With more and more terms being thrown around in the world of SaaS, it can be a bit confusing to know which roles have what responsibilities, especially when there’s just a list of acronyms being thrown around a room. Product and project managers for instance, are both referred to as PMs even though they have logistically different roles. In fact, project managers don’t even have to work on anything related to a product at all, they could be in a completely different department. With all the confusion, let’s take a quick look at the definitional difference between a product and project manager and then break down their roles and responsibilities.

Product Versus Project

Even within the software industry that employs both product and project managers, there’s still confusion over who does what and where responsibility for certain tasks fall. The roles are complementary but distinct. Let’s start with just understanding the definitional difference between product and project.

A product is anything from a software, physical item, or service that is offered in the market to solve a want or need of a group of people. A product will go through a maturation period over time, based on feedback from customers and market shift. At some point in time it’s no longer needed, or replaced by a different solution, and thus retired from the market.

A project on the other hand, is one task to be carried out over a specified period of time with a clear goal or deliverable in mind. There’s generally a set of steps or requirements to be done for a project to be considered completed successfully.

The timeline is the largest distinction. A product is something that is continuously adapting based on customer needs and feedback; there’s no end in sight for a product’s evolution. A project has clear and distinct boundaries, even if the timeline for completion is a year long, it’s going to have a date set from the very beginning so everyone involved is on the same page regarding what needs to be done. Multiple projects can comprise a product. For example, your next product update could include a project to create an in-product announcement and a different project to allow revenue reporting associated with each account.

They’re really two sides of the same coin, and can often be found working together on the same initiatives. Where a product manager sets the vision for where the product should go, the project manager oversees the execution so that tasks are accomplished on time and within the set budget to reach the desired product vision.

Roles and Responsibilities

Let’s quickly take a look at differences between the core functionality and responsibilities of both a project manager and a product manager.

Product Manager

A product manager has a varied list of roles and responsibilities that impact the entire company. At a high level though, a product manager is responsible for creating a strategy that successfully guides the development of a product towards an overall product vision. AKA develop a product that customers enjoy using to make a company a lot of money.

The focus is on what to build and why building it will be impactful to the success of a business.

Typical tasks include:

Researching existing products in the market for functionality gaps

Setting a product vision and communicating it’s importance to stakeholders

Developing a strategic plan for how to accomplish the product vision

Gathering requirements from customers and stakeholders for new functionality

Creating the product roadmap and prioritizing feature development

In other words, product managers go out and try to understand what products are currently successful in the market and identify where the functionality gaps exists. Based on their research, they’ll then create a product vision for how they can better address customer needs compared to competitors—we’re talking marketing disruption 🤘. Key stakeholders will be pitched the vision and brought onboard to help adjust long-term goals and factor in how current customer needs will be incorporated into the new ideas. Once internal teams are excited about the vision moving forward, product managers start on the strategic, detailed plan of what the roadmap will look like and which features get priority.

This breakdown of big picture ideas into actionable tasks with teams, goals, and deadlines is where project management comes into play.

(For a more in-depth break down of all things product manager, check out our other blog post here)

Project Manager

A project manager’s job is to take a strategic plan, break it down into a list of tasks, and then oversee the coordination and successful completion of a one-off initiative, or project. It’s important to note that the type of initiative for project managers can vary. It doesn’t have to be product related, it could be marketing, engineering, HR, operations, etc. No matter the team or department a project manager exists in, tasks have to be created within the scope of the allocated budget, timeline, and quality expected of successful completion.

The focus is on how to successfully complete an initiative and then ensuring it gets done.

Typical tasks include:

Understanding the scope of an initiative: time, budget, quality

Breaking down an initiative into distinct and discrete tasks

Allocating the necessary resources required to complete the project

Monitoring the completion of the tasks associated with the project

Communicating the progression and completion of the project to key stakeholders

Someone basically goes to a project manager and says “hey, we need this deliverable made by Tuesday”. It’s on the project manager to factor time, budget, and quality into determining the who, what, where, when, and how of the project. From there, they can break down the necessary tasks that are required to get from point A to Point Complete. Once the scope of the project is outlined, they can start delegating tasks to different people and teams to work on.

Sometime teams can work on multiple different tasks at once, or it may be a sequential list that requires careful handoffs of information and build upon each team’s work. In the case of developing a new product feature, one task may be set for the design team to complete in an afternoon, then product can wireframe the feature in two days, and then engineering gets passed the tasks to code the wireframe by end of week.

Handoffs require careful oversight by the project managers to make sure each task produces high quality work and is completed on time. If any issues pop up during this process it’s on the project manager to update stakeholders and adjust the outline so that everything is still completed. In a worse case scenario where everything falls apart, project managers need to communicate with all parties involved in a project and determine priority for timeline, budget, or quality.

Once all required tasks are completed, the project manager gets to update stakeholders and then move on to a new project.

Is there overlap?

Despite listing the two roles as having purely distinct responsibilities there’s often some overlap in the real world—mostly when you have a project manager in Product.

For startup companies or small product teams, you’re often going to have a product manager assigned to carrying out the project responsibilities for developing new features. Not because one title is considered more important than another, but just because resources are limited and a product manager has the necessary insight of the overall product to understand how to break down tasks for one project and handle any prioritization questions that may arise.

On the other side, project managers can use their experience to move into more strategic roles. Learning to ask questions, consider time constraints, improve efficiency—all these skills are applicable and will help you excel in a product management role. The ability to translate big picture goals into actionable items is always going to be an essential part of balancing a product vision with the immediate roadmap.

Conclusion

Despite some confusion between the PM titles, product and project managers are powerful in their own right as well as as a duo. The extent to which they overlap is largely based on the specific organization structure of a company. Either way, PMs are working toward the growth and success of your company.

For more info on the roles of product managers and common product myths, check out our podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/part-1-product-mythbusters/id1503231746?i=1000493103059