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Product Managers vs. Project Managers | Differences and Similarities

Project Managers and Product Managers are often made out to be the same role. In this article, we compare and contrast both roles to aid beginners to differentiate them

Tiwatayo Kunle
April 20, 2022

It is not unusual to hear the words ‘product manager’ and ‘project manager’ used interchangeably. Understandably so, as they sound similar and sometimes have overlapping roles. However, these are two distinct disciplines and using them interchangeably is bound to cause some confusion. Here’s how you can spot the difference between Product Management and Project Management and decide which best suits you.

First, they’re both managers; one point for those who think they mean the same thing. Manager; noun meaning “one that manages”. Next, we move on to what these managers are actually managing – products and projects.

PRODUCT vs. PROJECT

A product refers to any service or item that an organization creates to serve a customer need. Products can be physical for example, a phone or they could be digital, for example, an app. 

A project is a set of tasks completed to achieve an outcome. For example, with regard to the app, referred to as a digital product above, a project could be to deliver a feature or a service and when it’s released, that’s the end of the project.

PRODUCT MANAGER vs. PROJECT MANAGER

According to Muse Guo, an Associate Product Manager at theScore, the role of a Product Manager is to carry out a lot of the preparation for a product before it launches and then keep an eye on it even after it launches. “Companies don’t just launch products for the sake of launching products. Product launches are only successful if they address a problem that a group of people are facing. It is the Product Manager’s job to truly figure out and test that. So the main job of the PM is to figure out the answer to these questions:

  • Is there a need for this product? 
  • Does this product really solve people’s problems? 
  • How does it do this (better than already existing options)?"
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A Product Manager’s work lasts the entire lifecycle of the project. It begins before the product is created and spans the entire lifetime of the product. Iterations are constantly being made and new issues could arise for which the product might need to evolve to solve the customer’s pain points thus, the constant need for a Product Manager. 

Product Management is all about the vision. Using a Product Roadmap and relying on Agile methodology, Product Managers will take their understanding of stakeholder requirements, translate them into design goals and coordinate with the team to see that the development is aligned with these goals. It is this vision that determines which project to undertake next. 

On the other hand, Project Managers take on a product vision, digest the vision and break it down into tasks allocating timelines and resources, monitoring completion and reporting progress to stakeholders. Projects have established beginnings and endings, unlike products. Project managers are usually required to be detail-oriented with great organisational and leadership skills who use specific Project Management methodologies such as Waterfall methodology and software to track the progress of what they’re working on.

A table showing highlighting 4 differences between a product manager and a project manager. the characteristics of a product manager are on the left and those of the project manager are on the right

In varying capacities, both the Product Manager and the Project Manager are working on the Product. Let’s see what that looks like in a scenario. Say, a company sells jewelry. They want to create an app that allows customers to shop various collections of the brand from their phones. They would hire a Product Manager to define the goals of the app, decide on the target market, work with the developers and the designers as they create the app and also monitor any matters that arise.

If they decide that the app should include a feature that allows customers customize their chosen piece of jewelry and simulate how the jewelry would look on them, the company will then hire a Project Manager to roll out these specific features. The Project Manager will work with a team to deliver this feature, creating a timeline and a budget and handling the day to day affairs with regard to the feature, likely reporting to the Product Manager every once in a while with updates. When that feature is completed, the work of the Project Manager is done.

In the bigger picture, Project Management can sometimes be featured as an aspect of Product Management, particularly at the execution stage of the project where the Project Manager has to work with designers and developers as well as other necessary roles on Product delivery.

At smaller companies, it is not unusual to find one person carrying out both roles and that’s feasible because the scale is smaller and the workload won’t be insurmountable. However, ideally, all companies need different people and sometimes multiple people to take on both these roles to ensure that the highest quality of work is delivered.

Ultimately, Product Management is nebulous and a large part of learning what it entails involves working in the role. At the core of it, you’re working with developers to come up with a strategy and with designers to decide what everything looks like and generally just doing whatever it takes to get the job done. 

Want to explore what that could look like and whether you’re a fit for a Product Management or Project Management role? Visit our website for more information about our online product management training courses.

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