This post isn’t about a fight between the two. Though that can certainly happen. It’s for describing the difference between the two. Why bother? It’s not like others haven’t opined on this. It’s because lately I’ve been seeing this come up a little bit more so on the off chance someone hits some keywords and comes here, I thought I’d just clarify this. Again. Or at least try to. Here’s the simplest way to understand the difference, and it’s probably easiest to start with “Project” Management as that’s a bit easier to nail down.
The Essential Difference
Project Management: Project Management is concerned primarily with projects and projects have start and end dates. That’s it. Simple. Doesn’t matter if your doing Waterfall, Agile, or some combination. There’s a start date and an end date. So the test here is fairly simple, and it’s to ask “Is there a start date and and end date?” Now, just in case you’re thinking your product or service or whatever doesn’t really have an end date, chances are somehow you’re mixing up “project” with “process.” Projects, by definition, are date constrained. (You may have a Project to define a Process, but once that’s done, you’re left with a Process, not an ongoing Project.)
Product Management: Product Management is concerned with marketplace needs, product conception, development, sales and marketing, customer service and a whole lot more. While there are a variety of formal definitions for Product Management, the reality is that depending on the industry and the specific role, Product Management may have widely varying definitions and scope of responsibility. It might deal with full product life cycle management, or be specific to some form of production.
That’s the simple answer. And again, the easy way to tell them apart is that projects have clearly defined start and end dates. You may miss these dates, but the point is, they have these dates defined. Some confusion may arise in that often, an organization may not have formal Project Management and the Product Manager is doing that role. (When an organization calls a job Project Management, but the tasks are actually more product management, then they’ve got their terms messed up. And that should actually be a concern.)
Is Clarifying the Difference that Important?
Is it really that important to clearly separate these roles? Yes. It is.
Because as important as Project Management may be, it’s Product Management that’s generally going to be where long term success or failure occurs. True enough, execution may be critical in some cases, but Project Management is much more about efficiency then effectiveness. Put another way, Project Management is about the “how” where Product Management is about the “what.” And just WHAT it is you’re doing is going to determine your organizational effectiveness in satisfying strategic goals. (You can think of it as strategy vs. tactics if you like; which is also sometimes a fuzzy distinction.)
One of the reasons these things can become conflated conceptually – I believe – is that smaller companies or divisions as well as start-ups often have the same person doing both roles. Typically, as organizations grow Project Management will become its own discipline. In large organizations or for very large projects there may even be a formally defined Project Management Office (PMO) staffed with personnel with specific training and perhaps certification in project methods. This could be something like a Project Management Institute (PMI) certification or some from of Scrum, or both.
Nailing down Product Management in terms of a formal Body of Knowledge is more challenging. As mentioned, different industries may have a wide gap in tasks performed by the Product Management function. For example, within Product Management alone, there may be more of a marketing task set than marketplace analysis and product definition and production focus. (In some cases this will be more clearly delineated as Product Marketing Management.) In a Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) business, Product Management may be living deeply in spreadsheets looking at P&L statements, doing SKU rationalization and both logistics and reverse logistics. In technology, a Product Manager could be doing wireframes or full on prototypes with user stories to deliver to engineering for coding. Ideally, anyone with Product Management in their title will be performing some tasks related to marketplace needs and fit.
Regarding Agile / Scrum…
For a team using Agile practices, and Scrum in particular, the Product and Project Roles are essentially combined. Sort of. That is, the Product Owner and Scrum Master share different aspects of what would typically be thought of as Project Management tasks.
Nevertheless, even though an individual may in this case be performing multiple roles and tasks, there is still a clear delineation of those roles and tasks. For example, a Product Owner may create a Release Plan or Prioritization of items, but these are very different tasks than actual creation of User Stories or Backlog Pruning.
So, even where Product / Project tasks may be tightly coupled, owned by the same person, or shared roles, it’s useful to have clear understanding of the delineation between the two. While they are somewhat conflated when using Scrum methodology, this is with clear purpose. When they are conflated by accident or without clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, the risk is lack of clarity regarding task and product ownership. The resulting lack of clarity can increase risk of failure regardless of what development methodology is being used.
Want to focus more on just what Product Management is and the various ideas / tools to be successful? There are plenty of resources out there. Just remember as you use them that – as is always the case – your time will limit your depth of study across the many sub-disciplines. You’ll still need to seek out those segments most appropriate to your own business needs. But by treating this area a formal discipline and craft as opposed to just a job role, you should be more likely to succeed with whatever your strategic goals might be.
Pragmatic Marketing (Offers a full framework from market definition to product support.)