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Product Management vs Project Management

What’s the Difference?

A strong product development team will usually have two extremely important roles defined: the Project Manager and the Product Manager. One common misconception is that the Project Manager and Product Manager’s responsibilities are the same. They are not. I’m not sure if the words sounding so similar has created this thought process or if there is just a lack of understanding. That being said, it is not uncommon for one person to play both roles and handle a variety of responsibilities. Depending on the methodology or framework one uses, these roles may also be referred to as Scrum Master, Product Owner, and even Business Analyst.

Product Managers do much like their title states: They manage products. A product can be a physical product, hardware, or software. Furthermore, software can be broken into many additional divisions, such as SaaS products, desktop applications, mobile applications, and platform products. For the purpose of this post, I will focus on software products. Product Managers determine the product’s vision, roadmap, features, user needs, and work closely with the development team and project manager to ensure the proper things are being built. The product manager determines the priority of features to be built. This may span multiple projects, sprints, and product releases that can affect multiple software and hardware products.

Project Managers focus on the project and development team at hand. A given product can consist of many projects and a development team can support many products. The Project Manager works closely with the Product Manager to ensure user stories are written with appropriate requirements and acceptance criteria. In addition to this, the Project Manager helps guide the developers by appropriately planning out their work for any given sprint and keeping projects on track to meet feature goals, budget goals, and desired timelines. Often times, Project Managers are responsible for facilitating hard conversations with stakeholders, developers, and the Product Manager.

Ideally, these roles are filled by different people. In reality, many times a single person plays both roles. This can be a conflict of interest and requires great discipline to not prioritize your own product ideas above other requests just because they are your own.

Another challenge is the vast array of skills required for each role. In my opinion, product management tends to challenge your creativity and leans more toward the arts. It does require the ability to define and interpret hard stats around product usage and other analytics collected, but the key is using the data to make important product decisions. Also, the ability to properly communicate is very important — from your internal team who are building and selling you product to your end users and customers.

Project management requires a good understanding of mathematics and numbers to help one effectively budget time, costs, and other project intricacies. A Project Manager also must be able to communicate well. Being able to be the liaison between the business or Product Manager to the development team is essential. Project management also requires strong time management skills, for both oneself and for their development team. A Project Manager must be the voice of reason to keep pushing their team toward sprint goals and commitments. While one person can certainly possess the skills to be great at both roles simultaneously, it should not be an expectation.

To conclude, the responsibilities a Product Manager and a Project Manager fill are extremely important. Whether this falls onto one person, is split between 2 people, or done by someone else entirely, the key is that someone is responsible for and owns these items to ensure they are met.

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