June 18, 2021

I'm a product manager, not a project manager

I'm a product manager, not a project manager
Nils Janse
Nils Janse
Founder & CEO
3 min read

As a product manager, it is not uncommon to face confusion around the difference between product management and project management. The problems stemming from this range from the merely annoying, like being called a "project manager", to the truly disruptive, like being asked to run projects unrelated to one's product. In this article, I'll detail how product managers can handle this.

The main difference between a product manager and a project manager

The main difference is that:

  • A project manager's job is to execute a defined project with a clear end date, whereas
  • A product manager's job is to improve a product over time.

From there, stems a few clear differences between the two roles.

Defining projects and products

A project can be defined as a piece of work "that will require more than one action step to complete and that you can mark off as finished in the next 12 months" (from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done). For bigger projects, it can make sense to appoint a project manager.

A product however, can be defined as "a service or an item offered for sale". It often makes sense to appoint one or a few product managers to be responsible for improving that product over time.

Timing is everything

Since a project is limited in time, the project team is temporary in nature, and it is common that the project manager has to work with team members that are involved in the project on a part-time basis.

A product however, is subject to ongoing development work, not limited in time, and that makes it practically possible for a product manager to have a full-time product development team. In fact, the existence of a dedicated full-time team is crucial for the success of a product manager.

What to work towards

For a project manager, the goal is to complete the project, on time, on budget, and according to the scope set. There can also be specific results that the project aims to achieve, but then these are assumed to be achieved by the actions specified in the project definition. Projects often follow the a Waterfall methodology, with an upfront definition and actions laid out in a Gantt chart. If the actions are performed well but the results are still not achieved, it is often not seen as the fault of the project manager.

For a product manager, the goal is to improve the product, typically as measured by some metrics, and often linked as the Key Results of an OKR. This means that the plan of actions will change as the team learns and discovers more, using Agile methodology. A product manager should not be held accountable for any specific action performed, but on the results of all actions combined, i.e. how the metrics have improved.

To sum up the difference

Table showing the difference between a product manager and project manager.

Product managers should embrace project management

To add some nuance to the above it should be stated that good product managers are also good project managers. Given the enormously wide definition of what a project is, it should come as no surprise, that some of the work of a product manager can be seen as project management.

The most obvious example of this, is the implementation of a specific feature. The PM is involved at the higher level, to figure out through research and discovery whether the feature should be built at all and if so what is required to ensure success. But once that work is done, execution of developing and launching the feature comes to resemble project management. A feature is best described in a feature document, which can be seen as a project document.

Product managers should avoid being project managers

Being a product manager is at the same time an enormously important and difficult job. If product managers are pulled into unrelated projects, they are likely to perform less well in their core role, to the detriment of their organization.

Therefore, whenever product managers are asked to run projects they have not defined themselves, and that has no clear link to the metrics of their product they are trying to improve, they often do best in trying to politely resist.

If you are ever in that situation, you can refer to this document.

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