The Dividing Line: Project and Product

7827681642_391f6b9cb6_zInevitably, if you work as a product manager, it can be assumed that you have done project management to some degree in your role. Additionally, you may have worked in a department without a designated project manager, making it necessary for you to take on more project ownership outside of your core product responsibilities. This helps perpetuate the confusion around what the core responsibilities are of a product manager versus what is typically expected.

I have been in numerous conversations, — and experienced firsthand — that there is no single understanding of a product manager’s role, especially when project management in the conventional sense does not exist within an organization.

While there is not always a clear division between the two roles, we can delineate particular responsibilities that individuals in both roles work to complete. At a high-level, a product manager focuses on the delivery of solution to fit the audience’s need, while a project manager focuses on delivery of that solution within a designated period of time. You may be saying to yourself “but I am a product manager and I also worry about delivering the product on time.”

You just put your finger on the issue.

Organizing by Ownership

Sometimes, the best thing to do is understand by organizing. Taking a lead from the principles outlined by PMI (Project Management Institute) and identifying the appropriate association to the product lifecycle using the framework of Pragmatic Marketing, we can begin to use ownership to establish a distinct line between Product and Project managers. I have broken the primary responsibilities into three main phases where there tends to be the most overlap of duties.

Phase Product Manager Project Manager
  • Product Strategy
  • Product Roadmap
  • Requirements and Specifications
  • Risk Analysis
  • Work Breakdown Structure
  • Activity Planning
  • Tactical Support
  • Priority Management
  • Cross-Functional Communication
  • Resource Management
  • Scope Management
  • Risk Management
  • Stakeholder Communication
  • Positioning and Launch Plan
  • Launch Management
  • Project Acceptance
  • Lessons Learned

Phase #1: Planning

Starting at the beginning, a product manager identifies the upcoming strategy of products or enhancements. They work to define the requirements and specifications to ensure the deliverables meet the product strategy. All of this maps back to the product roadmap and is used to plan the product approach as it relates to project execution.

The project manager would also be engaged in gathering the requirements, but their purpose differs. They need requirements to understand how the project should be organized for implementation. They evaluate the potential risks, break down the work for the team, and define the list of tasks that are required to complete the effort. This translates into a project timeline that is communicated to the product manager and additional stakeholders.

The planning phase requires the project and product manager to be in close communication so that the team assembled can successfully execute the initiative.

Phase #2: Execution

Once the planning is in place, the project kicks off. Depending on the process within your organization, such as Agile, Waterfall, etc., this could impact the communication and documentation cycles during the three phases (And that’s a topic I’ll leave for another discussion.)

The project manager’s focus is to maintain the timeline so that the project stays on track. This requires continuous evaluation of progress against the plan, including assessment of the risks and management of resources.

The product manager acts as one of the primary stakeholders during the project execution and maintains involvement to ensure priority and definition are aligned with the product strategy. Which brings us to…

Phase #3: Release

Once the defined scope is met and all project tasks are complete, the project manager prepares the project for acceptance by the product manager and any additional stakeholders.  The project manager then closes the project and begins an analysis to evaluate mistakes and successes for use in future projects.

Meanwhile the product manager works on preparing the product for positioning and launch to the market. This includes creating documentation as well as enabling the sales and marketing teams with the appropriate materials.

What it Means for You

While this is a general overview for the division of responsibilities, you may see that as a product manager, you still take on specific attributes associated with a project manager. Which is great, again, depending on the structure of your organization, department, and personal preferences — but now you know the technical difference! (Knowledge which can be helpful in hiring, delegating, and resume building.)

So let me ask you – do you work with a traditional project manager and are you able to share the tasks of launching a project?  Are you typically taking on the efforts of a project manager to ensure you can get the product out the door as defined and on time? Or do you experience something different entirely? Share your experiences and tips below.

Image provided by Geee Kay on flikr.

One thought on “The Dividing Line: Project and Product

  1. Great outline of the differences, Vanessa. And, as you say, in some companies (typically smaller ones) there may be only one of these roles and that person ends up doing some of both.

    I remember the first time I worked for a company large enough to have both. It was also the first time I experienced tension between these roles. The project manager wanted to ship on time and, as the PM, I wanted to ship the right things. Finding the balance was a negotiation I had to learn how to navigate outside my own head for the first time.


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