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Feb 04, 2022

Product Manager VS Project Manager: Differences & Synergies

Alberto Incisa

At June, our mission is to make analytics available to everyone. This includes helping product managers build and measure great products. But more than tools, you need to be surrounded by the right people: “People, products, profits. In that order,” advises startup author Ken Goldstein.

In this article, we will introduce you to the differences between a product vs project manager, and how your product team can benefit from having one, the other, or both 😃

What's The Difference Between Project Vs Product?

A product is a company’s solution to a customer’s needs. A digital product can be an app, a website, or an ebook, for example―it doesn’t have to be sold to be considered as such.

A project is a series of tasks designed to achieve a business goal, like the creation of a minimum viable product or the release of a new app feature.

While the result of a project can be a product, the nature of the two is fundamentally different: while a product evolves to fill a market gap for as long as it’s needed, a project is time-bounded. A product can include many projects, but a project cannot cover the whole lifecycle of a product.

What’s A Product Manager?

The purpose of a product manager is the growth of a digital product throughout its whole lifecycle:

  • Strategy - define the vision, goals, and objectives of a product
  • Roadmap - define, prioritize, and estimate features and bug fixes to be developed
  • Customer interview - understand and talk with customers to address their needs in future product iterations
  • Management - coordinate the product team to reach the objectives
  • Continuous improvement - formulate new hypotheses to improve the product and test them
  • Cross-functional communication - mixing tech, design, and marketing to reach the organization’s goals
  • Success - define and monitor growth by a set of standardized metrics like user retention or feature adoptionProduct management is a key element for startups to face the competition and come out on top: a product manager can increase company profit by 34%.

What’s A Project Manager?

A project manager oversees a project until its deadline:

  • Strategy - understand the company’s vision and goals and how they can be reflected in the project’s scope
  • Roadmap - define ordered tasks and milestones for the project to be completed
  • Stakeholder communication - gather, understand, and prioritize stakeholder requirements, and send reports back to refine them
  • Management - coordinate the project team and refine workflows to reach the objectives within the allocated time
  • Success - monitor the project’s completion while avoiding going over the budget
    Projects are the life and blood of companies. Project managers drive change, and change is how your company survives. But they also bring the stability required for growth with the right methodologies for teams to get things done together: 57% of companies report regularly going over budget, and higher budgets result in higher chances of failure.

What Is The Difference Between Product Manager and Project Manager?

Product and project management share similar functions, but work at different scales: while a product manager’s role has no clear beginning nor end, a project manager’s does. A product can stay around for years, but a project rarely exceeds 6 months―estimates become meaningless the further you lap in the future.
Another important difference is how each role measures success. A project manager cares about finishing a project on time and on budget while respecting the stakeholder's needs. A product manager relies on a wide range of metrics. Not just revenue, but also customer acquisition, retention, and conversion rates at each step of the user journey, and there is no upper limit.

Product Project Management: How Technical Project Managers Can Support Product Managers

Combine a product manager and a technical project manager―a project manager with programming literacy―and you obtain a dream team that can go from idea to reality in the blink of a second. After all, one can view a product’s lifespan as a series of projects with varying resource constraints: that’s exactly what project management is all about!

1.  Sprint planning

A product backlog is a set of to-do lists used in project management to drive product development. A sprint is a fixed time period in which a subset of the product backlog is picked and developed to improve the product. Sprint planning is the meeting where to-do items are picked and prioritized.

That’s when project management skills come in handy: to pick the tasks that are most relevant to the product and its customers, and break them down into simple steps that can be easily processed by developers and monitored by product managers.

Each task on the to-do list is a requirement written in the form of a user story following the format “As a < type of user >, I want < some goal > so that < some reason >”. The format allows everyone involved to follow along the product development process, but technical project managers have the knowledge to make these user stories more actionable for developers to work on: only 5% of product managers know how to code.

2.  Product vision

A third of product managers declare prioritization as their biggest challenge, and 35% of product teams wish to have a clearer company strategy: finding the link between strategy, tactics, and operations isn’t straightforward.

Project managers can bridge the gap with their communication skills, to bring together all stakeholders―executives, engineering, marketing, customer support… you name it. Finding actionable business goals is the project manager’s specialty, which can, in turn, inspire the product manager’s product vision―the product’s Why.

According to Start With Why’s author Simon Sinek, having a clear purpose helps organizations and individuals be more efficient and happy at work, while driving growth upward by creating cult-like brands. That’s how Steve Jobs got people to buy iPhones, or how Tesla cars became status symbols―align your strategy, tactics, and daily tasks with a project manager, and you’ll be unstoppable.

3.  Process optimization

Project managers know how to get things done while respecting strong constraints. Slowness in launching and spending too much are two of Paul Graham’s 18 fatal startup mistakes: the faster you can run new product experiments under a budget, the more likely your product is to grow its user base.

Execution speed matters. Releasing new features or fixing bugs can be defined as projects with quantifiable budgets and specific deadlines. Project managers know tools and processes to keep your team on track while cutting costs, making more out of less. The devil hides in the details, but you can be sure a great project manager will find it right away.

4.  Mapping metrics to projects

Let’s say you have yet to reach product-market fit. A good product manager will focus on increasing user retention―how long users keep using your product. June can create automated retention reports that look like this:

The elephant in the room is to figure out how to go from there, mapping the data to a concrete action plan. You will need to find when customers drop out during the user journey, why they left, and then evaluate possible ways to resolve the identified issues. Depending on the severity, all of these little activities can turn into projects of their own.

Maybe the onboarding experience is lacking, so you decide to create a Frequently Asked Questions to answer common customer problems. Depending on how much information we are talking about, this can become a whole project spanning several departments in your company. Or maybe you have the wrong audience, so you launch a project to establish your product’s presence on a new social media platform.

Each metric can be transformed into realistic quantified goals for the product team to reach, and project managers can help with that too.

5.  Risk management

Last but not least, project managers can turn into fortune tellers, assessing possible risks you can encounter along the road to product excellence.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face, as Mike Tyson says. Project managers can not only create a plan, but also predict where estimates can fall short and devise counter-measures to stay on time and on budget without the product’s quality suffering.

What if the freelance contractor you hired to design your new product landing page becomes ill, for example? What if a feature isn’t properly tested and a groundbreaking bug is released in production? Project managers think of the worst case scenarios and become precious reality checks for product managers lost in an ideal world.

Gift June To Your Product Team For Free

That’s it for the differences and synergies between product manager vs project manager. June offers analytics reports in just a few clicks to help both reach their product goals. All you have to do is to sign up for free and connect your Segment account.


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