Product manager vs project manager - potato potato - one may say and of course will be wrong. Project managers and product managers are vital roles in tech companies. However, if you're struggling to get the difference between product and project manager, the good news is - you're not alone.
Eleken is a design company for SaaS businesses with years of experience. And in our day-to-day work we get to cooperate closely with both product and project managers. In this article, we'll break down the main differences between product managers and project managers to help you understand which one is better for you.
Defining the role of a product manager
A product manager is a person responsible for a product and managing other teams to build, launch and maintain a successful product. A product manager is a key role in most technology companies.
Product managers need to be able to oversee the entire product life cycle, from concept to implementation. They usually need to have more diverse backgrounds and have to be very flexible and able to constantly learn new things, while interacting with different teams. Their goals are not predefined; moreover, their job is to determine goals for both themselves and the product. The result of their work is a solution that fully satisfies clients' demands and meets the company's expectations.
Product managers work closely with designers to make sure that the product’s design fits customer needs, as well as with engineers to make sure that all design features can be implemented without affecting the functionality. They also work with the marketing department to make sure that the product is effectively marketed when it is released. A product manager is also responsible for taking and analyzing input from stakeholders and users and passing it to the development team.
Now let’s look at a project manager.
Project manager definition
In a nutshell, a project manager is a person that organizes and coordinates the team to deliver a particular project on time and within budget. So, to better understand the project manager’s role, we first need to understand what the project is.
Project is usually defined as a sequence of steps or tasks that need to be completed to achieve a certain result in time and without using extra resources. Anything from designing a new application to building a house can be a project. Projects can vary by field and size, managed by one or many project managers, but the goal (and therefore the job of a project manager(s)) is pretty straightforward: to complete the project in time and without exceeding the budget. That’s why, it's safe to say that planning the timeframe, resources pool and objectives is a modern project manager’s responsibilities, while the ability to mitigate the risks is their superpower.
Product manager vs project manager: main differences
As you already noticed there are some key distinctions between the two roles that set them apart. A project manager is responsible for delivering the project without breaking the bank, while a product manager is focused on ensuring that the product developed meets customer needs.
Product management is responsible for a whole product creation, while and project management focuses on a specific stage of product development.
The key difference between product managers and project managers lies in how each role approaches the management process. Product managers focus on long-term strategy and goals, while project managers tend to focus on the project execution.
Project managers handle tasks within the scope of one project (or initiative). Product managers manage multiple initiatives across different teams to ensure alignment with business goals and objectives.
Now let’s explore the main goals, responsibilities, key performance indicators (KPIs), and skill sets of both project managers and product managers.
Responsibilities of a product manager vs a project manager
There are key distinctions in terms of responsibilities and deliverables of product manager and project manager roles that you should be aware of:
As you can see two roles have some common ground. Close cooperation with the team and lots of communication involved are typical for both positions. And no matter the role, both need to advocate for users’ needs and communicate with the team daily. Both roles also have to focus on idea implementation, need to have strong management skills, and be result-oriented.
Let's summarize: product managers are typically involved in defining products, setting direction, creating product vision and strategy of a product, choosing features, and managing roadmap prioritization. A product manager can be involved in developing products, but they usually don't actually build them.
KPIs of a project manager and product manager
Key performance indicators of the two roles we're talking about emerge from the goals of their work. A product manager's KPIs are determined by a key goal to oversee the development and growth of a product, while a project manager's responsibilities are united towards completing specific projects within defined resources. A product manager typically focuses on metrics such as customer satisfaction, increased sales, user acquisition, retention rates, and other metrics related to product performance. Project managers monitor metrics such as project budget, schedule adherence, and quality control and focus more on team performance metrics.
Project and product manager skill sets
Here we can see that product manager skills of and project manager skills are quite different.
Product managers need to have strong business skills, as they'll be dealing with the market, stakeholder’s expectations, and product’s development and performance. They also need to have a good understanding of technology so they can make decisions about what features to include in a product. They often are expected to have some basic skills in marketing, engineering, and design as well.
In contrast, project managers need to be great organizers and have strong problem-solving skills. The project manager's superpowers include managing users' expectations, dealing with ambiguity and sudden changes, budgeting, and creating timelines. Project managers are more niche-oriented and have technical knowledge in particular directions. They should be stress-resistant as troubleshooting upcoming problems is one of the project manager’s challenges. Project managers have to keep the team’s course on the defined goals, which is why this role is most appreciated for their efficient diligent approach.
Collaboration with designers: project manager vs product manager
When it comes to design, both product and project managers can be involved in managing the design team. However, the way both of them collaborate with designers is different.
Project managers define and manage the scope of tasks, organize efficient team collaboration, making sure that everyone is aware of their responsibilities and keep an eye on the team’s progress and deadlines. They help designers to estimate the timelines and set milestones for the team. With a project manager in the team, the workflow becomes more structured and often more efficient, everyone is on the same page and the project manager is the rockstar in this case.
Product managers work with designers differently, they are more like chief operating officers for the product and their job is to align everyone with product goals. Their collaboration with designers is essential for the product's success, since the design team will create the product’s look and feel. That’s why product managers share the vision and make strategic design decisions together with the designers. Product managers prioritize work for designers and help them to see the bigger picture. With the product manager in the team designers feel more motivated and have a better understanding of the products they work on.
But when it comes to the question of who is more important - product or project managers - we can't just point at one side and say "Those are not needed". From our experience, both roles are irreplaceable and Eleken designers enjoy working with both project and product managers!
I’m sure that by this point you have a solid understanding of the two roles and see that they are not the same and can't be neglected. In fact, both roles complement each other.
Project and product management together is a bit like… running a farm.
A product manager keeps in touch with the market and potential customers to understand what is in demand. Based on that decides what vegetables to plant, then ensures that farm workers know what is their end goal and everything goes according to the plan.
A project manager gets instruction from the product manager about what they want to produce for the autumn and takes care of delivering that: calculates the budget to buy seeds and pay workers, then manages workers to plant and harvest the best quality vegetables in time.
Project managers and product managers work closely with each other along with other members of their department to coordinate tasks so that all parties are working towards one goal: releasing an effective solution that matches clients' expectations.
If you are now motivated and want to learn more, we have a great article on how to become a product manager.