Best Practices

Product Manager vs. Project Manager: What's the Difference?

Jonathan Friedman
December 19, 2020
Product Manager vs. Project Manager: What's the Difference?

Your company has plans to unveil a new product, and it's time to build your team to ensure that it gets made. When you start looking for new employees, what's the first job on your list: a product manager vs. a project manager?


The product manager vs. project manager question is one that's asked so often across different organizations and businesses that some people see those roles in strictly an "either-or" fashion. They assume that they only need one for their work and that if they only need either a product manager or a project manager, the other role is irrelevant. 


The truth is that most organizations can significantly benefit from both roles. In fact, in most cases bringing on both roles could be the best way to meet all of your business objectives. 


Maybe instead of thinking about both roles as an "either-or" situation, we should start thinking about them as a "win-win" situation. Although both roles handle specific key responsibilities, having both roles at once could greatly benefit your work. 


Want to know the actual differences between these two critical jobs? We're going to take the time to break down product manager vs. project manager: their key responsibilities, and the real difference between each role.


Below is everything we will cover. Feel free to skip ahead.



Products and projects defined 


Part of the confusion between product and project managers comes from not understanding what they genuinely manage. Before we take a moment to focus on each role, let's talk about the fundamental difference between products and projects.


Projects


Projects are temporary undertakings that have an unambiguous definition of their desired outcomes. Whether they're developers, designers, copywriters, or other essential personnel, the people who work on project teams will generally move on to other work when the project ends. 


Your customers may see the combined outcomes of several projects, but they aren't aware of them overall. They're much more focused on the end goal of several projects: a product. 


Products


A product can be a good, service, system, platform, or application designed to meet specific customer and business needs. They're designed to create value continually, and they're always going through updates for improvement. 


Products are much more permanent than projects. They typically don't have an end date and are designed to be around as long as they're useful. Some people like to think of them as going through a constant ongoing evolution.


Products may have specific goals, but there's no strict definition of what has to be delivered. They're designed to evolve to meet customer needs, so they're much less rigid than projects. 


Several project teams may focus more on different product components, and eventually, collective project work can come together to form a product. 


What is a product manager?


Since you understand the key differences between products and projects, we can start talking about product and project manager roles. 


A product manager is essentially involved in the most critical aspects of building and maintaining a product for a company. The product work they do may be part of large strategic initiatives a business wants to execute. 

They're heavily involved in driving product development and the market launch, but their job isn't over once a product goes public. Product managers are also involved in the continual improvement and support of products a company launches. 


One of the main reasons they differ from project managers is that they aren't responsible for a specific project or team. They're solely responsible for the development and continued success of one or more products. 


What does a product manager do?  


What does a product manager do infographic

Sometimes the best way to understand what each role brings to the table is to dive deep into individual tasks each job specialty performs.


Like we've said before, there is some overlap between duties. Every product and project manager will spend time looking at budgets and defining scope. The actual differences come out when you focus on day-to-day tasks. 


Here's a quick look into what duties a product manager could fulfill at your office. 


1. Understand the current market needs


What's the next hot thing in your industry? Can people not stop talking about a specific product or service a competitor offers? If there's already ongoing competition in the field, how can your company find a way to stand out? 


You may not know the answers to this, but your product manager will.

Understanding the market through research is an integral part of the product management job. Having the ability to think critically and handle research will be very important for anyone coming into a product management role. 


2. Create product roadmaps


You have a great idea for a new product to add to your catalog. How do you bring your latest vision to life?


This is where the planning and strategy side of the role takes center stage. The roadmap the product manager lays out will play a vital role for project managers involved in managing some of the work that will be done. 


A roadmap that isn't well thought out could cause a project to go over budget or leave out critical steps. That's why it's important to have a product manager who understands the right way to create a high-level strategic vision. 


3. Conduct customer research


Creating a product that aligns with current user needs is very important to its success. How do you ensure that the product you're creating is in line with what your customers want? 


Your product manager can act as a customer advocate and help articulate their needs. They may try to plan a series of customer interviews or surveys to learn more about their specific needs. Market research around competitors can also come in handy when you're defining requirements.


4. Determine product business case 


Along with creating a product that can generate customer needs, they also make sure the product can fulfill your business's needs.

Getting internal buy-in from leadership members that aren't directly involved in product work can be difficult. That's why it's always essential to make a robust internal case to invest in a new product.


Your product manager can act as the product's strongest advocate and layout on how it can help a business or organization meet its goals. They won't just be able to say the right things; they'll also have plenty of data to back up their most important claims. 

 

5. Draw outcomes from data


After spending time building, testing, and introducing a product to market, it may seem like a product manager's work is done. In truth, their work has just begun. 


Now that products are out on the market, it's time to gather data and learn from users. Product managers can glean insights from analytics, user surveys, and customer interviews to decide what's next for the product.


The data may show that it's already time to move on to phase 2 of a feature or that it may be best to cut a feature altogether. Regardless of what they find, it's their job to figure out what isn't working, what is working, and the best next steps to take.


6. Align goals with marketing


When it's time to spread the word about your brand new product or essential product update, you're going to want your product manager's help.


Your marketing department can help execute plans and develop specific strategies, but your product manager should play an essential role in deciding what to promote. 


Product managers understand their products inside and out. They're the best people to go to when you're developing a marketing or sales strategy. They'll help with product positioning, developing value propositions, and giving marketing and sales key talking points. 


7. Define success


After months of careful planning and hard work, your latest product feature has been launched. How are you going to ensure that it's performing the way you hoped that it would? 


Determining the metrics, you use to measure success is a significant part of product management. Focusing on the wrong things could lead you to make false assumptions about how your product performs. 


The right way to measure success could be new downloads or an increased engagement rate. An increase in in-app purchases or a decrease in people uninstalling your digital product might be what matters the most.


Regardless of what metrics are the most important, your product manager can help you find the right way to measure success. 


8. Manage stakeholders 


Managing stakeholders is an integral part of any product development project. Ensuring that critical people are aligned on current objectives, and overall goals are crucial for success. 


Your product manager can serve as a messenger between essential parties. Besides keeping everyone informed about product progress, they'll also help stakeholders review and understand any new requirements. 


What is a project manager? 


Now that you know what a product manager does let's dive into another essential job in the product development process: the project manager.

Product managers have to take a high-level approach to manage their products. They oversee the overall progress of several projects that come together to create the product they manage. 


Project managers take a tactical approach to their work. They take on a lead role in the planning, execution, monitoring, and closing of projects. They're responsible for managing the project scope, project team, and resourcing. Overall, the success or failure of a project is in their hands. 

Product managers may look at their products' progress month by month or quarter by quarter, but project managers are invested in the day-to-day management of people on their team. It's their responsibility to ensure tasks are done so their teams can handle specific deliverables.


What does a project manager do?


What does a project manager do infographic

Both titles may have "manager" in their name, but the duties each is responsible for can show just how different their expertise is. There may be a slight overlap with some responsibilities, but after you see the difference in day to day work, the differences between them will get much more apparent.


1. Plan projects


Product managers can be masters of strategy, but project managers are the real driving force behind planning.

Planning is a critical part of a project manager's day. In fact, when you consider their responsibilities, you could argue that planning gets weaved into almost everything they do. 


Overall, a project manager is responsible for coming up with a plan to help everyone on the team meet core project objectives. Their plan has to complete the project's ultimate goals and adhere to whatever was laid out in the project budget and timeline.


Their project blueprint will ultimately guide the entire project process from ideation to launch. A comprehensive project plan will include some key things:



These well thought out plans can help serve as the roadmap people working on the project follow or can help get approval for a project if it hasn't been granted yet. As a result, planning is one of the most critical parts of a project manager's job. 


2. Lead teams


Product managers may be the visionaries for project managers and other key personnel, but project managers are the team leaders delivering the work. It's their job to keep designers, developers, and other needed professionals on track to meet work deadlines. 


It takes a strong leader to keep everyone informed about project progress and what work needs to be done. Project managers should have outstanding communication and people skills to ensure that everything stays on track. 


Being a leader also involves being able to notice people's strengths and weaknesses. A good project manager should tell when people are struggling to complete work and meet deadlines before it becomes a project-stopping issue.


On top of regular leadership work, they're also in charge of assigning tasks, setting deadlines, acquiring and distributing resources, and talking to stakeholders and team members. It's a lot of work, but it's crucial for the success of a project. 


3. Execute project plans


Proper execution isn't just making sure that things get done on time. Activities need to be done correctly, on schedule and wrapped up well enough to move on to the next phase of the project.


Project managers may have laid out a timeline around when things need to get done, but change is a natural part of project work. The scope of work may change, client requests can alter project priorities, and essential people in development, design, and other involved departments may need to take time off.


This is why it's important for project managers to be flexible and also to be excellent communicators. Sometimes a project manager putting a 15-minute daily stand-up on everyone's calendar is all you need to stay in the loop about project progress. 


4. Manage time


Time management is an essential part of any project. Projects that take too long to complete risk going over budget could negatively affect other work and initiatives the project is attached to. 


Whenever something comes up that puts the project timeline in jeopardy, it's up to project managers to find the best way to resolve the issue. They may have to bring in extra resources to get work done or tell individual stakeholders that they need to push back deadlines. 


Proper time management involves having adequate risk management skills and contingency planning abilities. Sometimes being a good project manager involves evaluating different risks and figuring out the best possible outcome in a less than ideal situation.


5. Develop and monitor budgets


Project managers don't just have to develop a potential budget for a project; they also have to make sure that their team sticks to it as closely as possible. When projects end up costing more than anticipated, it's up to project managers to moderate the overall spend and possibly re-allocate funds. 


A good project manager will want to stick a close to the original budget as possible, but that doesn't mean that being very under budget is the best outcome. 


If you're working on a project for a client, coming in under budget may signal to them that they're paying you too much. A savvy project manager will understand how to put leftover money towards other helpful work to continue to prove their worth. 


6. Create and manage documentation


Essentially, documents aren't just hard copies of ideas and topics that were discussed. They can serve as the overall record of work done to date and can help people who are new to the project understand what's expected from them. 


Documents can play several vital roles for businesses. They can set expectations for work, serve as legally binding contracts, or ensure that everyone knows how to follow directions for a particular task. 


Project managers will help organize and collect necessary documentation throughout their project. This can include data collection, status reports, project charters, change of work orders, and other essential paperwork. 

Along with dealing with important documents, good project managers are also excellent note-takers. Being able to pay close attention to what key stakeholders are saying during meetings can help make everyone's work easier. 


7. Manage handovers 


After months of hard work, your project is finally finished. So, what comes next? 


A good project manager won't just be helpful when the project is being worked on. They should play a key role in handing over their work to the next project manager or whoever will be working with the project team's output.  


A helpful project handoff usually involves writing useful documentation that shows people how to get the most out of the project output. In some cases, some project managers may require critical members of their team to shadow new members to have a clear understanding of what to do.


Product manager vs. project manager: the true difference


As you can see, each job has its own unique set of benefits and skills that can help any business or organization. 


Product managers can help be the overall visionaries of your product initiatives. They're dedicated strategists that can put together several different projects and initiatives to create a truly successful product. 

Project managers are the tactile thinkers you'll want to bring on to manage individual projects. They'll be able to lead their teams to finish their work on time and within your set budget. 


The difference between product manager vs. project manager truly comes down to whether you need someone specializing in high-level strategy or tactile execution.


A company with a product in need of a revamp or wants to think more strategically about their product work would benefit the most from a product manager. An organization that needs someone to lead small and tactile projects should consider hiring a project manager. 


Manage products or projects with outstanding software: TrueNxus

TrueNxus understands the difference between product manager vs. project manager, and it has everything that both roles need to collaborate from end-to-end. TrueNxus is the most pragmatic work management platform for cross-functional teams.

Whether you need help with:

TrueNxus has got you covered!

Here's a look at some of its features:

1. Multiple views

Personalized views illustration

A product manager vs. a project manager both require different ways to visualize work across time. Not only that, but each individual specializes in a specific domain, and as such, each thinks about work differently. To ensure successful planning and execution, you need software that provides personalized views that make sense to each person. These views need to be in sync as well.

TrueNxus provides you with the following views:

List

Plan screenshot

A list is a table that allows you to manage your cross-functional work easily. From product roadmaps to project plans, you can organize your work into groups such as workstreams, epics, or any logical way to categorize tasks.

Timeline

Product roadmap or project timeline screenshot

With TrueNxus's Timeline, a Gantt-chart like view, you can visualize your product roadmap or project plan across time. It lets you understand how all of the work fits together. You can make updates to product roadmaps or project plans through an interactive interface.

3. Automated status reports

Automated status reports illustration

We understand that each cross-functional team member is busy balancing multiple priorities, from your day-to-day responsibilities to various strategic initiatives. Therefore, TrueNxus successfully executes monitoring and controlling of work by automatically analyzing the product or project health in real-time, giving senior leadership and the team the insights they need to make decisions and move the ball forward.

4. My Work

View all of your work in one place

Another essential thing for everyone involved in product management and project management is understanding what you're on the hook for delivering. With TrueNxus, you can view every task and every dependency vital to you, across every product or project, in one location, ensuring success.

5. Dependencies

Dependencies

Additionally, we know that you don't want to let your colleagues down or be let down. You can ensure the successful delivery of work through collaboration and documenting task dependencies. By doing so, you can be accountable when others are reliant on you. You can understand dependent tasks, change implications, and adjust course as needed.

6. Automated notifications

Automated workflows - notifications

Whether you're a product manager vs. a project manager, you can also successfully execute work by leveraging software to notify when changes occur. With TrueNxus's 20+ out-of-the-box automated notifications, you will have the transparency you need to stay in-the-know.

7. Comments

Cross-functional team collaboration - comments

Additionally, the entire team can ensure product roadmaps or project plans are successful by collaborating directly in the app. With TrueNxus, you can communicate with colleagues, clients, consultants, and contractors in one place.

8. Project charter

Charter illustration

Lastly, if you are a project manager, you can leverage OKR and create a project charter. You can ensure the successful execution of projects by documenting and aligning the project's objectives, benefits, and risks from the very beginning. TrueNxus is the only software that has a project charter directly in the app.

Conclusion

Some companies will never settle the product manager vs. project manager debate, which may be a good thing. The expertise between the two roles may be different, but they can both bring a lot of value to your business or organization. 


If you're a company with several products or do a lot of project work, having both roles on hand can add some much-needed organization and innovation to your work. Once you decide who you want to bring on, we'll be there to help you ensure your products and projects are well managed. 

Say goodbye to lackluster management software and start using a tool that understands how to foster cross-collaboration between your teams truly. Sign up for your free trial today so you can see how we can transform your workday.