Why Product Management is NOT Project Management

Product Management is not Project Management. Learn what are the differences and continuities between both types of PMing.

Everything we know about work changes with technology. For a long time, most of us worked following the rhythm of harvests and seasons. Then, the invention of technology and modern work required the development of management processes.

This is because companies seek to be efficient: to make as much profit as they can, with the smallest investment possible. The triumph of mass products like the car, the television or even the personal computer had a lot to do with the application of organizational doctrines like Project Management. Of course, it began informally thanks to the initiatives of smart individuals; then it was the turn for Business Schools to make it official.

Product Management belongs to a more contemporary era. While building on the methodical and efficient approaches devised by Project Managers; it is something more attuned to the challenges of digital products. An important aspect of the previous century of commercial offerings was their long-term duration; today, online applications can change on the same day. Equally, nothing beats Product Managers’ cross-team navigation skills and their ability to zoom in-and-out.

Let’s fully understand how much they differ.

If you are in Project, and want to switch to Product, you might want to keep your ears open!

What Project and Product Management Do NOT Have in Common

Let’s start with the differences, shall we?

First of all, brief definitions are in order:

Check out this table for reference:

product management versus project management infographic

Now, these are “ideal types”. Of course that there are flexible project people and very technical Product Managers. However, what is important here is to pay attention to the details. First of all, one category is obviously more transferable than the other: yes, project management takes place everywhere. Thus, it is more versatile. Any organization (from the government to a local business) that needs to reach a set of goals and account for expenses, time and people involved in a systematic way; they will rely on some variant of project management.

Product Managers, on the other hand, will only really thrive in a business environment where “products” are at the center. What does this mean? Well, this kind of thinking is more focused on the user or customer experience: how it is satisfying a particular need or completing a task. This has many ramifications.

First, there is an emphasis on really understanding the market. Via research, product people must become advocates for potential users. In internal meetings with other teams, they represent the “empty chair”: the customer. Of course, this is not an airy exercise, it has to be based on solid data.

Secondly, this also illustrates the “visionary nature” of product management: its practitioners are expected to build a product vision. This should not be confused with them becoming “visionaries”. There are only a few product geniuses. But, once agreed on, the plan or roadmap’s most vital advocate is the Product Manager. This is why these individuals are usually great public speakers and overall persuaders.

Thus, thirdly, the product manager is expected to navigate across skills and functions in the company. The idea that they are “CEOs of the product” reflect this generalist approach. Whereas project managers are usually tied to a particular discipline, product managers’ need to command internal stakeholders makes them constantly open to new disciplines. Thus, marketers, salespeople, designers, engineers… they will all get used to having a PM around. This is because, in product, you must be a team player. In project, it depends on what you are working on.

detail on two people wearing shoes

What Project and Product Management Have in Common

If we lay aside the points above, though, both types of PMing have much in common.

In the first place, they are both concerned with taking a “scientific” approach to work. This does not mean that you are fooling around with beakers in some sort of lab. This means that your tasks are designed in an evidence-conscious way. Thus, your planning, decision-making, designs and executions are all based on carefully planned stages. While there are many styles in both disciplines, the bottom line is that your “hunches” are all to be based on data. Perhaps intuition and creativity are better rewarded in product (though not necessarily!); but at the end of the day your visionary plan needs some solid foundations to fly.

Secondly, time is money! Product Management is all about optimization: when you are working in the innovative tech industry, wasting time or money can cost you building the product of the decade. While Project Manager roles abound in “more corporate” and better-resourced environments, these professionals are also expected to be ruthless when it comes to distributing money and time. In fact, in this respect the more traditional business background of project people becomes an asset in the more design-minded world of product.

Thirdly: people matter. Yes, the Product Manager is a bit more enlightened in this respect; out of necessity, really. They have to lead a product without really having strong authority beyond the product team. Thus, they are used to making a case for their opinions, seeking consensus and protecting their vision up to the final phase of a product release. Certainly, Project Managers are usually “executioners”: the project has already been agreed on, and they just have to implement it. However, they still need to organize a team and project their vision, reminding everyone of the important milestones.

Fourth: indicators! Yes, this is probably the most “boring” part of being both kinds of PMs, but the key to a successful project or a successful product often lies in the measurements. Accurate KPIs act like North Stars for small and large teams can extract that bit of extra effort needed to finish. Data offered during a presentation can save your plans.

And, finally, product and project are similar kinds of roles in terms of their adaptability.

two tall skyscrapers

Yes, if there is something both disciplines share is their application to multiple sectors and functions. If you take a look at the leading product managers in 2018, for instance, you will notice that most of them have carried out different tasks at very diverse companies.

Similarly, project managers are ready to adapt to technological change and switch between industries. This is the case for many that work at generalist consultancies; and, in fact, it has facilitated the transition of many who had tech company assignments to get into product positions.

Examining these transitions will reveal how the connections between both PMs work in practice.

Project Management to Product Management: An Easy Transition

In our 2019 book Hired: How to Get a Great Product Job, we went into detail on managing this transition from project to product. This is a summary of what you need to succeed:

  1. Work on your tech skills: Many product managers have emerged from programming or developing. You do not need to be a code master to make it in product. However, you need to have at least an overall awareness of the tech scene, innovative solutions and the possibilities offered by upcoming applications: from Machine Learning to the Blockchain.
  2. Communicate like a pro: If you have been a client-facing product manager, you might even be better prepared than many product managers out there. However, you could lack some of the “evangelist” flair that makes product people the representatives of the new tech generation. This implies public speaking, advocacy and even public relations skills must be top-notch.
  3. Find your niche: This will not be a challenge for project managers that have worked for firms specialized on certain sectors or functions. But there are many who originate in generalist consultancies. These professionals are used to juggling different sectors in their work; product managers, on the other hand, tend to focus on one particular subject. Whether transportation, dating or fintech, you need to find where you are good at.
  4. Gain market acumen: What makes a good business sense? That is impossible to know. But a good product manager always has an eye on the industry: what is the competition doing? What is the next disruptive technology? What is becoming cheaper to do? All these questions need an answer, but also an instinct for trends in software use. Project managers who are less used to solving these issues will need some training.
  5. It’s the psychology, stupid!: Well, product management is all about satisfying user needs. Whether you believe this need is something you need to “research”; a “job” to be discovered”; or you should simply listen to your instincts: that’s up to you. But a good PM must have a solid theory on how their ideal user thinks, uses and talks about the product or feature they are working on. This might not be the same as the more internal-stakeholder focused vision shared by Project Managers.

four corners of buildings meeting

All in all, all product people conduct projects; and most project managers take care of products. There are minimal differences, but they are significant enough. This is why, before undertaking the transition, it might be worth checking some literature. Seek events where you can speak to experienced PMs, learn from their mistakes and build a good case for yourself to make it in product.

If you feel ready to break into product, remember that we offer tailored part-time classes to individuals and corporate clients. Check them out!

Are you a Project Manager? What do you think about the connections to Product? Let us know below!

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