A Detailed Comparison of Product Managers vs. Project Managers (vs. Program Managers)

Introduction

Product managers are the heart and soul of a company, they define what it is you’re building, how to sell it, and why people should buy from you. They ensure that all stakeholders in their product development process have a voice and work closely with engineers, designers, marketing teams to help deliver the best possible experience for their customers.

Meanwhile, the project manager oversees all aspects of an individual project or task within their company. This includes assigning tasks to members on their team as well as communicating with stakeholders about progress on projects they have been hired to complete.

Project managers may be promoted into management positions if they show leadership skills, but it’s not common for them to move up into higher levels in the organization like a product manager would be able to do based on experience alone.

In general, you’ve probably heard the terms product manager and project manager cavalierly thrown around a lot interchangeably, but have you ever wondered what the tangible difference was? The truth is, beyond the generic apples to apples comparison, there is some overlap between the two positions. 

Product managers can even be called “project managers” or vice versa. But, before we dive deeper, let’s take a deeper look into the specifics of these roles. 

Product vs. Project

To really explain what a product manager is compared to a project manager, we need to define the words product and project.

Product: a set of features that are created to provide value. It can be anything from a physical product, to a software or a service for a specific group of users. It’s constantly iterated upon and has a life cycle from inception to launch.

Project: an activity with defined scope, start and end date, deliverables, resources needed. It’s a one time (sometimes more) undertaking with the aim of creating a product or a service. The biggest thing to emphasize is that a project has a defined outcome with a definitive start and end date.

Most people are familiar with the idea of a project. A temporary endeavor that has an end date, like painting your house before you move in or hosting a party to celebrate your anniversary – these projects have specific goals and objectives; they’re finite endeavors designed to produce something visually appealing for one short-term purpose.

Unlike this kind of undertaking where it’s easy enough to put some paint on the walls so everything can be packed up and moved in at once when needed…a product isn’t going anywhere without any more maintenance! It needs upkeep because it changes as time passes (or if someone uses what was being offered) which means new updates need constant attention.

These updates of a product, these constant different kinds of maintenance, are what we refer to as projects.

What Is a Product Manager?

Product managers are responsible for setting a product vision, defining a product strategy and developing a feature roadmap that meets both company goals and user needs. 

Product managers play a critical role, especially in technology companies, to guide every step of a product’s lifecycle.

A product manager leads a cross-discipline team to drive research of user and market needs, design and development of products to meet these needs, development of pricing and marketing strategy, and finally launching these products to delight customers. 

They are also instrumental in building alignment within the team during planning, execution and launch phases. This role requires strong business acumen, a deep understanding of UX design, technical expertise and great people skills including collaboration and communication. 

A product manager is hired by an organization who either already has a product or has a vision for a product. In certain cases, such managers may also be hired to conceptualize a product from scratch, as is the case with many startups. 

Most importantly, they bring the ideas to fruition; the best product managers are constantly innovating.

They set the strategy, they talk to customers, they prioritize releases, and clearly define features. Their role is continuous.

To put it succinctly, a product manager is someone who is constantly responsible for the quality and creation (or further improvement) of a successful product for the targeted user market that satisfies the customer.

Responsibilities of a product manager

  • They are responsible for the product strategy, vision, and roadmap.
  • Communicates with stakeholders and customers, gathering their feedback to make improvements as well as prioritize requirements accordingly.
  • Ensure efficiency of development by working closely with developers during each phase of coding.
  • Articulates user’s and/or buyer’s needs as the de facto customer advocate.
  • Works closely with sales, engineering, marketing, and support to ensure business case and customer satisfaction goals are met.

Skills of a Product Manager

There is no hard line when it comes to defining a product manager’s skills. They can vary widely, but there are consistencies across the roles in general.

Communication

Product managers are the glue between cross-functional teams. They facilitate product meetings, create successful presentations for stakeholders, and communicate with both customers and clients to lead their team towards success.

The position of a Product Manager is not an easy one; they must work on shaping strategy while also communicating it effectively in order to convert others into product enthusiasts themselves!

Strategic Thinking

The product management process is a lot of work! To do it right, you have to know your market and competition inside out.

You need to segment audiences for the best results in marketing campaigns so that they are getting what will be most useful for them at any given time; forecast the future lifespan of your product (and understanding when phaseouts might occur) so you can plan accordingly with sales managers; position yourself correctly in terms of pricing strategies, development cycles, channels used etc.; and make sure that every update or new launch has an innovative angle on it which keeps customers interested even after many years.

Consumer-Centricity:

Product managers must understand their customers’ needs thoroughly and translate them into product features.

As such, most Product Managers start their careers in customer-centric fields like marketing or sales before transitioning to becoming a full time PM – which requires one be able to develop pricing frameworks, propose creative campaigns for the products they are responsible for selling and respond quickly when ever changing market conditions arise.

Analytical Ability

Product managers need to base their hunches on factual data and crunching numbers. They conduct market research, gather consumer responses, analyze them with substantial numbers in order for business strategies to be devised accordingly 

Ultimately, basic data competency is a must-to have skill because product managers often find themselves conducting these tasks.

What Is a Project Manager?

Project managers, on the other hand, develop a timeline for projects, plan development work, and assess deadlines all while making sure that quality remains high.

They’re the experts who make sure that each project is completed on time and within budget.

Project managers are the backbone of any successful project. They motivate and inspire their team to work together towards a common goal, utilizing each person’s skills for that purpose.

A project manager coordinates and manages the planning, resourcing, development, testing, and deployment for an information technology project.

A project manager is not a stand-alone role and requires extensive coordination with team-members and stakeholders. 

For instance, while a website may be developed by an IT team, stakeholders will include customer experience managers, content and design team (marketing) and even sales and accounting when the project impacts customer transactions. 

For this reason, the manager of such a project is expected to not just have technical proficiency, but also have good communication skills, in order to have the scope and goal communicated and discussed with non-technical stakeholders easily. 

Responsibilities of a Project Manager

  • They define and set the project scope.
  • Plan and schedule the development of the project.
  • Estimate costs and develop a budget.
  • Manage resources and assign them accordingly.
  • Coordinate with vendors.
  • Update on status of the project and deal with any escalation.
  • Get stakeholder approval for changes or anything else.
  • Analyze overall risk.

Skills of a Project Manager

Project management skills usually lean towards efficient management. This comes down to the ability to initiate and complete a project successfully. Beyond this, they need to be able to organize, multi-task, and problem solve more often than not. Outside of those, here are some common skills that are necessary for successful project managers:

Process Management

Project managers need to be able to identify and trace vital business processes in order for projects, timelines, budgets, and resources not only remain on track, but also meet deadlines.

They must know how to mobilize their resources when necessary- whether it’s a budget or team member – as well as allocate the right portions of each resource appropriately so that project success is ensured by meeting both time requirements and financial goals.

Risk Management

After years of experience, veteran project managers know that unforeseen circumstances always arise in a business.

For this reason they spend time identifying potential risks and devising contingency strategies beforehand to mitigate them.

Planning and Scheduling

Project managers are problem solvers, and they know how to build a calendar that communicates who must do what and when.

They also have excellent time management skills so they can delegate tasks to people in order to make last minute adjustments if need be.

Control Management

A project manager has the power to make or break a company by their leadership. As such, an experienced PM will establish proper controls (such as goals and objectives) before launching any new projects.

This ensures that all stakeholders are informed of what is expected of them without surprises at later stages in the process which could lead to dissatisfaction with both parties involved due to lack of information from either side about expectations for work being delivered.

Cost Management

This is a tough job for project managers, and it’s not just because they’re constantly struggling to keep up with the latest trends in financing.

They have to convince their executives and stakeholders that they can finish on budget while still ensuring quality work.

Product Manager vs. Project Manager

Commonalities

When it comes to soft skills, they share some similarities and also have some stark differences.

Rather than relying on gut decisions, they should trust the data to make informed and strategic choices.

Based off of what their technical or finance departments have gathered for them, managers are able to take a more scientific approach in planning out work.

Product managers need strong interpersonal skills as well so that when presenting product ideas it doesn’t seem like just another hunch but rather an educated vision with numbers behind it.

Similarly, project managers must also be skilled at leading teams and organizing projects while keeping everyone motivated towards achieving specific milestones.

Moreover, product managers and project managers are well known for their ability to adapt in any situation.

They work with people from every different department, so they need the skills of a chameleon!

In addition, these two jobs share many similar skills such as problem solving attitude, leadership skills (although one is more “hands off” than the other), and time management abilities.

Project managers also have negotiation talents that overlap those of product managers since often projects involve negotiating contracts or agreements between parties involved.

Essentially, product managers and project managers must be able to fit into just about anywhere – after all this role requires working alongside vastly different departments throughout an organization where collaboration happens on a massive scale!

Differences

The differences in these roles can get very granular, but we will focus on the broad differences between the two positions. 

Establishing The Vision

Understanding the vision of a given product or project is of the utmost importance for business stakeholders and internal teams alike. 


The question everyone involved in the overall product development should be asking themselves are: Why are we building this product? How are we going to get it done?

The first question doesn’t solely fall on the shoulders of the product manager, however, the ball is most certainly in the product manager’s court. 

The answer lies in the data that comes from market analysis, customer interviews, research, etc. Rather than answering the “why” through a hypothesis, the product manager needs to have the answer driven by data. 

Just like the first question isn’t solely on the shoulders of the product manager, the second question isn’t solely on the shoulders of the project manager. 

They aren’t tasked (usually) with developing the overall technical architecture and knowing the answer to every question posed. The “how,” in most cases, requires them securing the right resources, ensuring time, scope, and budget all meet stakeholder expectations whilst having a plan to get there. 

Driving Velocity

When it comes to the building phase, product managers and project managers work together to drive team velocity. 

Gathering requirements is mostly the responsibility of the product manager. Development teams cannot achieve expected team velocity with unprioritized requirements. Therefore, the product manager has to build them out. 

Meanwhile, every product has internal and external dependencies that need to be identified and planned for in order to build the necessary product. 

Managing these dependencies is where project managers step in. They basically make sure any issues the development team runs into, they solve and keep the team moving. 

Ensuring Efficient Communication

When it comes to communication, the project manager is the central source for execution specific updates to all stakeholders. Things like: what is the overall project status? What are the risks that need to be addressed? 

On the other hand, a product manager’s communication is more strategy focused. They focus on establishing KPIs and OKRs when planning out the roadmap. 

Everyone can access the analytics, but the product manager is responsible for making sense of the results, validating previous assumptions, and altering the roadmap accordingly. 

Challenges

Project Managers

Project managers are often left to their own devices with little direct authority over the people they need in order for a project to succeed.

Without understanding what it takes and how to get others on board, these leaders can be easily doomed from the start due solely because of lack of communication skills or even leadership acumen.

Product Managers

A product manager needs to take into account various opinions and perspectives, both internally with different groups inside of the company as well as externally in terms of one’s competition.

A major part of this role is negotiating compromises between stakeholders who may have differing desires for how a project should be completed; balancing these competing interests while also trying not to put too much weight on any single person or group involved can quickly become difficult but it is necessary if there are disagreements about what direction each stakeholder feels their perspective deserves more attention.

Collaboration

In smaller organizations, the product manager and project manager may be the same individual, however, as your organization grows and becomes more complex, these roles will need to be separated.

Generally, a collaboration between a product manager and project manager is not always easy, but it can very easily be healthy.

The product manager ought to challenge the project manager to consider what is best for the product in relation to the client’s business requirements whilst the project manager ought to challenge the product manager to manage the necessary business goals by prioritizing requirements in a way that follows the set budget and timeline.

Moreover, the product manager has an elevated stake in all projects that concern their product. The product manager is responsible for managing a project’s scope throughout its lifecycle to ensure it achieves high-level goals and objectives appropriate for the business as well as learning anything needed during this process.

In order to do so effectively, they work closely with cross-functional teams like engineering or even customer support daily which ensures clear communication about future plans of each individual team member’s contributions towards achieving these shared goals while also remaining open minded about new ideas outside their realm of expertise within other disciplines such as marketing or sales if necessary should any needs arise when collaborating.

In that same vein, the project manager also works with the wider team, but is focused on bringing the plans to life.

They will focus and manage the one effort until that effort is complete, making sure to do it in a timely manner.

Product and project management professionals have special skills that are often a good match for the work they need to do. But their perspectives on tasks can be different, which is why it’s so important when they collaborate together.

To put it succinctly, product managers see things from an organizational perspective while project managers look at what needs to get done within a specific timeframe. Working together means our team has all of the tools needed – someone who understands how everything fits into place as well as those with more time-sensitive responsibilities in mind!

So Then, What Is a Program Manager?

Program management is a complex process that involves coordinating the interdependencies among projects, products, and other important strategic initiatives across an organization. This can be difficult due to differing goals within each of these categories as well as outside factors such as budget limitations or unpredictable events like natural disasters

Program Management (or PM) typically falls under three broad responsibilities: defining the project’s scope and objectives; maintaining its timeline with milestones for completion; and ensuring it achieves quality standards.

These overall responsibilities are overseen by either an internal program manager or external consultant who reports directly back to senior leadership on progress made in terms of achieving stated goals/objectives.

A program manager’s role is essentially identifying the interdependencies across various departments, working with the relevant stakeholders of these departments, and coordinating their efforts to make sure that everything that needs to get done, gets done.

Difference Between Program Manager and Project manager?

Program managers are responsible for strategizing and directing strategic initiatives.

They might identify an interdependency, like between the product team and marketing, which they will break down with project management into smaller tasks to be completed at a more tactical level of responsibility within their organization.

The typical difference between program management and project management—and this can vary because different businesses treat these roles differently—is that program management is usually on the higher-level side of things while project management is typically lower in rank, but still important nonetheless.

Difference Between Program Manager and Product manager?

It’s easiest to understand the difference between these two positions based on the questions they ask.

Since product managers are responsible for the success or failure of a product, product managers are constantly asking why. Why build the product this way? Why prioritize this over that? Why do x instead of y?

Program managers, on the other hand, take a more organization-wide view of any strategic initiative, which includes product development.

The questions program managers are constantly asking are “how?” and “when?” How can we get enough time to train everyone on the product? When do we need marketing to start working on our collateral?

Sometimes, the program manager is referred to as the technical product manager because their role usually has a technical skew to it. They get into the nitty gritty of what needs to be done and make it happen.

Ideally, these two functions work harmoniously and create a well-oiled machine where they work off of each other. 

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Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager

For small products, it’s pretty straight forward. The product manager owns market strategy for the product as well as the product owner role that feeds requirements to the development team.

For larger products, you will more likely than not need more than one person on the product team to scale the work that must be done.

This means that you have one product manager as the director who is leading the strategy, whilst having (potentially) many “feature teams” (scrum teams focused on feature themes) that each have a product owner lead.

The product owners then do the analysis, write the requirements for their teams for the feature development.

In the agile context, there needs to be a scrum master to ensure the delivery pipeline is working efficiently and releases are planned.

This could be anyone from the technical team, but ideally, this would be a dedicated program manager for the product who could work to coordinate everything from UX, to content, to data science rather than just engineering.

It’s imperative, however, that the product team does not play the scrum master role since this involves a lot of coordination that means the urgency of day to day coordination as the scrum master is placed ahead of the longer term strategy.

However, in a waterfall process, you’ll probably have functional teams rather than independent feature teams, which means there are more cross team dependencies.

This is where the project manager will come into play and play a similar role to the program managers in an agile context.

With Agile, the feature teams have a longer-term pipeline for developing features. On the other hand, with Waterfall development style, functional groups are usually set up to own shorter-term pipelines of projects and thus need project managers.

These three jobs are often thought of as interchangeable, but they’re not. The best way to think about the differences between these roles is by thinking about what their titles mean.

A project manager will oversee a specific project and be in charge of making sure that it’s on time and within budget; meanwhile, a program manager manages ongoing projects or programs (such as HR).

That leaves product managers with an interesting role–they may have some managerial responsibilities for one particular product while also being responsible for overseeing other products from an overall company perspective. That’s why we created Chisel to make the daily life of a product manager a little easier with a singular source of truth.

Regardless, all three positions require leadership skills and excellent communication abilities, so you’ll need to consider which title might feel most natural or come more easily when deciding if any variations would be right for you!

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