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Understanding the difference between a product manager and a project manager

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We look at the difference between a product manager and project manager, two roles that feature very similar responsibilities but that have clear distinctions as they relate to the product development life cycle.

Today's technology touches nearly every part of our daily lives, from the work we do on our computers to the entertainment we consume at home to the online services that we use to buy, browse and everything in between.
The people behind the teams building these tools and services include software engineers, UX designers, product managers, project managers and many more.

Here, we look at the difference between a product manager and project manager, two roles that feature very similar responsibilities but that have clear distinctions as they relate to the product development process and product life cycle.

Glassdoor just ranked the role of a product manager as the 4th best job in 2020. That’s based on open positions and shows that it’s hot. But why is it hot? In the last 5 years it has generated a lot of traction, primarily driven by digital transformation and how central the role is to helping organizations become more customer centric.
image of Daniel Noriega, Principal Product Manager, Brightspot
Daniel Noriega, Principal Product Manager, Brightspot

The evolution of product management

We tend to think of product management in the context of the digital era, but its origins actually extend to a 1930s memo by a Procter & Gamble executive looking to build out his team with new hires for "Brand Men"—essentially, employees who could take Procter & Gamble's products to market and improve upon them through iteration based on sales and client feedback. In today's terms, however, product management is an essential function within modern digital organizations, as you can see from some of the stats below.
Glassdoor ranked the product manager role as the 4th best job in 2020 (open positions).
Interest in the term 'product manager' has doubled in the U.S. in the last 5 years.
Only 5% of product managers know how to code.
43% say that product managers are seen as leaders and key differentiators inside their organization.
It's been estimated that a fully effective product manager can increase company profits by 34%.
41% of product managers work in software development.

What is a product manager?

A product manager is a strategist, a designer, an ambassador, a negotiator, a planner, a good communicator and an analyst. He or she will take the product from ideation to termination and all the phases in between. It is the person who truly understands and advocates for the end user.
image of Daniel Noriega, Principal Product Manager, Brightspot
Daniel Noriega, Principal Product Manager, Brightspot

In its simplest terms, a product manager is the person responsible for the product, whether that's an application, a website, a widget or the toy box that goes onto the store shelf. The product manager needs to represent the end user—the person using your product in the real world—and understand that user's ultimate needs.
As the champion for the needs of the end user, product managers are involved in the full digital product life cycle.

Starting with an understanding of the problem your product is trying to solve, the product manager then moves toward assessing the wider market need and the fit and opportunity for that product.

With this understanding of the product fit within the market segment comes the ability to define the product vision, and the steps toward bringing the new product to market.

Here, the product manager's lens goes from looking outward across the competitive landscape to an internal focus that brings together a team of designers, developers, marketers and others responsible for the creation and delivery of your product. These are the people who will bring the product to life.

What is a project manager?

As we have seen above, it's helpful when considering the difference between a product manager and project manager to think quite literally about the different job titles.

The product manager is responsible for the product, from idea to delivery to market success (more on this later). A project manager is accountable for the successful management and delivery of any given project.

More broadly, the project manager role can extend to that of program manager. As with a project manager, this role sits within the execution phase responsible for managing scope, timelines, milestones and resources for a program within a business rather than a specified project (which usually has a defined start-to-finish scope).

Not to confuse these distinctions too much, but a project could include a product like a new website or Android app, for example. Or it could involve delivering a suite of new personalization functionality into an existing product like a website.

The specific skillset of the project manager is to break apart the needs of the project as a whole into its component parts, and then work toward building a project plan with the right teams, resources and delivery timelines.

A project manager will drive the day-to-day activities for every meeting, will be very detailed about who’s doing what, and will be responsible for the on-budget and on-time delivery of the various commitments.

What's the difference between a product manager and a project manager?

Truth is, there's a great deal of overlap between the responsibilities of a product manager and a project (or program) manager.

Product team roles

Product manager
Responsible for understanding the problem and the end-user’s priorities. Define the product’s strategic vision and monitoring the product’s success metrics through each of the product life cycle stages.
Product owner
A tactical role within the execution phase responsible for requirement and backlog management
Project or program manager
A role within the execution phase responsible for managing scope, timelines, milestones and resources
Business analyst
Responsible for managing requirements: gathering the from users or other sources, and translating them into technical instructions (User Stories, Tasks, etc.)
Scrum master
A tactical role responsible to manage day-to-day agile implementation activities and planning sprints and releases

UX designer
Responsible for the overall usability and usefulness of a user interface

In the context of a given project, these two roles work in hand-in-glove for the successful delivery of any project. It is a partnership where the product manager serves as the advocate for the customer and various stakeholders—from the end user or client to your field sales team to the executive suite—and the project manager represents the needs of the team to get the job done.

The product manager’s responsibilities include delivering on the product road map, managing stakeholder feedback and communication, researching and communicating customer needs, prioritizing work and defining the work and requirements for delivery.

Your project manager takes the road map and requirements and gives the project its organizational shape.

Using Lego bricks as an analogy, this is your step-by-step instructional manual. The product manager will have defined the object—the product—through a process of definition, design and its end vision. The project manager will know exactly how many bricks are needed for each phase, the color and shape of the hundreds of different bricks, and who needs to figure out the way each brick is modeled and connects to the other bricks (ie. a team's front- and back-end developers).

Once it's built, the product continues its life beyond the inception phase. Here, in many respects the paths of the product manager and project manager diverge.

A product manager is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the product or service in the market. Post launch, the next phase of the product life cycle begins: the growth phase.

Once the product is live, the journey does not end. Where are the opportunities to improve functionality and usability? Will the audience stay the same and how do you have to adapt to keep them on board? As so it all begins again!
image of Sherrie Bakshi, Principal Product Manager, Brightspot
Sherrie Bakshi, Principal Product Manager, Brightspot

This is often the step that can be overlooked in bringing a product to market, but it's when the product manager's responsibilities hit high gear. Conversely, it's often when the project manager steps off and into managing other projects that must be carried over the line.

The growth phase brings the product from launch to maturity, and involves managing key performance metrics, assessing and communicating customer and user feedback, and driving improvements that will include both enhancements and ongoing maintenance.

Build in new functionality or add in a new product offering, and the product life cycle restarts again for your team of product managers, project managers, developers and others!

Interested in a career as a product manager at Brightspot?
Our business—and our success—is built on hiring only the best talent. Join us as we continue to build expert teams of product, design and technology professionals to serve our growing list of partners.
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