Have you ever told someone you’re a product manager and they say ‘Oh, so you’re a project manager!’

This can be an understandable mistake, my hearing’s not too good either. And the words start with the same letters. And the second word’s the same anyway. And everyone’s heard of project management. But by accident or intention, it also points to a problem we often encounter in our role – getting pushed into the role of project manager.

Project management is only one of many hats we have to wear as a product manager but it’s all too easy to get ‘pigeon-holed’ into the role and once you take it on, escape becomes very difficult.

Why does it happen and what can we do about it?

Product managers can take on many different roles from the janitor, cleaning up other people’s mess, to the strategist, directing what the business should do next. And a lot of our work is about getting stuff done. Because of that we often develop excellent project management skills.

And as our success is measured by the success of our product we’re usually more motivated than anyone else to make sure things are on track. This is all good.

But because of our skills and motivation, our companies often see us as the best people to run projects relating to our product.

Project management: planning activities in detail; finding and briefing owners; tracking progress; documenting status and managing stakeholders are all time-consuming tasks. We can do them, but they can also distract us from more important (often less urgent) responsibilities such as understanding the changing market, developing strategy and roadmaps or making sure the marketing, sales and support teams are performing for our product. These are important for long term business success and won’t be getting done by anyone else.

So if you’re stuck with project management duties how can you free up your time by persuading your business to provide some project management support?

A two-pronged approach is often helpful…

First, put together a request for project management support that is well scoped and that has a clear end-date. Good examples include: development tracking, process testing, launch co-ordination; sales training, running a trial program and end-of-life-ing a product.

Second, be clear on what’s not getting done. If there’s no ‘pain’ for the business then why should there be any change to the status quo? So be explicit on the big long-term wins that won’t happen because you’re spending too much time planning, briefing, chasing and reporting.

It won’t always work but if you’re running projects that are sucking-up days, weeks or even months of your time – getting project management support can make a big difference to your success (and sanity).

Andrew Dickenson
Director, Product Focus

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Join the conversation - 6 replies


I’m sure you cannot imagine how largely is the product manager role confused with the project manager role in medium sized software companies in Italy. 🙂
And the misunderstanding is never related to “hearing problems” ….


Reads so familiar – it is so true. On the other hand, project management is also part of the fun of being a product manager.


Couldn’t agree more. However, convincing senior management and sometimes fellow product maangers of the need for a project manager can be an up hill struggle. But in my experince having a project manager assigned greatly increases the chance of success – and prevents product manager melt down.


I agree the two are often confused, but even the most uninformed can get an overview of the differences. The key problem here in organisations not defining key defined roles and responsibilities. Product Managers must play their part in this and know what they are not responsible for, and be able to articulate their role and those of supporting functions.


Totally agree, but for software products built using an Agile framework there is no official role of “Project Manager”. In my experience the whole left by a lack of Project Manager in Agile gets picked up by the Product Owner, and that is often the Product Manager, especially in small teams. I think this is one of these examples where the Product Manager role gets split into two – the detailed role (PO/Project Manager), and the strategic role. I’ve yet to meet a Product Manager that can perform both the detailed and strategic role in a large organization.


As the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, it’s understandable why the business makes the mistake. And, when there is not headcount for the wide range of other roles, or the skill sets of those in the roles is not up to scratch, we’re always going to try and step in. The other key role we’re often asked to fill: Business Solution Design. It’s not my job to figure out what my operational colleagues need to deliver the experience I’ve defined for my product, but likewise, they don’t seem to be able to figure it out either!

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