July 12

Product Manager vs Project Manager: 6 Differences & Similarities

When you have two jobs with the same abbreviation and similar sounding titles, there’s bound to be confusion. When you compare product manager vs project manager, you’ll find there’s some significant differences as well as important similarities.

Here’s a look at those two job descriptions along with some information to consider when deciding whether you should have both job titles in your organization.

Product manager vs project manager: the basics

In order to compare and contrast project manager vs product manager the best place to start is to look at the responsibilities for each job.

Product manager roles and responsibilities

As a product manager you understand the needs of your customers and discover ways to satisfy those needs that are beneficial to your organization. You have to:

You are, in effect, deciding what problems your product team should solve.

In order to do that you have to build and maintain a direct, meaningful connection with your organization’s customers. This requires a bit of customer discovery and market research.

You refer to a product vision and product strategy to evaluate whether your team should solve specific problems. In many cases, you play a part in crafting the product vision and product strategy.

When you identify customer needs, you work with your product team to discover a solution and build it.

And you work with marketing and sales to establish pricing, sell your product and make it available to your organization’s customers. Hopefully those functions are part of your product team as well.

It’s also important to note that you repeat the above steps over and over again. Your product is an ongoing asset for your organization rather than a one time effort.

When it’s all said and done, if you’re a product manager you’re paying attention to things outside the organization and within. You’re deciding which problems to solve for your customers and measuring when those problems are solved.

Project manager roles and responsibilities

As a project manager, you ensure that your team delivers the identified solution within established constraints, which are often characterized as the “iron triangle.”

Iron triangle means you deliver a specific project scope by a certain time within a certain budget. You typically do not establish these constraints. Instead you drive toward project completion within the constraints that you’re provided.

You focus on a discrete set of work with a specific end date, often referred to as a project.

In order to complete the project there are several things you’ll find yourself doing as a product manager. The Project Management Institute (PMI) identifies the following:

  • Ensure you deliver only the necessary deliverables to have a successful project.
  • Lead time management for your project, meaning that your team finishes the project within the desired project timeline.
  • Budget, and manage costs so your team completes the project within the approved budget.
  • Determine quality policies, objectives, and responsibilities so that your project satisfies the needs for which it was undertaken.
  • Organize and lead the project team.
  • Maintain relevant project information and communicate it to project team members and stakeholders outside of the project team.
  • Facilitate risk management for the project, which often involves identifying, analyzing and mitigating key risks.
  • Acquire products, services, or results needed from outside the project team.
  • Identify the people or organizations impacted by the project, and effectively engage those stakeholders in project decisions and execution.

When it’s all said and done, if you’re a project manager you’re making sure teams deliver the solutions to the problems that a product manager identifies within a certain timeframe and budget.

Three similarities and three differences between product manager and project manager

Even though the names are very similar there is a difference between project manager and product manager. A lot of that difference has to do with their primary focus, even if they are working on the same thing.

And because project managers and product managers can work on the same product, they have some similarities as well.

Product management vs project management: the differences

The main differences between project and product managers has a lot to do with the difference between project management vs product management.

Here are three key differences.

Problems to solve vs solutions to deliver

Perhaps the biggest difference lies in the role’s relationship with problems and solutions.

As a product manager you identify the customer problems that make the most sense for your organization to solve. You work with your team to select a viable solution and establish metrics to know when those outcomes are delivered.

You may also establish specific constraints to determine whether solving a particular problem is viable for their organization.

If you’re a project manager you deliver a defined solution within the identified constraints.

Outcomes vs outputs

An outcome is the change you’re trying to make in the world. It’s the customer or user needs that you’re trying to satisfy, or it’s a change in your organization. It’s ultimately why you create or change your products.

Product management deals squarely with identifying and delivering outcomes. When you’re a product manager, you define scope in terms of the outcome you’re trying to deliver. You measure progress and success based on measures of outcome such as Free User Signups per Week or Median View Hours per Month.

An output is something you create in order to make an outcome happen. Outputs can include (but are not limited to) deliverables such as software, user stories, tests and documentation.

Project management deals squarely with delivering outputs. When you’re a project manager you use the scope defined in terms of outcome as your constraint and convert that into a more refined scope in terms of outputs. You measure progress and gauge success based on measures of output such as features delivered or story points completed.

Strategic vs tactical

Product management tends to make strategic decisions and strategic plans. As a product manager, you use your understanding of your customers and their problems to establish a product strategy and decide what efforts to undertake.

Those efforts may be organized as projects.

Project management focuses on the tactical decisions. As a project manager, you constantly make decisions, or make sure decisions get made around how to deliver the identified solution within the desired timeframe and budget.

Product vs project management: the similarities

The significant differences between product and project management notwithstanding, they have some key similarities.

These similarities are all related to how you interact with others while manage products or projects.

Lead with influence rather than authority

Forget about product managers being the “CEO of the product.”

Forget the implication that the “manager” in both titles means you manage anyone.

Whether you are a product manager or project manager, you more than likely do not have any formal authority over anyone on your development team.

If you want to deliver a great product, you have an effective relationship with your team. To have a great relationship with your team, you have to lead through influence.

You can’t rely on a command and control style to make things happen. You guide your team’s problem-solving through asking good questions, not micromanaging task lists.

Work with cross-functional teams

Who is it that you’re leading through influence? It’s your team consisting of people with a variety of skills, and hopefully a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

If we assume you’re working in software development, your team may have developers, designers, QA folks, and subject matter experts.

To be an effective product and project manager you use the same approaches to work with your teams and get the best out of the unique mix of skills and experience that you have.

That’s true whether your team is a short lived project team pulled together for a specific purpose, or a longer lasting product team.

Rely heavily on communication

Of course one of the most important skill sets for working with a cross functional team is strong communication and collaboration.

It doesn’t stop there. If you want your efforts to result in a successful product, you need to keep key people outside of your team informed about what you’re up to. You may have heard this referred to as managing stakeholders.

Effective product managers and project managers are great communicators.

Whether you’re communicating through product roadmaps, a backlog, project plans, status reports, or lots and lots of discussions and meetings, your goal is to make sure no one is surprised.

Product manager versus project manager: which one do you need at what stage?

Product managers identify problems to solve, decide whether to solve that problem, and then work with their product team to identify solutions.

Project managers focus on delivering a solution within identified constraints.

As a result, in a product development situation you’ll see product managers throughout the entire product lifecycle, especially when you’re working on a new product.

If separate project managers exist (and these days they may be called delivery leads) you’ll start seeing them involved as the team delivers a solution.

Conversely, if you’re in an internal IT situation, you may not see product managers at all, but you’ll still probably find project managers. This is especially the case if your organization still organizes work in the form of projects.

If your organization has adopted an agile approach to working, particularly scrum, its possible that you won’t see project managers (or maybe even product managers). Project management responsibilities get distributed to the team, and product management may be covered by product owners.

Organizations with extensive development process or heavyweight methodologies tend to have project managers in order to coordinate everyone’s activities.

Startups don’t have those involved development processes so project managers may not be as prevalent. They are likely to have product managers, especially if the founder decides that leading product is too much work for them.

Product vs project manager salary differences

When you want to compare the salaries of a project vs product manager, you’ll want to make sure that you compare equal rungs on each career ladder.

As of June 2021, Glassdoor.com determined the average salary for project manager jobs in the United States is almost $88,000 with a range of $57,000 – $136,000. The average salary for a senior project manager is $118,000. The project manager career path can also include program managers.

For comparison purposes, the average salary for product manager jobs in the United States is $112,000 with a range of $73,000 – $173,000. The average salary for a senior product manager is $144,000. You may also find a product owner at the beginning of the product management career path.

Of course with all other salary comparisons, you have to consider the organization you work at and the location at which you work.

Key takeaways about project manager vs product manager

Project managers and product managers have more in common than the abbreviations of their titles, but there are some significant differences as well. Here are the highlights:

  • Product managers decide which problems to solve. Project managers make sure the solution gets delivered.
  • Product managers work on assets known as products for the long term. Project managers focus on finite efforts known as projects.
  • Product managers think in terms of outcomes. Project managers think in terms of outputs.
  • Product and project managers both need to lead cross functional teams through influence.

There is considerable overlap between the responsibilities of the two titles, and more often than not, the existence of one, or both of these titles depends on how your organization chooses to organize work.

FAQs

Here are a few additional questions that are frequently asked about the relationship between project managers and product managers.

Can a product manager be a project manager?

Sort of.

You may find product managers that held the title project manager at one point in their career, most likely due to the type of organization they worked in.

You may be a product manager that does project management because your organization chose not to have two separate people play those different roles. In that situation you’d probably describe the project management activities you do as part of being a product manager.

What you won’t often see is a product manager working on a product and acting as a project manager on a different project.

Do product managers need project management skills?

You bet.

As discussed above, there are many times where you’re going to have to use some project management to deliver a solution. It’s probably fair to say that basic project management is necessary, but not sufficient to be an effective product management in many situations.

Is a product manager better than a project manager?

What do you mean by “better”?

If you mean which role is better for you to fill, it depends on the type of work you prefer and how your organization implements change.

Do you enjoy doing discovery work and making decisions?  Then you probably should be a product manager.

Do you prefer having specific constraints identified for you and delivering to those constraints? You may be better suited for project management.

Does your company provide software products or services to its customers? Then your best bet is to take the role of product manager.

Is your company’s main product something other than software? Is work organized into projects? Then project management is probably a better fit.

Are product managers in demand?

Yes.

In the second half of 2019, Neal Iyer conducted a study on product management hiring trends. He found that between August 2017 and June 2019 product management jobs in the United States increased by 32% compared to a 21% increase in software engineering jobs and a 6.6% increase in jobs overall.

Neal found that the three main factors driving that growth were increases in ecommerce at brick and mortar retailers, digital transformation in financial services, and product practices in financial services and management consulting firms. When you consider the increase in digital business due to the global pandemic, it’s likely those factors are still increasing the demand for product managers.

Kent J McDonald

About the author

Kent J McDonald writes about and practices software product management. He has IT and product development experience in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, nonprofit, and automotive. Kent is a product manager at LenderClose and provides just in time resources for product owners and business analysts at KBP.media and Product Collective. When not writing or product managing, Kent is his family’s #ubersherpa, listens to jazz and podcasts (but not necessarily podcasts about jazz), and collects national parks.


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