget or because of deadlines or because of evidence revealed when building the initial business case.
There is room for both roles within organisations, and it may be that in small companies the function is managed by the same person.
However, the focus of each position is distinct and realistically large companies need both roles to help increase chances of success.
In the battle between product vs project manager, nobody is a winner.