No company’s organizational chart perfectly captures each person’s role. In companies big and small, people’s duties sometimes blend and overlap.
Still, certain roles need to be kept distinct. Just as project manager and business analyst need to be two separate jobs, so do product manager and project manager.
That’s often easier said than done, though, because to an outside observer both roles can look pretty similar — they both require someone to take ownership of an important process. What’s more, project and product managers sometimes find that their duties overlap, and this can be a source of conflict.
So, let’s clear up any confusion now. Here is an overview of the product manager vs. project manager relationship, and how those two people work together.
What Are a Project Manager’s Duties?
You’ll see many people describe a project manager’s role as that of a mini-CEO, responsible for making sure a specific project is done on time, in alignment with available resources and within a well-defined scope.
On one level, a project manager’s responsibilities very much are “the planning, execution, management, and completion of a project,” as Ikigai Consulting nicely lays out. These tasks require a leader who can be organized, balance high-level strategy with day-to-day work and navigate change.
At a slightly more abstract level, you can think of a project manager as an advocate for the business itself. That’s what it means to keep budgets on track, ensure delivery times are met, check that resources aren’t stretched too thin and look across teams to find ways to solve a particular problem.
Robert Wysocki, Ph.D. says a project manager must consider what business situations are being addressed by a given project. “The business situation is either a problem that needs a solution or an untapped opportunity,” he writes at PM Times. “If it is a problem, the solution may be clearly defined and the delivery of that solution will be rather straightforward. If the solution is not completely known, then the project management approach must iteratively embrace the learning and discovery of that solution.”
What Makes a Good Project Manager?
The team at Parallel Project Training have an excellent overview of what it takes to be a successful project manager. They mention several attributes and skills of a good PM, but we want to call out four of those here:
Good project managers can build and lead strong teams. This is a key function of the role. A PM needs to be able to recognize the strengths of individual people, understand how those strengths fit together on a team, then coax the very best work out of each person through a combination of leadership and management.
Good project managers have strategic vision. Here’s where the PM must advocate on behalf of the business itself. This person needs to be able to see the big picture and understand how a project aligns with the company’s overall mission. That’s why having clear priorities is so important in project management.
Good project managers are also good problem solvers. The Parallel Project Training team defines good problem-solving skills in this context as “asking the right questions, evaluating the situation and coming up with innovative solutions in response to problems.”
Good project manager know when to collaborate and when to delegate. This is a big one. Let’s give collaboration and delegation its own section.
Collaboration and Delegation (and Trust!)
If you understand the needs of all stakeholders and the strengths of all team members, you will be able to give a specific person ownership of a set task. That both empowers a team member to excel and distributes the project’s responsibilities around so that no bottlenecks form.
But strategic delegation creates more value than just smoothing over workflows. As Felix Marsh writes at Workfront, the vast majority of businesses report that understanding someone’s strengths and delegating work accordingly can directly boost sales, profits, customer engagement and employee engagement. It’s the closest thing there is to a silver bullet.
“This information obviously takes time to pick up, but many managers have a knack for it,” Marsh says. “Being able to hand over a task to someone and walk away knowing that you can trust him to carry it out to the best of his ability frees up a project leader's time to focus on the other areas requiring their attention.
“A project manager who is able to demonstrate to a team that they trust them and have confidence in their abilities will get the best out of their team.”
A Project Manager Needs to be Able to ‘Work in the Gray’
There is a lot of murky ground between managing the day-to-day tasks of a project and finding alignment with the company’s big-picture goals. Moira Alexander at CIO.com calls this space “the gray,” and argues that the best project managers thrive in this ambiguous environment.
“What truly sets a project manager apart is his or her ability to work in the gray,” Alexander writes.” This is a must-have skill since the majority of projects, regardless of type, industry, size or complexity, will have gray areas you will need to navigate at some point. Issues with external constraints and complexities, remote project limitations, conflict and ambiguity — these and other uncertainties will almost certainly be encountered.”
As we will see in a moment, product managers face a similar challenge. Perhaps that’s why product managers are often asked to take over the management of a specific project. After all, not everyone can succeed in murky, ever-changing environments.
But tasking a product manager with a project manager’s duties does a disservice to your product team. The next section will explain why.
What Are a Product Manager’s Duties?
The product manager also has a mini-CEO role, but this person is responsible to the customer and works to ensure that the finished product meets customer needs and expectations.
This requires, first and foremost, an ability to design clear goals and an ability to create a strategy that will work toward those goals. The product’s design, therefore, will align with that strategy so it can achieve specific goals — e.g. solving a customer’s specific problem, having specific features that the customer needs.
Granted, this sounds a little like project management. Both roles require strategic management and an ability to meet deadlines. After all, products have to ship on time.
But it’s important to understand that the project manager is an advocate for the business itself, whereas the product manager is an advocate for the customer’s needs. This distinction marks where the two roles diverge on the company’s organizational chart.
What Makes a Good Product Manager?
Three traits stand as crucially important for product managers.
Good product managers have a goal-first mindset. “A product manager is not there to tell engineers how to do their jobs; rather, the product manager is there to tell them why the features on the roadmap are right for their customers and business,” says Aha! co-founder and CEO Brian de Haaff. “Hyper-productive product managers always keep strategy foremost in their mind, and they paint a vision for why what they are asking for matters.”
Good product managers are customer-centric. They are proactive about getting away from the work environment and going directly to the customer to talk about what the customer needs. “During these talks, you’ll get a good idea of what your customers are like and what they need,” Michael Affronti writes at AlleyWatch. “Pay special attention to their challenges in order to find solutions to benefit them. The ability to deliver to customers’ needs makes you an invaluable product management asset.”
Good product managers are always learning. Instagram product manager Hemal Shah says inferior product managers are only concerned with shipping. But “good product managers focus on learning,” he writes. “Whether it’s customer interviews, shipping product or looking at user metrics, good product managers are always laser focused on what they can learn that makes an impact to customers.”
A Product Manager Needs to Set Appropriate Boundaries With the Executive Team
Julia Austin, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, says that from company to company, the relationship is different between product managers and the C-suite.
In some companies, she notes, the CEO or the CTO might be the de facto head of product, and the product manager takes on a supporting role.
“This can be great fun for some [product managers] who enjoy partnering with founders and C-level executives and collaborating on the product evolution. But for other [product managers], it can be very frustrating if they prefer to take more ownership of the product direction. It can also be challenging if the more technical founders or C-levels prefer working directly with engineers.”
The key to this relationship is to understand everyone’s expectations. If the CEO ultimately drives the vision for the product, can the product manager support that vision by creating smart goals, implementing appropriate development processes and constantly learning?
That leads us to the project manager-product manager relationship. Once you understand how these roles function as discrete entities, it becomes clearer how they harmonize.
How Project Managers and Product Managers Work Together
Jennifer Bridges, PMP notes that there is naturally a little overlap between the two roles (e.g. “Who owns the roadmap?”), and this can potentially create sources of conflict. Smart organizations outline those duties clearly.
Triumph Strategic Consulting has a clean, simple heuristic for keeping those duties separate: Product managers decide what needs to be built. Project managers decide how to build it. “In other words, the product manager works out the vision for the solution and sticks with it for the whole life cycle,” they write. “The project manager galvanises the team to get the work done to deliver on that vision.”
Still, this vision-galvanization process requires collaboration and shared responsibilities between both roles. There are several points at which those responsibilities intersect, but three in particular are worth mentioning: prioritization, influence across other teams and handling complexities.
Both Managers Coordinate Priorities
Infer, Inc. co-founder and CEO Vik Singh says that a product manager who can ruthlessly prioritize is an invaluable asset — and he tells the story of how he learned this lesson in the trenches at Yahoo!.
The product team was 24 hours away from a launch, Singh says, when the product manager decided to cut a feature that the engineering team had already invested many hours in. Singh balked initially, but was eventually won over.
“He changed my mind by explaining why minimizing the risk associated with this particular feature was critical to a successful launch, offering a creative plan for communicating the change in scope to the team while maintaining morale and excitement for the launch, and proposing we include this feature in the next earliest release post launch.
“I learned a lot from his ability to ignore the noise, focus on the most important issues, and stand up to me for what he felt was right (and he was absolutely right).”
Likewise, the project manager has a definition for what project success looks like (or at least should have one), but that definition must bend to accommodate different sets of stakeholders. Elizabeth Harrin at A Girl’s Guide to Project Management has an excellent overview of what project success looks like through these different lenses:
“Perhaps budget is the most important thing to your stakeholders, and quality is taking a back seat on the project. Perhaps customer satisfaction is essential, and you don’t care how many overtime hours the team has to work to get that end result. Project success criteria are a great tool to use with stakeholders to generate engagement.”
Both Managers Influence Without Authority Across Teams
Singh also argues that a product manager needs to be able to influence people who don’t report to them. There are various ways of doing this. To win over engineers, for example, you might need to demonstrate technical skills.
The same goes for project managers. Perhaps they don’t have the authority to ask someone on the marketing team for help, for example, but they do have unique insights into the macro and micro perspectives of how things get done. Somewhere in that intel is a bargaining chip that will compel someone on another team to help out.
Both Managers Turn Complexity Into Clarity
In a paper presented at the PMI Global Congress, J. LeRoy Ward argued that a good project manager could “select and implement project procedures that promote organization while, at the same time, enabling appropriate actions on the edges of disorganization.”
In other words, part of their job is to impose structure on chaos.
Likewise, consultants at McKinsey and Co. argue that disorganization and complexity are increasingly becoming the domains of product managers. They cite product life cycles, growing software ecosystems and evolving responsibilities as some of the defining challenges modern product managers face.
“Over the next three to five years, we see the product-management role continuing to evolve toward a deeper focus on data (without losing empathy for users) and a greater influence on nonproduct decisions.”
That’s why good product managers must also be able to see clarity in the chaotic. As Pinterest SVP of Product Lawrence Ripsher puts it, the modern product manager must be able to distill a customer’s problems down into key questions — and then deliver pithy answers that don’t give away the complicated context from which they came.
Though the project manager and the product manager have overlapping skills and duties, their roles are and must be kept clear and discrete. If you are leading a company whose organization chart has grown a little fuzzy, keep these distinctions in mind. And if you are a project manager or a product manager on the lookout for new opportunities, make sure the companies you are considering know and respect this difference.
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