Project Manager vs Product Manager

Updated October, 2019

These days, businesses are under constant pressure to do more with less. One common ‘solution’ is for a single person to perform multiple roles. In the early days of a business, when it has very few employees, this is more of a constraint than a choice, but as the scope of each activity is generally small it can be manageable. But as businesses grow, they’re often tempted by the false economy of stretching people across multiple roles instead of hiring specialists to work as part of a cross functional team.

In our experience, this rarely works well.

One of the key examples of this is when Product Managers is that they are expected to perform the role of project manager for some or all of the delivery of their product to the marketplace. OR, a project manager is expected to pick up Product Management activities. Hey, they’re both PM’s, right?

At Brainmates we think these roles are fundamentally different and should be performed by different people. Let’s explore the differences and then look at how, when they work together, they create “awesome”.

Product Manager vs project manager: the Brainmates perspective

The first challenge in differentiating the role of Project Manager or a Product Manager is that (as well as having the same initials) they sound a lot alike. While it might seem to be a trivial, semantic issue it often leads to confusion about the two roles. It’s important to begin with the definition of the words Product and project.

  • PROJECT: A project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result [1].
  • PRODUCT: A product is anything that can be offered to a market that might satisfy a want or a need [2]. A product has a life cycle. It’s conceived, developed, introduced and managed in the market, and retired when the need for a product diminishes. During the life cycle of a product, multiple projects can occur.

From these definitions we can see that a project manager’s focus is internal and tactical whereas a Product Manager’s focus is external — on the customers’ needs and on the product strategy required to meet them. You need the skills of both a Product Manager and a project manager to deliver a product or a product change to a market, yet this may not be obvious to the wider business.

Projects come and go, but Products are for life.

Product vs project life cycle

What is project management?

A project manager is ultimately responsible for the delivery of an agreed outcome — the project’s objective. They manage and co-ordinate the resources required to deliver this outcome within the constraints of time, budget and scope.

Project management is an ancient discipline which keeps being updated to suit modern times. It uses planning tools and techniques to enable a team to organise and prioritise the various tasks that they need to complete, and deal with unexpected changes or issues.

  • Resource management involves ensuring the project team has what it needs, when it needs it. That includes such simple things as task lists, materials, infrastructure, reporting and even extra people.
  • Scope management is usually the most difficult activity for a Project Manager. It involves limiting the extent (scope) of the endeavour within acceptable allowances, usually engaging in a balancing act between the three critical aspects of time, cost and quality. For instance, if the time to deliver the project is reduced then either cost must be increased, or scope reduced to maintain quality.
  • Risk and issue management is an important aspect of project management and serves to highlight, and then manage, any risks to the project completing successfully, as well as minimising the impact of any issues that are identified.

Project management is a tactical, time-limited activity that is defined by the business’s strategic objectives.

A successful project will deliver the agreed outcome early and cost less than expected. This does not guarantee that the Product outcome will be successful in the market.

What is Product Management?

Product Managers are responsible for the identification and ongoing satisfaction of unmet needs of customers and, by satisfying these unmet customer needs, delivering a sustainable benefit to the business.

Product Managers seek to:

  • Generate more value for customers than other competing alternatives
  • Deliver financial benefit for a business
  • Build a sustainable competitive advantage in the marketplace

This includes, but also extends beyond, the lifecycle of any one product. Managing the product throughout the product lifecycle ensures that it continues to satisfy market needs including:

  • Gathering and prioritising customer and business requirements
  • Defining and evolving the product vision
  • Working with sales, marketing and support to ensure revenue and customer satisfaction goals are met
  • Working closely with a delivery team (including project managers) to keep improving and updating the product to meet changing market need.

The Product Manager’s job also includes ensuring that the product and marketing efforts support the company’s overall strategy and goals. A Product Manager tries to find out the customers’ needs and develop a product to satisfy them.

Product Management is a strategic, long-term, research, planning and monitoring activity that delivers strategic business objectives over the lifetime of a product.

Role overlap between Product and project

It’s clear that the roles of a project manager and a Product Manager are very different but in some ways they have a similar skill set.

  • Excellent organisational and interpersonal skills
  • Leadership qualities
  • Time management

So it’s not uncommon for organisations to ask Product Managers to take on project management responsibility and vice versa.

Product manager and project manager role overlap

Problems with role overlap

We have seen time and time again that doing both jobs can compromise the successful delivery of a project.

  • If a Product Manager is also running a project his/her time and attention gets diverted from the customer strategy to chasing people, reporting etc.
  • Most people do not have the right skills to perform well on all points. A project manager excels at managing to deadlines and a Product Manager knows what the customer wants and keeps that in mind.
  • Wearing both hats, with different objectives, sometimes results in a conflict of interest.

How can we solve these problems and create awesome?

As Product Managers we need to make the distinction between Product and project clear to other parts of the business and highlight the value in keeping them separate. We should clearly communicate what a Product Manager does and what skills and resources are required to do it well. At the same time we need to spread the love for project managers, and openly acknowledge that great project management needs a skillset that we don’t have.

We should also consider the scope of each project that needs completed. If the cost of failure, or the rewards of success, are high — then hire a professional project manager. The benefits will far outweigh the costs.

As Product Managers we should also develop relationships with the project managers in our business. We need to make sure they have what they need to deliver a successful projects for our products.

Ultimately, it’s not a question of whether one role is more important than the other. Both the Product Manager and project manager roles are crucial for long-term business success.

What’s next?

Liked this blog?

You might like to check out:


  • [1] Project Management Institute (2004). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge: PMBOK Guide. 3rd Edition. Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, Project Management Institute, p. 5.
  • [2] Kotler, P., Armstrong, G., Brown, L., and Adam, S. (2006) Marketing, 7th Ed. Pearson Education Australia/Prentice Hall.

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