The difference between product management and project management is, frankly, confusing to even those of us who work in those roles. The truth is that each of those roles can be defined differently at different companies, and there’s a ton of overlap between product management and project management. Yet there’s a lot to be gained from understanding the difference: It can help individuals identify which role they’re most interested in and suited for, and it can help companies determine whether they need a product manager or a project manager, or both, for a particular project.
You can think of product managers and project managers as captains of a ship, trying to get from point A to point B. I like to think of project managers as captains sailing to a known destination, on a specific vessel, along a set navigation route. They still need to make a lot of decisions about the journey to adapt to changing weather, maximize speed, and utilize their crew in the most efficient way. A good project manager is invaluable in getting to the destination.
Product managers, on the other hand, are more like captains trying to get to a destination they help define on a route that isn’t yet fully charted on the map. Product manager captains have more of a hand in figuring out how to get from where they are to where they need to go, determining the vessel, the crew, and the best route.
Here are things that the two roles share in common, their differences, and what each role — project managers and product managers — does well.
Surface misalignments and bring clarity
Strong product managers and project managers should always be asking questions, cultivating conversation, and pushing the team to clarity. In raising questions (“Why are we prioritizing X feature over Y feature?” “Can you define what you mean by v1?” “Who needs to weigh in on this decision?”), both PM roles will likely surface misunderstandings and misalignments. PMs can then use those outputs to push their teams toward clarity and a common set of understandings, goals, and milestones.
Collaborate well with others
Successful projects require constant and clear communication, great partnerships, and trust between team members and stakeholders. Great product managers and project managers prioritize working with people, investing time in building relationships, and building trust ahead of time to navigate through the storms on the horizon.
Give guidance and manage scope
Every project threatens to veer off course at various times during its lifecycle: A stakeholder adds features and requirements, unexpected technical blockers come up, the CEO wants to push the launch up by two weeks. Strong practitioners from both PM roles take these contingencies in stride, and guide everyone through treacherous waters by adapting to changing circumstances, communicating clearly about trade-offs, saying no with empathy, and managing or protecting scope.
Keep things moving in the right direction
Great product managers and project managers are always tracking progress, relentlessly clearing blockers, consistently making sure that the project has clear forward momentum, and ensuring that the whole team is pointing toward the same direction as they move toward milestones at the right pace.
The starting line
Product managers tend to start earlier in the process than project managers, and may begin with some very exploratory questions: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? Why is this problem worth solving? What is the product we’re building? How does our product fit into the competitive landscape? By starting with these broad, open questions, product managers can then take the answers as inputs into creating milestones, timelines, processes, and more.
Most project managers begin once most of those big picture questions have already been answered, and are more focused on defining and then executing the process with a set of existing inputs and predetermined outcomes.
Project managers focus on the details at a close-to-the-ground altitude: Should the team run one-week sprints or two-week sprints? Is the project on track to hit the next milestone? Are the right people in the right meetings? If a new requirement takes X story points, by how many days does it push out the timeline?
Product managers certainly keep an eye on the details, but their main focus tends to be set at a higher altitude. They need to weigh the flexibility of running kanban against the predictability of running scrum, ensure that the milestones are the right ones to solve the user problem, be certain that everyone from the engineer to the C-suite executive are bought into the vision, and judge whether a new requirement necessitates descoping another part of the product.
Definition of success
A project manager tends to define success in the fulfillment of certain expectations: Has the project been delivered on time? Is it within budget? Are bug tickets being triaged at an appropriate clip? Product managers, on the other hand, define success by outcomes and impact rather than expectations and requirements. Has the product solved the right user problem? Is the product’s iterations delivering value at the right amount and at the right velocity? How is the product positively impacting the organization?
Point of view
The project manager takes all the inputs of the project and coordinates them. While the project manager may provide opinions on which tools to use or how to set meeting cadences, they rarely provide input on the non-process parts of the project. Product managers, on the other hand, should be bringing a strong point of view on many aspects of the project — from strategic goals to user problem definitions to design and engineering decisions — to scope management and release cadences.
I hope the waters are feeling crystal clear — and happy sailing!