How To Be A Good Product Manager

Tips on product management and product marketing for product managers. By Jeff Lash

Product management vs. Project management

Posted on September 24, 2007 by Jeff Lash · 79 Comments

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If you want to be a bad product manager, confuse product management with project management. The words are so close because the two concepts are so similar. Product managers should manage projects since they need to ensure that the projects get done. They’re both management roles (right?) so the skills and experience are virtually the same. Project managers just get in the way and try to take control of the project away from the product manager.

If you want to be a good product manager, learn the difference between product management and project management. Despite the similar names, there are big differences between product management and project management. Confusing them is common, even among those experienced in product development.

Project managers are responsible for the successful delivery of a project — a one-time endeavor with a goal, scope, deadline, budget, and other constraints. A project manager will work to align resources, manage issues and risks, and basically coordinate all of the various elements necessary to complete the project. As they relate to products, projects can be undertaken to build a product, to add new features to a product, or create new versions or extensions of a product. When the project is complete, the project manager will usually move move to a new project, which may be related to a different product.

Product managers are responsible for the overall and ongoing success of a product. Once the project to build the product is complete and the project manager has moved on, the product manager remains to manage the product through the entire lifecycle. Other projects related to the product may be initiated, with the product manager being the one constant stream throughout, defining the project goals and guiding the team to accomplish the business objectives that have been defined.

One challenge of the two roles is that they can appear to be at odds with each other. A product manager may want to add a lot of features to meet observed customer needs, but the project manager may want to keep scope as small as possible so that the project is delivered on time and under budget. Traditional definitions (and probably those above, too) often mischaracterize the project manager as singularly focused on getting the project finished on time and under budget without any concern as to whether it meets the market or customer needs.

Good product managers and good project managers are able to create a balance of these conflicts. Good project managers know that the true success of a project is not whether it is on time and within budget, but whether it meets the defined goals and objectives. Good product managers know that all the features in the world will not matter if the project is continually delayed and never makes it to market or if it is too over budget to be completed.

Especially for web-based and technology products, the confusion between project and product management is common and potentially harmful to organizations who do not acknowledge the distinction. As Rob Grady writes in Are you a Web Project Manager or Web Product Manager? (Part I):

Today, as websites have become increasingly important in business, they are, unfortunately, still being managed as projects. This becomes a problem in meeting defined business objectives, prioritizing, having the right skills to manage what has now become a core business function. If the website has become or is a core business function there is a greater need than managing a project, it has become a product which will have a series of projects driven through business objectives.

There are some important points to keep in mind related to project management and product management:

  • Just like every product needs a product manager, every project needs a project manager.
  • Just because product managers think they can manage their own projects does not mean they should.
  • The skills, talents, and traits involved in project management are very different from those involved in product management.
  • Just like it is hard to find one single person who can fill the product management role and the product marketing role, it is hard to find one person who can be successful at both the product management and the project management role.
  • Project management is not a stepping stone to product management, nor vice versa.
  • Good project managers are just as valuable as good product managers.
  • Finding a good project manager to manage your projects will help you be an even better product manager.
  • The less time product managers spend on project management, the more time they will be able to spend on product management.
  • To avoid conflicts between product management and project management, product managers, project managers, and project teams should all agree on shared goals and objectives as much as possible.

Note: This article has been reprinted at PM Hut.

Translations available:

How To Be A Good Product Manager features tips on product management and product marketing, written by Jeff Lash (@jefflash on Twitter), Vice President and Group Director for the Product Management and Portfolio Marketing research and advisory services at SiriusDecisions.

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79 responses so far ↓

  • Dr. Jim Anderson // Jun 1, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Good posting – the two roles are all too often confused. I’ve always tried to keep them straight in my head by thinking of a project manager as a foster parent – there to help the product grow for just a short time, and the product manager as the biological parent – in it for the long haul. Both care about the product, it’s just the scope that is different.

    – Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental PM Blog
    “Home Of The Billion Dollar Product Manager”
    Subscribe to The Accidental Product Manager Newsletter now: Click Here!

  • Program vs. Project Management in Marketing | Merlyn Gordon // Aug 31, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    […] came across a post by Jeff Lash where he explains the difference between project and product managers, and I agree with many of his […]

  • Priti // Feb 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Hi Jeff,
    Thank you for this wonderful article! I have a Masters in CS and a diploma in Business Administration. Started my career as a software developer (1 year) and then moved to sales and presales for products and services (5 years). Would a master in Project management help me make a career in Product management? If yes what would I need to specialize in?
    Please guide me. Would appreciate your help.

    Thanks,
    Priti

  • David Locke // Feb 8, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Priti,

    If you want to be a project manager, you will need to get your PMI certification, this even after you get this degree. You will also need to have held the job title of project manger, so the simplest way to become a project manager and the quickest is to just get hired as one.

    If you are going back to school to get a masters degree, you are going to be better off with an MBA.

  • uberVU - social comments // Feb 15, 2010 at 5:31 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by seanking: Looking into the best way to introduce this new-fangled idea to the company: Product Management http://bit.ly/VF9em

  • Sam // Mar 2, 2010 at 3:16 am

    Priti,

    Given your background, if the results you’ve demonstrated so far in your career are substantial, I’d suggest applying for project and/or program management roles at companies like Microsoft. Microsoft, Amazon, and many other tech companies do not require PMI certification, and they look for candidates with a business+tech mindset.

    Good luck,
    Sam

  • Begemot // Mar 26, 2010 at 5:54 am

    Hi, came across this nice website a bit too late but still. I want to share my experience regarding the comment before that hands-on development experience is often considered to be a number one requirement for ProDUCT management positions. I have a degree in Social Sciences and worked as a Product Manager for a web-based product in Europe for a big internet company. Some of the colleagues in the product management had a similar background: Media Sciences, Sociology, Business Admisitration. The fact that I did not have a degree in Computer Science or development experience was never an issue. I moved to Israel a year ago and am still trying to get hired in a Product Management position. Seems like chances are extremely slim: 99% of the job offers demand 5+ years experience in developing, Bsc of Computer science, know-how in Telecommunications, IP, etc etc etc. This is so disappointing… Where is the truth?

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  • Amit Bhatia // Jul 21, 2010 at 6:02 am

    I echo the same thoughts. Recently, wrote a similar blog post, differentiating product and project managers’ role here: http://jimbi.net/18/management/product-management-vs-project-management-2/

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  • Nikki // Jan 16, 2011 at 1:22 am

    thank you all. i am new to the industry of project management.
    thank you for the clarification of product managers vs. project managers “vis a versa”. i was totally confused about the 2 roles. however, after reading this article and the comments, i have a better understanding.
    thanks.

  • Michael // Aug 6, 2011 at 7:31 am

    Wow! I only wish I would have run across this blog a year ago. Thanks everyone for defining product design and direction.

  • Robin // Oct 8, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Hi, I´ve been reading the article and found a lot of useful information.

    I´m working as an engineer (team-leader) at one High-Tech vendor at the moment, my fifth year began and now I was asked to stay either in the Service Department as a Project Manager or to change to the Product Department as a Product Manager.

    My question is now:
    Which position should I take?
    As a Product Manager I would be responsible for the same product area, customers, network for which I´m working now. As a Project Manager I won´t lead projects only within my product line. I´d have to coordinate projects also for product lines for which I was not responsible in the past. I´d improve my general technical knowledge as a Project M. more. As a Product M. I´d improve my knowledge for my actual product line.

    I hope someone can answer my urgent request.
    Thanks!

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    […] http://www.goodproductmanager.com/2007/09/24/product-management-vs-project-management/ […]

  • Dr Vijaya Nambiar // Jan 22, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Interesting reading!!
    In my opinion, Project Mgt. is the MEANS and Product Mgt. is the END in itself. Both are crucial to consumer needs and satisfaction and hence need to go hand in hand with the same focused goals. The moment the two concepts/posts are at loggerheads and work independently of each other, the ultimate victim/target is the CO/NSUMER/stakeholder, who is our end user and final recipient of the outcome of our endeavours – the product. Hence a project manager has to skillfully develop and manage a project, keeping in mind completely, the success in developing and creating a manageable, saleable and last but not the least a most consumer friendly and marketable product. The PM and PM need to be as thick as thieves as their posts suggest!!!!

  • Anthonio // Jan 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for this post,
    We have a small company and our product is connected to a number of smaller supportive projects which are called to improve its functionality, marketing, sales, customer satisfaction, etc. we have several persons who undertake project management roles, but we have no single product manager who can coordinate all these projects in terms of single product strategy and interests (all communications were managed in ad-hoc manner), so I think it is a reason why we had made a lot of mistakes, until we decide to formalize and improve product management role by appointing a sole person. He coordinates our efforts via collaborative software (we use VIP Task Manager http://www.taskmanagementsoft.com ) to unite several independent project managers for more efficiency.

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  • Tina // May 9, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Nice document, I suppose product focus on definition the goal ,project focus on complete the task which have the correct goal.

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  • Jeroen van Rijn // Mar 15, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    Good article. One thing I have noticed in my career as a product manager at a large telecommunication equipment vendor is that the project managers (we called them program managers) were often very risk averse, which would hamper the development of new features.

    One way around this is to tie the bonus structure of the program manager to the sales volume of the product as well as the meeting the milestones.

    As an example, the program manager’s (and the rest of the program team) bonus is primarily tied to achieving the milestones on schedule. Upon completing the milestone, the program team is paid 50% of their bonus, the other 50% is postponed. If the product hits the expected sales volume in a certain period after launch, the other 50% is paid. If it ships less, part of the other 50% is withheld. If it ships more, a multiplier kicks in on the 50%.

    This way, program teams have a financial incentive to deliver a competitive product.

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  • Nick Nielson // Aug 1, 2013 at 12:51 am

    Hi Jeff, you make a very good point. The two managerial positions have very different priorities, but are trying to solve the same puzzle – how to be best utilize the available resources. In addition, they require a similar skill-set: strong organizational skills, communications skills, and leadership. Overall, I would argue that the positions are not as different as they are made out to be.

  • Product Management vs. Project Management | The PM VisionThe PM Vision // Nov 30, 2013 at 10:03 am

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  • Glenn Rogers // Jul 23, 2014 at 8:11 am

    An experienced project manager can successfully take on the role of product management if they are good at understanding customer needs. As a project manager they know the organization and what it is capable of. Having such a person leading the organization’s resources towards product goals can have a lot of synergy.

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