Product Managers vs Project Managers: Key Differences in Roles and Functions

Tapan Patel

Nov 26, 2020 | 9 min read

Product Managers vs Project Managers

People often tend to use the terms product management vs project management interchangeably, maybe because both product managers and project managers are commonly referred to as “PM.” In fact, product managers and project managers can and often do work closely together on the same initiatives, but in most cases, they have two different sets of responsibilities. Both disciplines require different sets of skills and expertise. In this blog, I will take you through the difference between product managers and project managers. We will also see how product managers vs project managers fare in terms of roles, responsibilities, and challenges.

I will begin by explaining what exactly the terms “Product” and “Project” mean.

What is a product?

A physical product, software, or service - anything that solves a problem or meets the needs of a user is called a product. From development to launch in the market, a product goes through a whole life cycle until it is no longer needed in the market.

What is a project?

A project is something that you undertake in order to develop a product. It has particular starting and ending dates, with a set of tasks to be achieved during the period in between.

Product vs Project - The Timelines

Product vs Project

The biggest difference between a product and a project is that a product is an on-going endeavor while a project has a fixed timeline.

The product, as an entity, constantly evolves in response to the market trends. It scales and advances with time. For that reason, one product management endeavor can include multiple projects as a pathway to product development and advancement.

For example, if you want to develop a mobile application, that application will be your product. From scoping the application to making it live, the product will have various different projects like App design, app development, app maintenance, adding new functionalities on the front end, etc.

The product management process goes on as long as the application is live and in the market. However, the projects involved will begin and end during the product life cycle.

Now, let’s move on to the differences between product managers and project managers.

Product Managers vs Project Managers - Definition

A product manager is often described as the CEO of their products. Product strategy, finalizing releases of different versions, customer insights are all parts of a product manager’s job responsibility.

The job role of a product manager involves constantly managing the product and its life cycle. Their ultimate goal is to deliver a product that is loved and paid for by the target group.

On the other hand, a project manager is in charge of a project aimed at building or enhancing a product. They too set strategies but only for the on-going project with an end goal. The goals of project managers are based on the targets set by the product management team.

Product Managers vs Project Managers: Roles and Responsibilities

Before I list out the functions of product managers and project managers, here's a glimpse of what each does broadly.

The role of a product manager

Product Management

The product manager sets a vision for the product as the first step of product management. They conduct market research, competitor analysis, and consult with the development team to set the right product vision.

After that, the product manager’s job is to communicate the product vision with the entire organization. Most commonly, they do so by developing a concise product roadmap.

They coordinate with all the stakeholders, including investors, to finalize the product roadmap.

Finally, the product manager starts working on the product strategy. They make an action plan with different milestones of product success.

To set the product milestones, the product manager breaks down the entire plan into goals with deadlines. They may consult with the project manager to come up with efficient resource allocation and set realistic deadlines.

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The role of a project manager

Role and responsibilities of a Project Manager

The role of a project manager is to ensure that the goals set by the product team are met. For example, if the goal is front-end development, the project manager’s role is to scope the project, plan it, allot resources, and ensure that the goal is met by the deadline.

The project manager’s responsibilities thus include communicating the plan to the project team and helping them get started. They are also responsible for navigating interdependencies, meeting unexpected challenges, and managing the team’s weekly and monthly tasks.

Key Functions of Product Managers

The product manager is a role that is both external and internal, manages up and down, and spans technical, business, and operational domains.

Different organizations have different job descriptions for product managers. However, in most cases, the two core roles of a product manager involve:

  • Setting a holistic product strategy including all the product aspects from budgets to development and marketing
  • Ensuring everyone concerned is a hundred percent clear with their roles in implementing the product strategy

To achieve these two objectives, the key functions of a product manager can be classified into the following categories.

1. Developing a product strategy

A product manager conceptualizes the product and the value it will deliver to the market. They conduct detailed research both internally and externally to estimate what the product should include, how much it should cost, and how it should be built.

2. Generating and executing ideas that complement the product strategy

The product manager generates and curates ideas for how the strategy can be best implemented. They also filter out the good ones from the bad ones which is a very important skill to look for in all product managers.

To achieve this, the product manager has to communicate the ideas with the team. They must gather and understand the feedback, both from internal and external stakeholders.

Before moving ahead, the product manager has to present the final ideas to be leveraged for product success.

3. Prioritizing the right product features

prioritizing the right product features

The product manager has to understand which features will contribute to the long term product and business vision and how they should be incorporated into the product.

This is a difficult choice to make and requires a very sharp skillset. The product manager has to weigh the cost of each feature development against the value it will bring to the users. They then analyze the top choices from the market and business point of view.

The role of a product manager also includes determining overall requirements related to features and how each one will enhance the user experience.

Thus, product managers work closely with the design and development teams for feature prioritization.

4. Planning product releases

This is a crucial aspect of the product’s success in the market. A product manager has to study the market and evaluate the pre-launch marketing success. They plan the future releases of the product accordingly.

Irrespective of the development methodology used, the release planning has to follow the set structure and timeline.

To ensure the releases happen as per the plan, the product manager has to coordinate with all the departments involved. They track the progress, monitor the activities and match the same with the plan.

The real challenge of the product manager here is to fill in the gaps amongst different departments and ensure a smooth transition of projects from one phase to the other.

Key Functions of Project Managers

A project manager, with the help of their team, is charged with multiple responsibilities that span the five project phases of a project life cycle, namely, initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, and closing.

1. Project initiation

Unlike the functions of a product manager, the role of a project manager is very systematic and follows a set hierarchy. This is because everything about what and how things will be done is defined at the very beginning.

A project manager’s foremost function is to prepare a project charter that clearly defines the objectives of the project, how it will be carried out, and who the stakeholders are.

Upon completion of this document, the project manager moves on to the planning part.

2. Project planning

Project Planning

Here, the main task of the project manager is to develop a project management plan. However, it involves a lot of sub-tasks that form the basis of the plan.

First, the project manager has to define the scope of the project with all the necessary functional and non-functional requirements. After that, they frame a timeline during which each of these requirements will be dealt with.

Depending on the timeline, the project manager also develops a cost estimate for each phase and composes a budget that will help the teams accomplish all the tasks in time. The budget will also include the human resource requirements of the project.

A very important responsibility of a project manager is to accurately set the acceptance criteria for each task allocated to the team. To ensure the quality goals are met, the project manager also determines the communication and management tools that the team will be using.

3. Project execution

Here, the team will be working as per the goals and timelines decided in the previous stage. The role of the project manager here is to ensure that everything is going as per the plan and schedules. If there are any roadblocks, project managers have to help their team overcome those.

This is the most challenging task for all the project managers and their ability to maintain the schooled timelines is a key trait that distinguishes the best project managers from the average ones.

4. Project closure with appropriate documentation

Lastly, the project manager has to integrate all the phases of the project management and facilitate the closure of the project. This is again a very important formality that needs to be done with utmost care. Naturally, documenting everything is necessary while handing over the deliverables.

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Product Managers vs Project Managers: Do The Roles Overlap?

By now, you must have realized there is a scope of overlapping between the roles of product managers and project managers. Let me explain it in very concise words:

1. There are times when a product manager has to dig into the tactical, task-based details of a product’s development, that is, work that might otherwise be done by a project manager. During these situations, a product manager heavily moves towards the role of a project manager. In fact, they are both likely to share some responsibility in terms of task management.

2. Most of the skills required for project management can be transferred over to the wider analytical scope often deployed by product managers. For example, a project manager with strong troubleshooting abilities is really just a skilled problem solver. To channel that core problem-solving skill on a big-picture scale would be to take on the role of a product manager.

Product Managers vs Project Managers – Whom to hire when

The answer to whether you should hire a product manager or a project manager depends on your requirements.

  • If your product is ever-evolving and you need someone to manage that product and optimize its value throughout its life cycle, it’s wise to have a product manager.
  • If your product can be built from start to finish within a timeline and has minimal evolution or growth beyond that timeline, then a project manager may suffice. However, their inherent need to balance timeline, budget, and scope management may not prioritize the product’s growth as much as you’d like.
  • If the project is one where budget or timeline is not of concern, then a product manager may suffice (though their priority will sway toward the quality of the product, which tends to result in scope creep, which would have a direct impact on timeline and budget).

Thus, it’s ideal to hire a product manager as well as a project manager when the product strategy is to be built from the scratch. If you have to hire either of the two, base your decision on what your priorities and constraints are.

Still can’t decide which one to hire? We can help you!

Third Rock Techkno is a renowned IT services company with expertise in product development as well as project management. Our consultants are industry veterans who can help you determine the scope of software development based on what your product goals and strategies are.

With the learnings we have gained over the past 7 years, we specialize in delivering software solutions that meet your acceptance criteria while also abiding by your timeline and budgetary constraints.

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