Product Manager Vs Project Manager

The disciplines of Product Management and Project Management are so intertwined that in many companies the same person is responsible for both. Look closely, though, and you’ll find some fundamental differences between the two roles that, if ignored, can have a huge impact on your organisation’s ability to deliver world class products. Great Product Management is about much more than just delivering against the milestones on your Gantt Chart, after all.

Manager Looking at Data

In his inspirational Good Product Manager / Bad Product Manager article, Ben Horowitz discusses the qualities that are needed to drive a company’s product line forward. Yes, project management and project planning are skills that every Product Manager needs, but there’s much more to it than that.

Here are five things that set the best Product Managers apart from the run-of-the-mill:

Product Managers Don’t Just Implement Change, They Decide It

Project Management is often hugely reactive. Project Managers are regularly presented with goals and timescales from senior leaders and are then expected to fill in the gaps. Product Managers, on the other hand, are responsible for deciding change; not just managing it.

Product Managers who have their finger on the pulse of their industry, a proactive attitude and a willingness to take risks can drive their company’s offerings to new heights.

Great Product Managers need to look forward, not just around the corner. By successfully operating on three different levels — now, next, future — Product Managers can be integral to shaping the success of their business.

Product Managers Focus on “Why”, Not Just “When”

Project Management is driven by timescales; when will the next feature be delivered? How far away is the next milestone? Is the project on track? Product Management, though, is all about why. Why is this the right product to be focusing on? Why is this the right time to push it to market?

Understanding why a product is being created is essential for success. If you don’t know the reason behind what you’re developing, how can you expect anyone else to buy into it. Great Product Managers understand the vision for their product and make sure their team does as well.

The best products can meet the needs of their customers before those customers have even realised what they want. And that’s down to the vision of the person leading development. Like Henry Ford (might) have said:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Understanding why the market needs your product before anyone else does helps the best Product Managers steal a march on their competition. The iPhone isn’t the greatest smartphone in the world. The reason we all love it? It was first.

Product Managers Have Long-term Strategic Focus

The version 1.0 of any great product is just the starting point; a chance to get out the blocks and see what the world makes of it. Product development never finishes, it’s an ongoing cycle where the wants and needs of the marketplace are fed back in again and again and again.

Great Product Managers focus on the long-term. They understand where their product is going over the next five, ten, even twenty years. They see opportunities for improvement and ways to expand into other markets without compromising their original vision.

The most influential products are always ahead of the curve. Go back to the iPhone; it’s sixth incarnation is a million miles from the phone Steve Jobs launched in 2007. Look at Coca Cola; the 100 year old company has turned selling flavoured sugar water into an art form. So much so, they can be credited with creating our modern vision of Christmas. Holidays are coming, indeed.

Product Managers Nurture Their Product

Project Managers are like midwives. They help give birth to a product then move onto the next one. Product Managers, though, are like parents. From helping it take its first tentative steps, to proudly watching it come of age, they nurture their product through every phase.

The best Product Managers are in for the long haul. They help their product evolve, understanding where it’s going next and giving it the helping hand it needs. They help it develop, to react to changes in the marketplace and turn it into the very best product it can be.

Product Managers stay close to their product. They understand how it’s marketed, what its customers have to say about it, its successes and its challenges. They know where it’s going and what they can do to make sure it gets there.

Product Managers Are Visionaries; They’re The CEOs of the Product

This one comes straight from Ben Horowitz’s article:

A good product manager is the CEO of the product. A good product manager takes full responsibility and measures themselves in terms of the success of the product. They are responsible for right product / right time and all that entails.>

Good Project Managers, on the other hand, focus on setting schedules, evaluating priorities and responding to stakeholders. All valuable skills for a Product Manager, but only parts of the puzzle. Like a CEO who has overall responsibility for the success (or otherwise) of their business, Product Managers have the same level of influence over their products.

The very best Product Managers own the end-to-end development and delivery of their product. They make sure they’re preempting the needs of the market and getting the best possible product out their before their competitors. It’s a hard job, but someone’s gotta do it.

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