Product Manager vs. Project Manager: How Do They Differ and Work Together?
The eternal debate: product manager vs. project manager.
In this article, we’re going to unpack the day-to-day activities of a product and project manager, describe the key areas of overlap and differences between these distinct roles, and, most importantly, cover how they can work together effectively.
- A product is anything designed to satisfy customer needs over a period of time, and a project is a time-bound series of activities designed to realize an output.
- A product manager is a strategic role focused on ‘building the right product’ and ‘building the product right’.
- Product management is a multi-faceted discipline. Key responsibilities include setting out a clear product vision, building a product roadmap, organizing releases, and conducting continuous market research and analysis.
- A project manager’s job is essentially the planning, execution, and completion of projects. The project manager oversees the project resources to make sure work gets done on time and on budget.
- A project manager focuses on organizing the development team, tracking the progress of work (i.e., using a Gantt chart, etc.), monitoring resources using project management software, and tackling potential blockers.
- There is a definite overlap between the two roles: problem-solving, cross-functional collaboration, and working to achieve organizational goals.
- There are also differences: product managers are more strategic and work across the whole product lifecycle, whereas project managers work is more focused on completing tasks within a time frame.
- A project manager may report to a Director of Operations or a Product Manager, depending on the size of a company and its project management function.
- Product managers and project managers can work together effectively to plan projects, prioritize the most valuable features for a given target market, ensure a customer-focused approach, and measure progress toward product success.
- Userpilot is a helpful tool for both product and project managers. Check out a demo here.
Product vs. project
We need to start with the fundamentals. Understanding how a product and project differs is key to figuring out the differences between product management and project management.
- A product is anything designed to satisfy customer needs over a period of time. It can be a physical product or a service-based one.
- A project is a time-bound series of tasks that need to be completed.
What is a product manager?
Product managers are strategic – they need to understand the entire product lifecycle from discovery through launch and beyond.
Ultimately, they are responsible for product outcomes, defining a product vision, planning the roadmap, understanding market trends, researching the market, mapping customer needs, and performing competitor analysis.
What are the roles and responsibilities of product managers?
Let’s take a deeper dive into the day-to-day activities of a typical product manager’s role:
- Define the product vision and strategy. A product manager’s job, first and foremost, is to articulate a clear vision that inspires the product team to deliver products and features that delight users and meet business objectives.
- Conduct user and market research to identify unmet needs. A product owner or product manager leads in understanding user needs and sharing insights with the team. This is absolutely key to the product’s success and helps reduce potential risks.
- Brainstorm product solutions and prioritize ideas. Product people are good at seeing the ‘bigger picture’ – but they also prioritize ideas and plan actionable tasks that enable the team to achieve company goals and customer satisfaction.
- Build a product roadmap. Product managers create roadmaps that act as a strategic plan for building features, sequencing deliverables, managing stakeholder expectations, and organizing work.
- Organize releases. Product managers define product releases with the help of the product marketing team. A good PM should be able to simplify complex technical details into clear messaging that encourages users to try out new features.
- Analyze and report on product success. A product manager sets the vision, but they also trace their desired outcome using a series of metrics.
- Lead the product management team. Product managers have excellent communication skills and can organize teams and make it simple to collaborate with other departments, including the development team, sales, customer success, and more.
What is a project manager?
A project manager’s job is essentially the planning, execution, and completion of a project.
They work with a team of people to ensure that the project stays on track, the project scope and project timeline are relatively fixed, and the team meets its goals all the way through to project completion.
A good project manager uses a variety of skills and techniques to ensure a project stays on track in terms of scope, time, and budget.
What are the roles and responsibilities of project managers?
Project managers are responsible for:
- Planning the projects. That includes setting goals and project timelines, managing success metrics, and more.
- Allocating resources. Project managers allocate scarce resources, including personnel, equipment, and materials – sometimes across multiple projects.
- Managing budgets. New products need a financial lift but they can quickly go into a tailspin if the budgets aren’t tightly managed. Project managers ensure that all activities and resources fall within the allocated budget.
- Tracking project progress. PMs track project progress against the established schedule and metrics.
- Identifying delays. Project managers identify potential bottlenecks and take corrective actions to keep the project on track.
- Managing the project team. That includes the soft skills necessary to help reach a defined outcome by collaborating with product managers, product owners, etc.
Are there similarities between product and project managers?
These two distinct career paths have lots in common. Both product and project managers:
- Focus on achieving goals and helping the company achieve success.
- Collaborate within cross-functional teams.
- Are skilled at problem-solving.
Product manager vs. project manager: What are the key differences?
Despite the similarities, viewing a product manager and project management professional as identical is wrong. Here’s why:
- The product manager role is a more strategic one. The product manager decides what needs to be built, and project managers focus on the execution of activities to realize those product initiatives.
- Product managers are primarily focused on outcomes. They aim to deliver value to customers and achieve business goals by creating a successful product, whereas project managers are focused on project outputs.
- Product managers are involved in the entire product lifecycle. Project managers are involved in a project for a specific duration, whereas product managers typically have a longer-term view (i.e., from ideation to launch and beyond).
- Product managers usually make high-level, big-picture decisions. On the other hand, project managers make decisions that revolve around project execution, overseeing progress toward goals.
Do project managers report to product managers?
In smaller companies, project managers might report to a product manager looking after a product line.
In a large organization – perhaps in a more corporate environment – project managers might report to a Director of Operations.
How do project and product managers work together to build successful products?
Let’s see how both these roles can work together to benefit the company as a whole.
Planning projects effectively
Project managers can help product managers set realistic deadlines. A good way of thinking about this is that product managers define the “what” and “why”, and project managers help set out the “how” and “when”.
Prioritizing features that improve customer satisfaction
Some features take a long time and effort to make, which can be a barrier if you’re aiming to improve satisfaction and gain a competitive edge.
Product managers can work closely with project managers to identify features that are high value but don’t require lots of effort.
Following a customer-centric approach
Product managers represent the voice of the user on the product team. They’ll conduct research, analyze findings, and communicate them across both their team and the organization.
Project managers can use this customer input when working on project iterations, and help steer the team towards delighting customers.
Monitoring progress toward product success
The two roles can work together to monitor different metrics that give clues as to a product’s success.
While project managers might be more focused on business or financial metrics (i.e., cost to budget, delivery of certain projects), product managers will look at things like retention, customer satisfaction, activation, and more.
Hopefully, you now have a better sense of what a project manager and product manager are, their differences and similarities, where they both fit in an organization and how they can collaborate effectively.
Want to get started with building better product experiences – whether you’re a product or project manager? Get a Userpilot demo and see how you can delight your users today.