During my career, I have worked extensively as both a project manager and a product manager; within consulting and in multiple industries. I’ve worked in companies that have both roles, companies that only have project managers and companies that only have product managers.

Several prominent blogs that I’ve read assert that project managers and product managers are ‘two sides of the same coin’ and should work harmoniously to deliver product goals. I wanted to dig into this assertion based on my experiences and provide my thoughts.

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Product and Project Management — two sides of the same coin?

Even LinkedIn has only recently updated its search algorithm to better distinguish between the two — when searching for a new role back in April 2019, 35% of the results for my search for ‘Senior Product Manager’ in London were project manager roles.

Do they work together to fight crime (aka solve customer problems) and make the world a better place?

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‘The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules’ (Batman, talking at a recent product event about his preference for Kanban over Scrum)

To answer whether they can, and should, work together I have considered 3 categories: skills, stages and application of these skills.

What skills do both roles share?

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Some of the top skills required for each role are shared

A number of the key skills required for each role apply to both, which means it’s hardly surprising that PM Festival found that of people working in product management, the most common job they had before was as a project manager.

So at a foundation skills level, there are similarities between the two roles but there are additional skills required for each.

Strategic thinking and user empathy are critical skills for a product manager but less crucial for a project manager, who needs to be structured and methodical and relentless in their insistence in the plan being followed.

The stages of product development

Using six questions we can determine the primary role of both product and project managers concerning product development.

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The 5 Why’s and How — often used in journalism and police investigations but highly applicable to product and project management.
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A product manager focusses on the first four and influences the ‘when’ through a prioritised backlog and roadmap. They do not, however, dictate the ‘how’, as this is determined by the development team.

In contrast, a project manager focusses on the how and the when. They liaise with stakeholders across the project to determine the plan of how it should be delivered and subsequently when it will be completed. That’s the theory, anyway. In reality, the deadline often comes first and you have to work backward from there!

This gives some indication that collaboration would be possible between these roles, with a handover during the ‘when’ stage. However, it does not take in to account the application of the skills they both hold and the ideologies they support. The third section is the one that will shed light on this, so read on…

Application of skills

I’ve defined 6 areas to compare the way that product and project managers apply the core skills that they have.

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Product and project managers are neither complements nor direct substitutes. They align with different ways of working. For example, when following a traditional waterfall method, the project manager determines the plan and resolves issues. In Agile, the product manager does the former, but the Scrum Master fulfils the latter.

Batman and Robin, or Marvel and DC?

If you were hoping for a happy ending, I apologise. They are not Batman and Robin: they are Marvel and DC — operating in two entirely different universes — or at least they should be.

JE vs DU. Only a pair of letters out of 17 separate these two professions linguistically, but don’t be fooled by their linguistic match — these two professions are ideological opposites.

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I’ll leave it to you to decide which universe represents project and which represents product, although Tony Stark certainly embraces the build, measure, learn mentality of product management.

Why do so many companies have both?

There is a reluctance to do away with the project manager role and instead companies and experts alike strive to justify the existence of both, preaching that they work in harmony.

I disagree with this — you should pick your ideology and embrace it.

People, and organisations, feel more comfortable with what they’re used to. RAG reports, GANT charts, CRs, RACIs and RAID documents (if you don’t know what these acronyms mean, lucky you!) are what many in leadership positions have ‘grown up’ with in a career sense and are reluctant to let it go for something new and seemingly more vague.

I have never worked on a project that has delivered to time and budget, and yet people still feel more comfortable with bad news when it’s against a rigid and usually completely inaccurate plan.

For organisations to be truly product-led, they must do away with old processes but most importantly, old mindsets. To be a product-led organisation, you have to embrace product thinking.

I highly recommend reading Kyle Evan’s piece on Product Thinking vs. Project Thinking as a starting point for this journey.
Product Thinking vs. Project ThinkingOne of the biggest challenges a product manager will face (or an organization for that matter) is trying to elevate…productcoalition.com

Thanks for reading — I’d love to hear your thoughts, feedback, and questions so feel free to get in touch by posting a comment or contacting me directly.

I also spoke about this topic at Product London on May 11th, check it out below (skip to 14:16).

Originally posted at https://chrismiles.co/product-vs-project-management/


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