Product Manager vs Project Manager

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 programme 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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