Product Manager vs. Project Manager

Talking to a large number of people with different backgrounds can make one realize that there is still a lot of confusion around product manager function. It often gets mixed with the product owner or project manager. And in most organizations, the responsibilities overlap in more ways than any other roles. Let’s revisit all 3 roles to see the different purposes each role serves.

Marty Cagan wrote a brilliant book “Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love”. It explains product managers role from many different angles.

Product managers have two major functions — build a great team and be responsible for the overall product strategy. Product managers are often described as the CEOs of their products. This role involves assessing product opportunities and defining the product to be built. Once you’ve decided that you have a good opportunity and your company is well-suited to pursue it, then product manager needs to discover what the solution- i.e. product — actually is, including the necessary features and functionalities, the user experience and the release criteria.

Product managers closely work with engineers. It’s critical to understand that in this collaboration Product management is responsible for Building the Right Product whereas engineering — building the Product Right.

Project Management — is mainly about project scheduling and tracking. Sometimes it’s managed by dedicated project managers, sometimes by the engineering manager, sometimes product manager. Project managers are the ones answering questions like “What resources are needed?”, “When will the project get delivered?” and “Who is going to do what?”.

By reading the definitions above, it becomes easy to see the difference between the two concepts by simply thinking about product and project and the two associated roles. However, the roles of Product Manager and Product Owner may cause a little bit more confusion. Many Product Owners perform Product Management responsibilities and many Product Managers perform Product Ownership responsibilities. In fact, one can perform both roles simultaneously. In most Scrum software organisations, the product manager serves as the Product Owner, and the project manager typically serves as the Scrum Master. At its most basic there is little to no difference between the Product Manager and the Product Owner under Scrum.

The simplest explanation I’ve found is that the PM owns the roadmap, while the PO owns the backlog. In practice, I’ve found product owners tend to be thought of and applied as inward-facing development team enablers while product managers add more outward facing activity on top of that.

Product managers, project managers and product owners all have different functions and they see the same work through different lenses.

Where to find product managers?

I haven’t heard of the University degree that prepares future Product Managers to perform well in this role. If you’re looking for a product manager to hire, there are a lot of potential candidates in your organisation, hiding under a different title. Usually, it’s a software engineer, user experience designer, or a Systems Engineer (SE). Another important area to pay attention to is a set of personal characteristics.

After reading tens of articles and books about product management, we came up with the following list of skills that can also be used as a self-assessment framework:

Product passion — to be able to motivate oneself and the team to get through the difficult challenges of defining the great product. Acts like an owner, not an employee.

Good team player — You can’t create great products alone. Teamwork is critical. A team player who can do both: lead and follow. No jerks, no a-holes, no backstabbers. Wants to see the TEAM win.

Customer Empathy — think of our users as we think of ourselves and our friends. However, the target market very likely has quite different values, priorities, perceptions, tolerances, experiences, and technical understandings.

Intelligence — sharp mind that can understand complex topics in seconds. Ability to challenge assumptions and offer new ideas.

Entrepreneurial — this like a co-founder. Able to roll up their sleeves to focus on growing the product above all else. Great leadership potential.

Great communicator — product manager influences others by persuasion rather than authority. They should be able to convey complex ideas concisely and clearly. Do they know how to ask the right questions concisely and clearly and listen?

Time management — It is absolutely essential to get very skilled at quickly distinguishing that which is important from that which is urgent, and learn to prioritise and plan your time appropriately. If you can’t manage to get the time to focus on those tasks which are truly important to your product, your product will fail.

What other traits would you look for when hiring a product manager?

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