Product management vs. Project management

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.

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79 thoughts on “Product management vs. Project management

  1. Nice post. People who are confused with Project management and Product management shows that they don’t really understand the real meaning of both.

  2. From the product management point of view I would say that project management is a subset of product management. Project management techniques can/have to be applied in the product management area: planning, communication, scope management, budget, risks, issues, quality, …

  3. Bastiaan: Most of the time that may be correct, if a project is to build or update a product. When you have projects that impact multiple products, it is no longer a subset of product management and make involve many other areas as well. Also, calling it a subset seems to connote that project management should be subservient to product management, which is certainly not the case. Bottom line — a good product manager certainly needs to understand project management (as you say a lot of the same concepts apply) and should know how to manage small projects himself/herself, but should also realize that project management is usually a separate animal from product management.

    Michael: I’ve found that there is a lot of agreement on what a Project Manager does, slightly less on what a Product Manager does, and very little on what a Program Manager does. (The similarities in name certainly don’t help.) Fewer companies seem to have program management, and those that do all seem to treat program management differently. How would you differentiate between program management and the other PMs? Has it been your experience that people have a common understanding of program management?

  4. Program Management is usually defined as a manager who oversees a set of interdependent projects. The Project Management Institute (PMI), the organization mainly responsible for clearly defining the role of a project manager is now attempting to clearly define the role of a program manager. They are now offering a new certification for program management called the Program Management Professional (PgMP) Credential. The handbook for their certification can be located at

    I have seen the descriptions of the product and program management roles as follows. A product manager looks to define the requirements and their priorities.
    Once requirements are defined a project is started to develop these requirements into a new release of the product. A project manager is responsible for the management of this project.

    While this project is still under way, the product manager might come up with another set of requirements also needed to be implemented, so another project may be started. Another project manager will manage this project. Now we have multiple projects running at any given time on a same product line. A program manager is in charge of overseeing these projects.

    In summary:
    Product Manager: in charge of creating and prioritizing new requirements for the product line

    Project Manager: in charge of project that are implementing a set of new requirements.

    Program Manager: in charge of organizing and overseeing multiple projects being run by the project managers.

    Also the, Product Marketing Manager is then in charged of marketing the new releases of the product line.

  5. In my experience, I have noticed that a root cause of the confusion is not necessarily the product or project manager, but can be the “higher level” sales & marketing team who make promises which may not be technically sound. And upper management doesn’t always define clear objectives. Some companies are better at this than others, of course.

    I worked for the UN where management is almost entirely non-existent. Very frustrating indeed.

  6. I interviewed a couple of program managers at my company and I agree with the definition of program management cited above relating to multiple interdependent projects.

    For the most part at my company, program managers manage the same product over multiple release projects, but at least one of the PgMs I work with manages the release projects for three closely related products as well.

    I interviewed these couple of PgMs about what they want from product managers and wrote up what they had to say here:

  7. Hello Jeff,

    I have been a consistent reader of your blog. I am constantly learning product management reading your blog. I have a query:

    I am an Electronics Engineering graduate. I have 12 years of IT experience with nearly 6 years as a Project Manager and 2 years as a Program Manager. I also have Pre-Sales and Marketing experience. My communication skills are good and am able to pick up domain knowledge with ease.

    I am interested in moving into Product Management. Please guide me on the skills/qualifications that i will need to equip myself with in order to make a good Product Manager? Is a move from Program Management to Product Management recommended?

  8. It sounds to me like you have a good background for product management at an entry level.

    Additional areas you could concentrate on would include any form of customer contact and business analysis/requirements development.

    Consider whether there is a product manager in your organization you could approach about mentoring you. With your supervisor’s okay, you could do valuable research, interviews and functional spec or requirements creation under the guidance of a product manager. You would gain experience and take work of the PM’s plate at the same time.

  9. Thank you Bruce. This is good advice. My organisation could possibly be hiring a Product Manager soon. I will look for opportunities to assist the Product Manager and thereby gain expertise. Thank you once again.

  10. Very interesting article. These are two totally different aspects of the IT community. For my developing business I had only needed to resort for a “project manager” however as much of the world transition to a web-based society. It was a difficult to change from the traditional project managing service to a web-based service, but the change was gradually easy when a affiliate referred me to CommuniClique. I am making one change at a time, hopefully I do not have to also resort to a web-based “product manging” app.

  11. These articles are really helpful. I am a software engineer and interested in product management. I have a question:
    A project manager is responsible for the management of this product during the whole product life cycle. That includes not only the product development, but also the marketing activities such as customer data collection, competitor product analytics, launching product into marketplace. Is my understanding correct?
    Thank you very much.

  12. Kathy — While it likely depends on the company, in most cases the product manager is responsible for the management of the product during the whole life cycle. The project manager is usually responsible for making sure a specific project related to the product is completed successfully — making sure a new enhancement to the product, for example, is completed on time and within budget and meets the defined objectives.

    To put it rather bluntly, the product manager decides what should be done, and the project manager makes sure that happens. (This is an oversimplification, of course, though it basically shows the differences between the two roles.)

  13. Kathy, you also asked about marketing activities. A product manager will often be involved in these. Rarely is a project manager involved. Sometimes there is also a product marketing manager who specializes in the marketing side of things, particularly the outbound side (promotion rather than research).

    In smaller companies some or all of these roles can be collapsed into one. In larger companies there is often more specialization.

  14. Thank you Jeff and Bruce. Your answers really help me better understand their different responsibilities.

  15. hi i think this is not confusing who is working as product manager/project manager. may be who is working in the construction feild knows well about the project management and who working in the FMCG sector know well about the product management

  16. i am new joinee as a product manager in world no 1 distribution company.I have total experience of 8 years in sales and marketing.want to pursue Ph.D.
    Which subject will be beneficial for my carrier.

    I am thinking about 2 subject 1st is distribution and 2nd is brand management.

    Pls guide me.

  17. one of best article i have ever read.

    This kind of articles helpto grow in perfect way
    in its own catogory

  18. Hi the difference between project and product managers is all well said, and its not complete with this quote “Product managers owns the Product, and project manager manages the project to completion”.

  19. The product manager is involved in marketing, sales, customer support, fulfillment, and development. They are the owner. All these other organizations have as their client the product manager. For a product manager to get all of this done, they must take a view from up high and deal with these organizations through economic indifference.

    Instead of features, think benefits. Instead of users think populations. Determine the costs, and the revenues–the profits.

    You have P&L responsibility. Move your focus to that. You are not a developer anymore.

    In organizations that have product marketing managers, the product manager still must drive the messaging.

  20. Great article and followup comments! I live and work in the Washington, DC market, an area rich with local, state, and federal government agencies. Within the federal government arena, the role of the Program Manager is pretty clear and – in my experience – a rung up the career ladder from that of the Project Manager, even when that’s just perceptual.
    In an article published by PMI about 2 years ago, they noted that the primary difference between program and project managers is that the project manager is task- and goal-oriented, while the program manager is customer-oriented. So, one entity espouses flexibility and adaptability (CHANGE) and the other is focused on meeting deadlines and delivering features (NO CHANGE). This seems to me to be two different skill sets and personality types.
    The other posters have done a great job of describing the differences between product and project managers, so I’ll just let that puppy sleep.

  21. Fantastic effort by all the contributors of the forum. Thanks for bringing out the facts on the table for benefit of all.

    One last query from my side; Is it necessary for a person to have some kind of domain/product knowledge to move/shift to Product Management stream ?

  22. I have bveen working in Product Management for 5 months in a new company. I have been tasked with various tactical projects decided by my boss (the sales director) who is not in Marketing. I have to run 10 projects and let him know when i will hit my deadline. My question is this: is this a project or a product management job? As I have no marketing plan for 2008 but have been asked to diarise all trade events and promotional giveaways and marketing collaterals I am feeling rather lost in my role and want to get an opinion. Again, I feel what I am doing is rather junior for a Product Manager.

  23. You may be working in an organization where there is no marketing department. You many also be working in an organization that does not develop products.

    You may have found yourself in a product marketing manager role, which is a different job than that of a product manager. You should be reporting to either the CEO or a product strategist. You might have a sales director as a stakeholder, as a product manager, but you wouldn’t answer to him.

    Still, you now have the job, so its definition has been made. You get to decide if it is the right place for you. Our determinations don’t matter. Only the sales director’s determinations and opinion matter at this point. Get a good reference regardless. And, learn what you can.

  24. Ritesh, a lot of companies see product manager positions as promotions for developers, so they ask for developer credentials thinking that only developers can manage development projects.

    The reality is that customer support, sales, and other customer contact positions have a better fit for product manager positions.

    There is a war over both of my preceeding paragraphs, so enough said. Make up your own mind.

  25. Min,

    What you are being asked to do is not so much a question of junior or senior. It sounds like it is sales support rather than product management. And that is usually a function (as David says above) of who you work for.

    These sales support activities are a frequent requirement of product marketing positions, not of product management ones. The guys at Pragmatic Marketing would say they are at the very tactical end of product marketing and not at the strategic.

    Sales organizations are very tactical. They are driven by the need to make this quarter’s numbers. In my experience, these kinds of things are what you will be asked to do. If you want to do strategic marketing tasks (market definition, problem descriptions, positioning), you probably need to be in the marketing department. (If you want to do product requirements, you probably need to be in product management. That position can be in marketing, in development or be an independent group reporting to the CEO. This is more typical in software businesses.)

    Assuming you want to do the marketing things mentioned above you may need to make the case that your skills are not being well used and that you should switch departments. If there is no marketing department, though, you may need to make the case for creating one.

  26. Min,

    I’d like to clarify something that was previously posted about product marketing not being strategic, but tactical. While this may be the case in some companies, it’s not a best practice.

    Post-launch life cycle management (which is where many companies try to position product marketing) can be both strategic and tactical. The strategic side is figuring out where the product is in it’s life cycle curve (introduction, growth, maturity, decline) and what changes need to be made to the marketing mix (product, price, promotion, place) to optimize the curve. If indeed you are separate from the product management function and do not have responsibility for development through launch (typically how companies divide up the responsibility), you still plenty of strategic responsibilities!

    You’ve been asked to focus on promotion – why? Are you facing a technology adoption curve during the introduction phase? That is, sales of the new product are extremely disappointing so the company is throwing money at the problem. If so, you can throw as much marketing $$$ as you want to at the problem and that won’t fix it. You have to figure out how to move from the early adopters to the mass majority. (Read “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoff Moore. ) Are you in the early growth phase where market leadership positions are being determined? If so, you might need a complementary product strategy of expanding the product line depth or breadth to be successful, not just focuing on promotion. Are you approaching maturity and commoditization is taking place and your initial value proposition and positioning may no longer be valid, warranting a focus on promotion?

    We see a number of companies, particularly high tech, who have ignored the post-launch phase and just go from release to relesase to release. (Hence, I believe, the dismissal that product marketing is tactical, not strategic.) Then, as their markets mature (there’s a difference between a market and a product life cycle!) they realize they’ve left money on the table.

    Good luck and think strategic!

  27. If sales is stalled, are you trying to sell a disruptive technology to your old customer base. If so, no amount of promo will help.

    If sales are price-based, consider One-to-One marketing, and mass customization.

    Where I’ve seen product managers being tactical, it is to their detriment. Launching is a process. A product manager might have to make a few decisions about the launch, but running the various aspects of the launch should be left to the functional unit managers that host the process.

    If launch isn’t a process in your company, get with the appropriate managers and make it so. That might mean getting with the CEO.

    A technology/product lifecycle is a complicated thing. It crosses several discrete and dissimilar markets. You cannot count on doing what worked yesterday.

  28. To clarify my comments on product marketing, I did not mean to imply that product marketing activities are tactical but that the activities Min described being asked to do were tactical (within the overall spectrum of activities product marketing encompasses).

  29. As a former Product Manager I still don’t see much difference in the two titles. (I was downsized by the way!) While the Product Manager has cradle to grave and P&L responsibility they are still, in my mind, Project Managers as well. Their projects just involve the product lines that they are responsible for and in most cases they cannot move lines when it comes to project management.

    I think that some of the differences lie in the size of the company. I sure wish that my company could have had a few Project Mangers.

    Question to all of you: Who has the most responsibility without any direct authority over the members of the team? That was always the sucky part about Product Management.

  30. In my book “The Product Manager’s Desk Reference,” (McGraw-Hill), on page 462, I talk about “Managing Project Plans Helps Manage Risk.” Here is an excerpt from this section:
    “Many product managers lament that they are just managing projects
    most of the time. This may be true because product managers must
    follow up on the work (tasks) or projects of other people in different
    business functions. There is no way around this.

    Whether you enjoy project management or find it tedious, the fact
    is that you should know something about it. Years of experience in
    managing projects has shown that well-structured project plans track
    development progress very well. Good project management is pivotal.
    Most project deliverables and results are only as good as the project
    plans themselves. Managing these work activities, deliverables, and
    dependencies—and their relationships—has already been codified in a standard body of knowledge (described in the next paragraph). By implication, the product manager must know project management. Understand that the product manager doesn’t always have to do active project management, but may have to play the role as needed. In some companies, there is a Program Management Office staffed by able project managers who are dedicated to teams. In other companies, another
    capable person can be assigned from a related business function.”

    Visit to learn more.

  31. A project manager might answer to a few inhouse stakeholders, but a product manager answers to those same inhouse stakeholders, and to customers. The differentiator is being the voice of the customer.

    Having to lead rather than manage makes project and product management easier, not harder. If you try to manage your team, it will be harder. If you keep your team informed, and enabled, it will be easier. If you can make a decision without escallation, it will be easier. If you insist on doing the work yourself, it will be very much harder.

    Learn to lead. Lean to get influence. Learn to decide.

  32. In Sectors like Engineering, S/W Product sectors, one need to have very competative Product Managers and may or may not need Project Manager, whose role can be accomplished by a effective product manager. But at the same time the role of a Project Manager is substantial in Service Industries, where the Product Managers are less effective.

  33. I am curious to know how you think these roles are best structured. Should they all be subsets of the product development group or should they be 2 separate entities? Which one works best? In my opinion, keeping them all within product development lends itself to everyone being on equal footing and being stakeholders in the success of the project. To me, having them in separate groups feeds the notion of the 2 groups always being at odds and not working toward a common goal. What do you think?

  34. Agreed. They should both be part of the product development organization.

    There is a subtle difference in the goals of the two roles, though. The project manager is devoted to the success of the *project* while the product manager is devoted to the success of the *product.* There are times when these goals conflict.

    A project manager may, for example, quite reasonably say that to bring the project in on time and on budget some features must be cut, and then ask the product manager to choose which features to cut. The product manager can use their market knowledge to determine priority and make some cuts.

    It’s possible, though, following that logic strictly to end up cutting features that will cripple the product in the market. In those cases, the product manager must push back and say that certain features are “minimum to ship.” This may in turn dictate that the schedule must slip or more resource must be hired.

    If the organization is working properly, then these issues get ironed out early and amicably but the different goals of the two roles must be acknowledged in order to talk about these things openly.

  35. Really informative, though i had some idea about the differences in these 2 profiles. But the article outlines the difference very clearly.

    But i have something else to share here. In the time of recession, why do you think that company will have money to hire 2 people one for project management and one for product management though different profile but can be handled by one person?

  36. Smaller companies with smaller budgets and fewer products/projects will hire one person to handle a broader range of duties. Larger companies with more products/projects will need more people because there is more work to do.

    Once you’ve decided you need more people, the question becomes whether you hire more people who do everything or divide the jobs more finely so people can specialize. Specialization has benefits such as developing greater skill in a more defined set of tasks.

    It can also have downsides, though. If taken to extremes, people can sometimes lose sight of the big picture.

  37. Thank you so much for this article as well as for the entire blog, which is the great resource for any PM.

    I would like to outline that in our organization, Product Managers are from Product Devision and Project Managers are from Technology Devision.

    Product Manager specifies the product in collaboration with Marketing people, designs mockups, and then the Project Manager gets involved. The Project Manager is supposed to run the project through Development, QA and IT phases until the product is launched.

    Both PM’s are usually at odds with each other, not only because their “different” goals, but because they represent different devisions.

  38. 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!

  39. 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.


  40. 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.

  41. 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,

  42. 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?

  43. 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.

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

  45. 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.

  46. 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!!!!

  47. 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 ) to unite several independent project managers for more efficiency.

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

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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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