Product Manager vs. Project Manager

Titles are a mess.

Some organizations have such a profusion of titles that any one team may have product managers, project managers, product owners, programs managers or product marketing managers. (Learn more about how we differentiate some of these titles here.)

And they might all be doing the same (or at least similar) jobs.

I find the easiest approach to differentiate these titles is to consider roles against the product life cycle. Certain titles make more sense to enter the life cycle at different times, and it will help create a clearer sense of who does what—and when.

In the case of product managers and product marketing managers working on the same product, the product manager is generally more focused on the technical aspects, while the product marketing manager is focused on the go-to-market aspects.

And that generally makes sense to most companies. But what about when it comes to product and project managers?

A product manager
focuses on manager a product throughout its lifecycle across multiple releases. They see products from their initial creation (when they’re little more than just an idea) until the product is sunset at the end of its lifecycle.

While most agile teams have done away with the traditional project manager, many organizations still need someone to keep track of project status and deliverables.

The confusion of titles comes from the intermixing of multiple business models. Program and project manager titles originated with internal IT projects; product and marketing managers were often found in vendor products.

Nowadays, firms have come to see that IT projects never really end, they just keep evolving. Consider the implementation of a CRM system. Once the CRM system is purchased, an internal IT team is formed to install and configure it. The implementation takes months of work by the team, with a project manager making sure the project stays on plan and reporting status to the various stakeholders

At the end of the project plan, the system is complete right?

Nope. Now come enhancement requests for the core team and expanded implementation to other teams. 

So, it turns out, most projects never end—which is why many internal teams are embracing the principles of product management for projects. Product managers focus on business and market requirements. Project managers focus on time and scope. 

Consider a bridge. A civil engineer decides “how” the bridge will be built. A project manager manages the “when” based on the scope and resources, and ensures the bridge is built on time with the necessary quality. A product manager determines “why” we need a bridge.

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Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson was a founding instructor at Pragmatic Institute, a role he held for more than 15 years before he left to start Under10 Playbook. In his return to Pragmatic Institute, Steve supports the complete learning path for product teams, ensuring they are fully armed for success.  Over the course of his career, Steve has helped thousands of companies and tens of thousands of product professionals implement product management processes. He has worked in the high-tech arena since 1981, rising through the ranks from product manager to chief marketing officer. Steve has experience in technical, sales and marketing management positions at companies that specialize in both hardware and software. In addition, he is an author, speaker and advisor on product strategy and product management.

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