Project management and product management are two terms that often get confused — no surprises there, as graphically, the difference between them is only two letters wide, and they even use the same acronym (PM).
However, they are more different than you might think.
For one, if they’re working on the same thing, a project manager and a product manager will go about it in completely different ways.
Moreover, they’ll even measure success using different metrics.
In this article, we’ll explain:
- What projects and products are,
- What project management and product management are,
- What project managers and product managers do,
- The differences between everything project-related and product-related, and
- The best software for managing projects and products.
Table of Contents
What is a product?
In their glossary, the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) defines a product as a “term used to describe all goods, services, and knowledge sold. Products are bundles of attributes (features, functions, benefits, and uses) and can be either tangible, as in the case of physical goods, or intangible, as in the case of those associated with service benefits, or can be a combination of the two.”
We can simplify this definition to say that products are:
- Goods (e.g. smartphones, refrigerators, cars, beef jerky, etc.),
- Services (e.g. Uber, social media platforms, Internet providers, car mechanics, etc.), and
- Knowledge (e.g. seminars, statistics, benchmarks, industry reports, etc.).
The above-listed items also have one thing in common, which further indicates they are products — they are made to be sold.
What is product management?
According to PDMA’s definition, product management involves: “Ensuring over time that a product or service profitability meets the needs of customers by continually monitoring and modifying the elements of the marketing mix.”
These elements of the marketing mix include:
- The communication strategy,
- The product and its features,
- The distribution channels, and
- The price.
As previously mentioned, a defining characteristic of products is their sellable nature. Product management is the act of making and keeping the products profitable (i.e. sellable) by ensuring they address customer needs.
When a product is no longer profitable, it is terminated.
What is the product manager job description?
According to PDMA, a product manager is a “person assigned responsibility for overseeing all of the various activities that concern a particular product.”
In other words, a product manager is the person whose job is to keep the product profitable by ensuring that it addresses customer needs.
For this reason, the product manager is often called the voice of the customer.
Julia Austin — senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who teaches a product management course there — highlights the following core competencies required for product managers to do their jobs:
- Conducting customer interviews and user testing,
- Running design sprints,
- Feature prioritization and road map planning,
- Resource allocation,
- Performing market assessment,
- Translating business-to-technical requirements (and vice versa),
- Pricing and revenue modeling, and
- Defining and tracking success metrics.
A product manager is responsible for the product throughout its entire life cycle.
What is a project?
The Association for Project Management (APM) defines a project as “a unique, transient endeavor undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits.”
The phrasing is a tad confusing, so let’s break it down.
A project is a time-limited endeavor (i.e. it has a beginning and an end) whose purpose is to create a unique final deliverable.
When the deliverable is made, the project is finished and the project team disbands.
What is project management?
According to APM, project management is “the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge and experience to achieve specific project objectives according to the project acceptance criteria within agreed parameters. Project management has final deliverables that are constrained to a finite timescale and budget.”
In other words, project management is the act of creating the final deliverable within the project budget and timeline.
Movies are good examples of projects — the studio hires a director (project manager), hands them the budget, and says when (timeline) they want the movie (final deliverable) finished.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
If, in addition to know what project management is, you want to know why it’s important, read this guide:
What is a project manager’s job description?
A project manager is a person in charge of the project who coordinates the project team so that the final deliverable is completed:
- On time,
- On budget, and
- At the desired level of quality (scope).
Throughout the project lifecycle, project managers are expected to do the following activities:
- Define scope,
- Plan and organize tasks,
- Manage resources,
- Negotiate with contractors and suppliers,
- Asses and manage risks,
- Communicate with the team and with stakeholders,
- Manage changes,
- Document progress,
- Collect signatures,
- Motivate people, and
- Work on improving employee engagement.
Once a project is finished, the project manager moves on to the next one. In other words, once the final deliverable is made, it is no longer the product manager’s responsibility.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
You can learn more about each of the activities listed above by reading this guide:
What are the differences between project managers and product managers?
Rather than there being a clear line that separates project management and product management, it’s more useful to think of them as two sides of the same coin.
To elaborate on this, let’s assign both a project manager and a product manager to the same product/project and see what they do.
In this case, our project manager and product manager will be working together on the development of a SaaS (software as a service) app.
So, how do they go about it?
The product manager aims to make the best product
The quality of the product is the highest priority concern for the product manager.
To ensure that the product is a success, the product manager:
- Interacts with customers,
- Studies their pain points, and
- Comes up with ways to address these pain points.
They create the product vision that the project manager needs to realize.
They stay with the product post-launch and continuously work on improving it.
The product manager also decides the final subscription pricing and what features will be available to which users.
They track Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure success.
The project manager aims to deliver a finished product
The highest priority for the project manager is completing the project on time and on budget.
They care about the quality of the product insofar as it is defined by the project’s scope (which the product manager helped create).
If a feature that would raise the quality level of the product is suggested by the product manager mid-development — an undesirable situation for a project manager known as scope creep — they’ll have to carefully weigh its value against the remaining budget and timeline, and either:
- Reject the implementation of the new feature, or
- Request additional time and budget to support its implementation.
If the final deliverable meets the requirements outlined in the project charter, then its quality is as good as it needs to be.
Once the project is finished, the project manager is no longer involved with the SaaS app.
This shared leadership over the development process ensures that the app has separate people responsible for its:
- Quality (product manager), and
- Completion (project manager).
This is desirable since one person cannot prioritize two opposing things at the same time.
Project managers and product managers have different levels of authority
Another thing that distinguishes a project manager from a product manager is their level of direct authority.
The truth is, there couldn’t be a bigger discrepancy between these two positions than with regards to authority.
To illustrate this, we’ll dissect how “CEO-like” their positions are — a comparison that’s often used to describe product managers and sometimes used to describe project managers.
Product managers are not the CEOs of products
One of the phrases that get parroted the most in product management is that a product manager is the “CEO of the product.”
It’s catchy, so no wonder this quote has spread quite literally everywhere.
It’s also wrong, according to Martin Eriksson — an expert in product management practices with over 25 years of experience — who posited that product managers are “not the CEO of anything.”
According to Martin, the main difference between a CEO and a product manager is in their level of authority.
Product managers lack direct authority over the things needed to make the product a success, including:
- User and data research,
- Design and development, and
- Sales and support, and
- Hiring and firing control.
CEOs have direct control over all of these elements.
Making the distinction is important because product managers who strut their stuff as if they truly were mini-CEOs aren’t as likely to be successful.
For example, if a product manager decides that adding a file preview feature to their SaaS app is beneficial, they can’t just make the engineering team do it as a CEO could. Nobody reports directly to the product manager.
Rather, product managers work inside a very limited system and need to use communication, vision, and influence to strike a balance between the wants of the CEO, the engineering team, and the customers.
The trickiest part about this is that, despite not having any direct authority, product managers are responsible for the success of the product.
To drive the complexity even further, we should point out that product managers aren’t always responsible for the entire product.
For example, an Internet browser could have a product manager that is only responsible for bookmarks. Their job is to make that browser’s bookmarks the best in the industry.
Project managers are the CEOs of projects
Conversely, a much stronger argument can be made that project managers are like CEOs of projects, given the parallels between their roles and responsibilities.
Within the confines of the project, they have direct authority over:
- Team member recruitment (not exactly hiring, but the closest thing to it),
- Budgeting methods, and
- Task organization and assignment.
In other words, the project manager gets to decide who works on the project, who performs which tasks, and how they spend their budget.
They could make the project engineers implement the file preview feature if they wanted to. This gives them a much higher level of authority.
Their focus is still much narrower than that of CEOs — managing a single project rather than an entire organization. However, within the project team, they are the de facto leaders who have the final say.
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
In some organizations, project managers don’t get to choose their project team members, but still need to motivate them and unite them to create a functional and high-performing unit. You can learn more about project team development by reading this article:
Project management vs product management — key takeaways
So, we’ve seen in greater detail how product managers and project managers differ in terms of tasks, roles, and responsibilities — let’s now highlight these key distinctions between project management and product management in a clear table view.
|Project management||Product management|
|Is time-limited||Is an ongoing process|
|The goal is to complete the final deliverable on time and on budget||The goal is to improve the product’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)|
|The project manager realizes the vision||The product manager creates the vision|
|The project manager communicates with stakeholders and the project team||The product manager communicates with stakeholders, engineers, and customers|
|The project manager has direct authority over the project and its team||The product manager doesn’t have any direct authority — nobody reports to them|
💡 Plaky Pro Tip
Project management gets confused with a lot of other types of management with product management being only one of them. To learn more about this, read the following articles:
Can a product manager be a project manager?
It’s not uncommon for a single person — regardless of whether their formal title is project manager or product manager — to perform all the roles and responsibilities outlined in this article.
This is more likely to happen in start-ups and small companies where a few employees have to share a larger workload among them.
So yes, a product manager can also be a project manager, in a sense. This grants them direct authority over some employees and processes.
However, taking on the workload of both roles at once will inevitably compromise some of the responsibilities that are expected from people in these positions.
If we had to compare it to anything, performing both roles would be like playing tug of war with yourself — you just can’t pull both sides of the rope as well as two people could.
Useful software for project management and product management
While the roles of project managers and product managers are different, the two often work together.
Therefore, it is important that their organization uses a management platform that supports both of their needs by offering the following features:
- Task management,
- Task prioritization,
- Progress tracking,
- Resource allocation, and
- Team collaboration.
A project management tool like Plaky is the perfect fit, as it allows you to:
- Create an unlimited number of projects and tasks,
- Add an unlimited number of users,
- Add files to your tasks,
- Manually customize tasks to team specifications by adding fields (e.g. progress status, assignee, reviewer, deadline, etc.),
- Use free project management templates if you don’t want to customize them manually (e.g. Product Launch template, Bug Tracking template, Product Roadmap template, etc.),
- Check task progress at a glance, either in Table or Kanban view,
- Filter tasks by different parameters (e.g. progress status, assignee, reviewer, deadline, etc.), and
- Communicate within task parameters by leaving comments and uploading files for each task separately.
With a tool like Plaky, you can rest assured that your organization will have a platform that can be scaled to support any number of products and/or projects.
Conclusion: Product managers and project managers play different angles to create the same product
Project management and product management differ in terms of priorities, more so than anything else.
The difference is that project managers keep the budget and timeline as their top priority, whereas product managers always prioritize quality and customer needs.
They can — and often do — work on the same project/product, in which case the two roles are complementary.
Once the product is made, the project manager’s job is over. They move on to the next project, while the product manager sticks with the product throughout its entire lifecycle.
✉️ Are you a product manager who’s had project management tasks thrust upon them (or the opposite)? Does this text help you understand and articulate where the differences between the two lie? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may include your answers in this or future posts.