Few months ago, I asked my Twitter followers, what do they want to know more about product management. Surprisingly, one of the question asked and got likes from others was “What is the difference between project management and product management?”. I assume this is probably caused by the fact that there are 2 roles that do those things but fall under the same moniker, PM, which may stand as Project Manager or Product Manager. Moreover, I also noticed that in some cases, Product Manager also chases the deliverable on specific time, much like what a Project Manager does. So, perhaps, I get why this asked.
To be honest, it took me a while to explains this succinctly, since practically speaking, managing project and managing product can feel both different and intertwined most of the time. However, after some thinking, I came to conclusion that the difference can be summarized as follows (and this is more relevant in the field of digital product development):
Product management is the act of managing the state of a product according to its lifecycle. Most of the time, this will involve a lot of mid and long term planning. Project management is the act of managing the work required to build and deliver the product itself. The work will require plenty of shorter term plannings and detailings to get the execution right.
Now, where things get murky is the fact that a Product Manager (PM) will frequently floats between these 2 modes. In a longer term, he/she will have to come up with a product strategy outlined in a product roadmap to describes what the product will be in quite a far future. However, in order for the product to reach the desired state, the work has to be managed properly, so that the targeted product milestones can be achieved as planned, time wise and often, budget wise.
If I refer back to the product development loop, I can say that project management falls into the delivery phase of the loop. The moment where delivering a feature gains bigger priority compared to measuring product metric or discovering what to build next.
In this delivery mode, a PM will be required to. wear a project manager hat, since the problems at this stage will revolve around how the team can sharply execute the tasks, so that the product will have the targeted features. Time is critical here, since the PM will want to validate the product at specific point in time. Even if the time is quite loose.
For example, one of the milestone for an e-commerce website is to improve the time required to check out by 10% in Q2, a product team decides to build a checkout feature. This means, during Q2, they have to build and validate the feature. Had they only able to build the feature at the tail end of the quarter, there’s a possibility that future plans could be delayed or even delayed, and that could lead to business loss.
In short, even if both type of work can feel different yet similar simultaneously, a Product Manager needs to be able to separate when to ask product questions (e.g. “why do we need this feature?”, “what value will the product gives to our customers by the end of this year?”) and project questions (e.g. “what blocks the team from delivering this feature this month?”, “what are the leftover tasks in order to ship this week?”). Both phase required different mindset and are born from different problem statements. Effectively handling both phases will be a key to a good product development.