Project Manager vs Product Manager: What’s the difference?

Project Manager vs Product Manager: We hear these two roles being thrown around interchangeably more and more these days. Both go under the acronym PM, and while they both are managing something, they have different roles and responsibilities. In this article, we’ll go through their key differences in their responsibilities, roles and skills.

What is Project vs Product ?

Before we get anywhere, definitions are always handy! Understanding their different roles stems from first understanding what they are managing.

The Project Management Institute defines a project as a temporary arrangement with a ‘defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.’ The main goal of a project is to create a deliverable product for an organisation. The project team is typically disbanded at the completion of that goal.

On the other hand, a product is a system or solution that is created and maintained to solve both the customer and business problems with the main goal of achieving the most market value.  It can come in many different forms such as a good, service, platform, application and many more. Unlike a project, a product does not have a defined end date and can be continually updated to suit the market need’s until the product becomes obsolete. As a result, product teams are often maintained on a longer term to keep consistency.

So while a product is a solution to a problem, need or demand, a project is the way the solution (or product) is created.

What is Project Management vs Product Management?

From the definition above, you can start piecing a clearer image of their management approaches. 

What is Project Management?

Project management is all about making everything within the project run smoothly and reach the finish line, often from within the boundaries of the project itself. PMI defines it as the ‘application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activity to meet the project requirements.’ You’ll hear this being chanted constantly in the project management world – effective project management is all about how you complete projects on time, on budget, and on scope.

What is Product Management?

Product management has a more strategic and outwards focus. It looks at ways of identifying, creating and sustaining value-producing products to achieve value for an organisation. While project management is focused on how to achieve the predefined goals and objectives of the project itself, product management is focused on why these projects and products are being created in the first place by deeply understanding the customer, market and industry. It involves a higher level of planning, forecasting, production and marketing of a product through the entirety of its lifecycle, a cycle that unlike project management, does not have a defined end date.

To sum this all up in one line – Product management is all about making sure organisations makes the proper products, while project management is all about making the products properly. 

We go into all kinds of detail about this topic in our explainer piece on project management vs product management, so have a read about the 5 key differences between project and product management.

What is a Project Manager vs Product Manager 

So now that we’ve gone through the fundamentals, we can get to the meat of the topic! What exactly makes these two roles different?

What is a Project Manager?

A project manager is tasked with the responsibility of delivering a project on time, on budget, and on scope. Project managers supervise and manage the development of a product through effectively managing resources, mitigating risks, optimizing processes, cutting down costs and keeping everyone on the timeline. 

A project manager is not typically involved in the selection and prioritization of project goals and objectives. Their focus is to carry out these tasks in accordance with a broader product roadmap and project charter that is formulated and discussed with key stakeholders. 

One of the biggest challenges of a project manager is keeping a project within scope as they continually have to strike the balance between time, resources, and quality. Too often, it is the scope of the project that suffers the most as it is either reduced to fit timeframes or budgets, or becomes a victim of scope creep when activities are not properly monitored.

What are Project Manager Responsibilities?

Project managers have to juggle a wide range of responsibilities, all with the goal of getting the project to the finish line and achieving all the predefined objectives and goals. Some of the key responsibilities within the role include:

Delivering a successful project

A project’s success is typically measured based on how well it achieves the project’s predefined objectives and goals. It’s all about that tagline – on-time, on-budget, on-scope. With its defined scope and timeframe, a project has a definite end and a project manager’s job is to get the team there.

Breaking down the project into smaller tasks

Project managers need to break down the effort in a project so each member can digest and accomplish the tasks in smaller chunks. This makes it easier to allocate resources and to properly track progress. An effective project manager seeks to implement the best practices that suit their team’s dynamics, processes and chosen methodology. Make sure to read more how to pick the right project management methodology for your team.

Estimating and tracking project progress

Estimating and tracking everything happening within projects is the key job of a project manager. Project managers are always making estimations and tracking their schedules, costs and risks. Project managers also need to effectively evaluate and mitigate any issues that may potentially arise during the project timeframe which is typically built on their own knowledge and experience of team processes as well as the product itself.

Communicating progress to stakeholders

Project managers need to be a master of communication. We all know the saying ‘communication is key’ and it most definitely is central for successful projects. Project managers need to constantly communicate with their team members, skilled experts, product managers, and key stakeholders. They need to be able to quickly identify issues and mitigate risks as they arise within the project timeframe.

What is a Product Manager?

A product manager is responsible for producing market value for the organisation. They are tasked with developing, maintaining and updating value-adding products that can bring market value to the organisation. They do this typically through extensive market, customer and competitor research that gives them critical information to identify gaps and opportunities within the market.

A product manager’s role is much more collaborative than a project managers. Its strategic nature means that many more teams such as the sales, marketing and development team, often need to be brought into the process to produce a complete product vision and strategy. 

Though product managers will execute similar tasks to project managers, their focus is fundamentally different. Product managers focus much more on the ‘what’ over the ‘how’. This leads to a more long-term perspective and commitment to the progressive changes of customer needs.

What are Product Managers Responsibilities?

Product managers have a different set of responsibilities that are much more visionary, value-based and strategic.

Understanding the market, customers and competitors 

One of the biggest tasks of a product manager is keeping their ears close to the ground for the slightest changes that can give them a new opportunity. Product managers focus largely on gaining market value through satisfying customers, so knowing what is in the market and how customers are reacting to them is key. One key task is to build user stories that give an in-depth understanding of how people interact and engage with the organisation’s products. This specific responsibility requires a lot of research and analysis skills to gather the right information.

Developing product visions

Based on all the research and know-how of the market, product managers are tasked with creating the overarching vision of the proposed product. A vision paints an idea of the exact goals the product solvess, its potential future customers and what it aims to achieve. 

Creating product strategy or product roadmaps

You’ve got the research, you’ve got the vision – now you need to plan to make it a reality. Product managers are in charge of building the strategy or roadmap that outlines the processes needed to get the product up and running. Though many different teams may have their input during the roadmapping process, ultimately product managers are the ones guiding the process.

Monitoring, maintaining and updating products

Product managers don’t stop at just making a product, they have to keep it going. With the nature of a product being open ended, this means product managers have to actively and consistently come back to their products, monitor their progress and make sure necessary maintenance and updates are made to ensure the most value is gained from the product.

Project Manager vs Product Manager Skills

One of the big reasons why these two roles get jumbled together is because of the skill sets they require. Though there are distinct differences in their roles and responsibilities, many skills do overlap as well. We’ll go through the similarities and differences between project and product manager skill sets.

Shared Skills

Communication

No surprises here because everyone knows an effective communicator is what builds a successful manager. Be it simply for communicating with your team or talking to a whole range of stakeholders, strong communication makes the foundations for any successful project or product. Though we harp on about it, the reality is that many managers may talk a lot, but that does not always mean they communicate effectively. Make sure to download our free soft skills development checklist so you can become the best communicator.

Negotiation

The ability to communicate is only the first part. Managers need to know how to properly convey their message if they are ever to reach a compromise that is not only mutually beneficial but can foster better collaboration and cooperation between teams. Remember, the better you are at fuss-free negotiations, the faster and smoother your project or product process will be – one of the top priorities for both roles.

Problem-solving

The reality of projects and products is that they are always changing and issues can arise at just about any stage. The job of managers is to take charge and quickly address the situation. For project managers, these problems often lay within the scope of the project itself, whereas product managers may have to look farther afield into the broader market and industry. Though they may have different scopes for problem solving, an effective manager is able to quickly wrap their heads around a situation before any detrimental effects can be made to the product or project.

Key Project Manager Skills

Industry specific skills 

Project managers are tasked with creating the final product – whether that may be a multi-storey building or a new customer relations software. Possessing the knowledge, expertise and experience in the specific industry and field of the intended product can be very critical. For projects that require a high level of compliance and technical skill, such as an engineering project, these industry specific skills may be compulsory.

Budgeting

Proper budgeting and cost management is how project managers prevent scope creep or project delays. Project managers have the responsibility of monitoring the ongoing costs and risks during the span of a project. Budgeting and cost management may seem straightforward, but without an effective PPM system it can become a hair-pulling and time-consuming activity. Make sure to read about what software features you need to look out for to enable effective cost management.

Scheduling

Projects are filled with constantly moving parts and attempting to coordinate and manage deadlines, team availability, and resources becomes a huge task. Project managers are responsible for checking their project status, typically through a dashboard, that will enable them to effectively adjust schedules and properly estimate new timelines. Make sure to read more about how your team can excel at schedule management.

Relationship management

Project managers have the big task of not only completely understanding the client but also properly representing the team. Balancing expectations and relationships in this process is no easy feat, so good relationship management skills are critical to allow for smooth communication between the team and key stakeholders. 

Key Product Manager Skills

Market knowledge

Where project managers may need knowledge about the product, product managers need to know more about the market inorder to make customer-based value. Whether it’s fully understanding the customer’s interactions with the product, keeping an eye out on competitors or hunting for new opportunities, product managers need to know how to get all this critical information if they are to make the right product for the organisation.

User research

We’ve mentioned it above, but fully understanding the customer is one of the most critical skills needed for product managers. Building customer stories, conducting user interviews, or running different user tests are just some of the tasks product managers need to know how to do so they can know everything about their customers.

Analytical skills

Product managers have a flurry of information thrown at them, but there’s no use if they can’t make sense of it and use it effectively. Analytical skills are critical for product managers to be able to translate data into value-producing products. Understanding the cause-effect relationships within data will also be beneficial for improving future performance of the product.

Strategy and vision development

Developing a product strategy and vision requires seeing the big picture. A product manager needs to facilitate ideation with stakeholders, push the limits of where this product can go conceptually and start building an effective plan to get there. It’s more than simply following best practice and predefined processes, it requires critical thinking and a visionary perspective.

PPM software for a Project Manager vs Product Manager

With all these different responsibilities, tasks and skills, there’s certain software features you need to look for to make sure your team is working as smoothly and efficiently as possible. But the PPM software space is crowded with heaps of services showering you with hundreds of features that may look great but aren’t always what your team needs.

Lucky for you, we’ve made a few guides to help you spot the most important software features you might need. Make sure to have a read about the difference between project management software and product management software.

pmo365 is the PPM software for you

We may have given you all the tips and tricks to find the best PPM software but you don’t have to look any further because pmo365 is the complete PPM software service for you! 

pmo365 brings a whole range of additional value-adding services in the form of:

  • Intuitive and interactive software that meets all the top 10 software features you need in a PPM software.
  • Insight and expertise from leading PPM experts in the field who have satisfied customers globally.
  • Additional training, resources, and tools to help your teams build the best practices that bring out the best of your PPM activities
  • Our simple pricing packages that offer you access to fantastic software all the way to a fully-managed implementation of a PMO from scratch. We’re confident we can find the perfect solution for you so we guarantee: no lock-in and no set-up fee. 

Still want to know more about why we’re the best PPM software for you? Have a walk through our interactive guide of all our software capabilities and make sure to book a free demo session to speak directly with our PPM experts!

Bill Allars

Bill Allars

Bill is a PPM expert with over 20+ years of experience.

You may also like

Get a Free Demo of pmo365

New Upcoming Online Events

Watch how microsoft pmo365 works in your industry

Learn how to manage your portfolio of projects in a centralised solution with Microsoft pmo365.

Limited time offer

Free 30-min
PPM audit

Review your existing projects portfolio data collection, tools, methods, current reports, dashboards, methodologies, frameworks and PPM best practices.