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

“Project manager” and “product manager” are terms people conflate with one another. Each is a distinct position that comes with a set of responsibilities.

By  •   February 7, 2022  •   7 min read

The terms “product manager” and “project manager” probably sound synonymous at first. We get it: They are fairly similar, and they do collaborate. But look at each position a little closer, and you’ll start to see that their responsibilities differ. It’s more accurate to say they’re two sides of the same coin, using different means but similar skill sets to accomplish similar goals. Below is a primer on the product manager vs. project manager divide.

What does a product manager do?

The product manager is one of the most important people in your organization. They determine the next product you should build and figure out how to refine your existing products. Their ideas don’t come out of thin air (though they often are that imaginative and creative). They keep close tabs on current market trends and consumer feedback to develop a sharp product vision.

Once the product manager sets your product vision, they work tirelessly to execute it. If actually building the product is the development team’s responsibility, the product manager sets the team’s goals and defines the deadlines. 

Your product manager’s specific responsibilities can include:

  • Keeping tabs on consumer needs and using them to guide the product team
  • Monitoring the product’s performance
  • Prioritizing cross-functional collaboration with other teams to help develop a product roadmap

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What does a project manager do?

The role of a project manager is a bit more straightforward but by no means easier or less vital. They oversee your project teams and bring the product manager’s vision to fruition. They ensure a  successful development cycle – namely, deliverables that arrive on time, under budget, and in the highest possible quality.

Your project manager’s other responsibilities can include:

  • Collaborating with the product manager to estimate budgets, project scope, and project timelines
  • Encouraging open and honest communication among team members for more creative, effective problem-solving
  • Sharing frequent progress reports with your product manager, leadership, and other stakeholders

The differences between product vs. project manager

A comparison between product and project managers can be a bit complicated. After all, the two don’t differ that substantially. It’s not like we’re talking about accountants and software developers here! However, product and project managers each have their own unique responsibilities and perspectives, which we’ve listed below.

  • Product managers research; Project managers create

Before your organization commits to a product vision, you need to be confident it’ll succeed. The product manager is responsible for making the case. They’ll look at market trends and the needs of your target audience to do so. 

It’s then the responsibility of the project manager to actually build the product. Well, more accurately, the team reporting to a project manager does the building – the project manager lays the course. They follow the milestones the product manager has set and figure out how their team can best get there.

  • Product managers plan externally; Project managers plan internally

Product managers pay close attention to market factors outside the company to dream up new products or update old ones. They look at customer reviews, competitor products, and the overall health of the market to determine high-level business goals. The development team ultimately follows these goals. Even during development, product managers have a constant beat on all external forces that could affect the product. 

The project manager takes the goals the project manager sets based on external data and decides what’s needed internally to make them happen. That’s a big difference: Unlike the product manager, their analysis stays internal for the most part. They focus on coordinating their team to meet key deadlines.

  • Product managers stay informed; Project managers move on

A product manager’s job doesn’t end when the product finally hits the market. Instead, they remain heavily invested in the product’s success throughout its life cycle. That means observing how the product performs in the real world to plan future updates or new products.

A project manager, on the other hand, will usually move on to the next project after developing the current product. Their responsibilities revolve more around improving their team and how efficiently they can create a product rather than improving on products or creating new ones. 

Is there any overlap between product and project managers? 

The product vs. project manager divide often deals with responsibilities, but at the same time, the two are so closely intertwined they often overlap. That’s due to similarities in the skills required, even if each role uses those skills in different ways. It’s even possible for a project manager to act as a product manager and vice versa when necessary. 

Some tasks common to both roles are:

  • Effective communication in both roles makes for a more successful project. That communication pertains to stakeholders, the development team, and just about anyone who might care.
  • The ability to adapt to sudden obstacles or changes is vital for product and project managers. After all, product development can be a long process with many twists and turns.
  • Long-term planning is key for both roles. Product and project managers must both outline the necessary steps to yield a great product, though they do so from different perspectives. 

Skills needed for project managers vs. product managers

Clearly, there’s some overlap between project and product managers given the similar skills required of each. While that overlap isn’t quite one-to-one, the two roles are close enough that a product manager could step in for a project manager. The opposite is true too.

Making the switch requires more of a shift in focus than in skills. Project managers would have to transition from looking at discrete tasks to taking a broader, more top-level analytical perspective. Product managers would have to narrow their view to look at all the tiny moving parts. But familiarity with one perspective typically leads to an understanding of the other – maybe not immediately, but definitely eventually.

Each role’s ability to effectively organize teams eases the transition if it ever becomes necessary. After all, product developers rarely work alone, and neither do their managers. That’s why effective collaboration among team members is a key goal for product and product managers alike. It’s often as important to a successful product as industry-specific skills. Can you really code the world’s fastest app without other people checking your code for bugs?

Another skill needed for both roles is organization. A haphazard approach to creating a new product or service usually leads to haphazard results. That’s why project managers plan out when the development team will reach certain project milestones. The product manager defines those milestones in the first place.

Project managers:

  • Approach development from a task-oriented, ground-level perspective
  • Arrange resources to meet project milestones a product manager sets
  • Must stay organized

Product managers:

  • Approach development from a top-level, analytical perspective
  • Create the project milestones a project manager must meet
  • Must stay organized

Can you work on both roles at the same time?

Yes, you can be both a product manager and a project manager. A product manager can easily switch to project management tasks if they’re good at coordinating the day-to-day tasks of an entire team. Likewise, a project manager can make a good product manager if they can analyze data and direct multiple teams at once. 

However, while one person could theoretically perform both roles at once, doing so often creates issues in the development process. Think about it: We’ve talked about some skills that project and product managers share, but they’ve primarily been soft skills desirable in every field. Beyond that, each position does require some specialized knowledge to help get good results. And one person can only specialize in so much at once.

It’s still not impossible to do both jobs at once, and some smaller companies on tighter budgets do hire one person for both. However, there is always some risk in putting so many big responsibilities on one person’s shoulders. That person will have the best idea of what a project needs to succeed and where the team should focus. If they’re suddenly out of the picture, the process could fall apart with no one to guide the team toward a successful product. Splitting the duties between two people is almost always better.

Two sides of the same coin

Although project and product managers have different responsibilities, one can’t do their job as effectively without the other. Collaboration is the name of the game for a high-quality final product, and team meetings are super helpful on that front. To help you make the most of your meetings, Fellow can help you write agendas, take notes, and assign real-time meeting action items. You’ll create a more open, collaborative environment where the best possible product is right within reach.

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