Project Manager vs. Product Manager: What’s the Difference?

Industry Advice Management

The role of a project manager versus a product manager can be confusing, as many of their responsibilities can overlap. Both project management and product management disciplines involve working directly with clients and collaborating with a team to deliver a product or service that meets their expectations. Both disciplines are in high demand, command large salaries, and report high levels of job satisfaction. However, there are several key differences between the two disciplines, including responsibilities, skills, career trajectories, and required education. 

Read on to further explore the similarities and differences between project and product management. 

What is a Project Manager?

Project managers develop, plan, execute, monitor, and close a set of activities to achieve a particular goal, such as the delivery of a service or product. They typically manage projects that are temporary, with a defined scope and resources. Depending on the industry, “projects” range in size and scope—from launching a new website to constructing a new building. The project manager is responsible for bringing together the resources necessary to execute the project expectations and deliver the given product or service on time and on budget. 

“As project management continues to evolve, many organizations now realize the inherent value of having skilled project managers,” says Chris Bolick, Northeastern University’s faculty lead for project management. “From an ROI standpoint, it’s necessary to have dedicated individuals who engage with stakeholders and facilitate collaboration within the organization.”

Project management professionals are adept at gaining consensus, marshaling resources, prioritizing tasks, driving efficiencies, and mitigating risk throughout the organization.

What is a Product Manager?

At a high level, product managers set the long-term vision for a company’s products, and communicate this strategy to all relevant stakeholders. To do so successfully involves gaining in-depth insights into products, market needs, competitors, customers, and other market influences. Product manager roles typically don’t have a set beginning and end as a project lifecycle would. 

Product managers are responsible for managing the launch of a product from initial concept through final product end-of-life. This includes product design, market research, production, testing, forecasting, cost management, analysis, promotion, market introduction, and product support. More specifically, product managers conduct strategic planning and implementation, deliver an operating plan, analyze potential product market share, and track the product’s profitability.

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Project Management vs. Product Management: Responsibilities

Project Management

“Project managers are often at the forefront of delivering new strategic objectives, so they’re able to execute key initiatives while gaining exposure to stakeholders across all levels of an organization,” Bolick says. “With foundational project management knowledge combined with professional, technical, and strategic expertise, project managers are transferable across any industry.”

Although each project will vary, most project managers are responsible for:

  • Identifying goals: Talking to key stakeholders to understand their objectives.
  • Defining project scope: Documenting key requirements and determining what the project will and will not entail.
  • Bringing together a team. Identifying required skill sets and the people who can effectively execute the project.
  • Planning. Creating a schedule and communicating expectations to those who will be executing each task.  
  • Monitoring. Determining the metrics that will define project success and how those will be objectively measured.
  • Collaboration. Engaging stakeholders inside and outside the organization who will be affected by the project.
  • Managing costs. Creating a project budget and monitor to ensure costs are controlled.

“Defining the project scope, including identifying what is out of scope, the requirements, assumptions, and constraints, is key in the early planning phase,” Bolick cautions. “Often people fall short because they don’t understand the importance of properly defining the project’s scope. They want to move forward quickly to execution to get the work started. Organizations need project managers who understand the value and methods behind all the elements of the planning phase before they move forward to execute their projects.”

Product Management

Product managers have the power to bring ideas to fruition. The best product managers are constantly innovating, and are entrusted with working on cutting-edge technology. They bring a wealth of creative talents to their roles. Likewise, they are able to hone diverse skills, including business, communication, technical expertise.

No matter the product being developed, product managers have primary responsibility for:

  • Solving market needs. Articulating the market problem or market demand that the potential product is intended to solve.
  • Defining the product vision. This includes developing a strategy and roadmap.
  • Gathering market and customer requirements. Based on this information, acting as a customer advocate to articulate users’ needs and defend the need for the new product.
  • Developing a business case. Identifying and prioritizing critical product attributes, and making pricing recommendations.
  • Bringing in key resources. Working closely with sales, marketing, engineering, and technical support is necessary to ensure users’ needs are met.
  • Overseeing testing. Running beta tests to quality the product before releasing to the market.
  • Developing a marketing plan. This includes creating product positioning, including drafting value propositions and key talking points.

Growing Demand for Project and Product Managers

Industries such as infrastructure and construction have long seen the benefit of project managers, and today there is tremendous growth in project management across healthcare, finance, utility firms, and other businesses that are implementing data-driven technologies. In fact, more than 22 million project management jobs are expected to be added to the workforce annually through 2027, according to Project Management Institute (PMI), meaning it’s an opportune time to enter the field.

“As artificial intelligence and masses of data become available for decision making, this has initiated a transformation within businesses,” Bolick says. “There’s a growing demand globally for the skills to execute on these data-driven projects. At the executive level, you may have leaders with grandiose ideas, but it’s just as important to have people on your team who can bring these ideas to life.”

Likewise, there is a surge in demand for product managers.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track employment data for product managers, they define marketing managers as the most similar role for which they do gather data. The BLS projects that jobs for marketing managers are expected to grow by 14 percent through 2020. Employers across a wide range of industries, including retail, automotive, consumer goods, financial services, and healthcare are hiring more product managers to help leverage new technologies.

This may involve releasing a new software product that fulfills a market demand or developing an app to engage their customers (e.g., online banking, online shopping, health management portals, etc). For these roles, businesses are seeking professionals with a combination of strategic thinking, technical skills, business acumen, and marketing knowledge to spearhead these product development initiatives.

Project Management vs. Product Management: Job Titles & Salary

Project Management

Common job titles in project management include:

  • Associate/junior project manager
  • Controller
  • Estimator
  • Governance officer
  • Project administrator
  • Project analyst
  • Project coordinator
  • Project manager (I, II, III)
  • Program/portfolio manager

“Keep in mind that the title of project manager can mean different things to different organizations,” Bolick said. “One of the great benefits of the Project Management Institute is that they have standardized project management terminology across the globe for project management professionals. When someone earns their degree through an accredited program, they speak a common language as others who have followed similar paths, while bringing their knowledge to the table.”

On average, project managers earn $105,239, according to the career service Paysa. According to PMI’s 2018 Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey,  project managers in Switzerland, the U.S., and Australia boast the highest median annual salaries, earning $130,966, $112,000, and $108,593, respectively. 

Learn More: Tips to increase your salary in project management

Product Management

PayScale reports the average salaries for the following product management roles:

  • Associate product manager: $66,747  
  • Product development manager: $79,531
  • Product manager, unspecified type: $81,958
  • Product marketing manager: $86,724
  • Product manager, software: $91,606
  • Technical program manager: $121,039
  • Senior product manager: $121,652
  • Product management director: $139,848
  • Vice President, product management: $168, 297
  • Senior vice president, product management: $198,496

An added benefit of both project and product management roles is a sense of fulfillment. According to PayScale, four out of five product managers and five out of five project managers report being highly satisfied with their job.

Project Management vs. Product Management: Skills for Success

Project Management

Bolick says there are several essential skills for effective project management. According to him, the most successful project managers are:

  • Emotionally intelligent: “This is a critical skill for project managers, who need to be able to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically,” Bolick explains. “Emotions drive our behavior and the emotions of those whom with we’re interacting. Recognizing emotions and actively engaging with others is the key to building effective project teams.” When project teams face emotionally-charged situations, such as giving and receiving feedback, facing setbacks or dealing with challenging personalities, emotional intelligence can help to navigate these issues in a sensitive yet productive manner.
  • Nimble: “Project management involves dealing with ambiguity, such as translating a grand idea without a lot of details behind it into a real plan. Project managers need to be comfortable communicating with everyone from company leaders to colleagues to indirect project contributors. For example, they may interview stakeholders and need to go back to ask for clarification, and can’t be afraid to ask for that from a senior-level executive.”
  • Ethical: “Another key element of project management is learning to manage ethically within an organization,” Bolick says. “Project management is all about ethically delivering on expectations. At times this may not be the easiest path, but it is important for project management practitioners to do what is right and honorable; this will establish trust and credibility within the organization. A good place to get started is to read the Project Management Institute’s Code of Ethics, which is a set of principles of respect, honesty, fairness, and responsibility.”
  • Good listeners: “Most projects that fail do so because of poor communication,” Bolick says. “There is tremendous value in having people who are mindful of how to be an influencer and communicator and how to deal with ambiguity. Those skills are critical, particularly for large-scale projects where many of the details have not yet been fleshed out. People often think communicating is only about talking, yet listening is just as important. Poor communication can lead to misunderstood goals or not hearing what the customer is truly after. We may think we’re trying to solve one problem but if we misheard or misinterpreted what a stakeholder is saying, this can cause setbacks. Being an active listener takes practice. In much of our work, we are tempted to multitask. However, when listening to others, it’s essential to avoid distractions. Be focused and be present.”
  • Persistent: “The project management field isn’t for someone who is timid,” Bolick says. “You’re responsible for pulling together resources, motivating team members, addressing conflicts, engaging stakeholders, and maintaining control of the project plan. Hardly a day that goes by where there is a routine schedule. Most of the day is spent communicating with others and problem-solving. If you’re reserved or shy away from these kinds of discussions, then project management may be a challenging profession. However, you could still perform critical project management functions such as serving on a project team performing risk analyses, scheduling, estimating, etc., without being a project leader.”

Product Management

While the above skills are also helpful for product managers, the most successful product professionals will also possess the following skills: 

  • Technical acumen: Product managers must be able to understand code well enough to converse with developers and other key stakeholders. 
  • Persuasive communication: Managers must be able to share their vision and sell their ideas to both the business and the engineers, who are needed to turn product concepts into reality.
  • Empathy: Taking the time to talk with users and get a pulse for the market throughout the product development process will help ensure the product will fulfill business and consumer needs.
  • Agility: The most successful product managers are able to comfortably move between responsibilities such as market research, behavioral analysis, technical and marketing roadmaps, pricing data, and more.

Project Management vs. Product Management: Education

Project Management

Securing a master’s degree can help you gain the skills you’ll need to further your career in project management. For example, Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Project Management provides practical skills and theoretical concepts to empower students to lead complex projects.

“We interject case studies so that students can experience projects that are performing well compared to ones that are facing trouble,” Bolick says. “We also bring in experiential learning by partnering with companies who sponsor projects so students can apply the principles they’ve learned in class into a real-world project. In these cases, the faculty works as a coach, guiding students in practicing their project management knowledge and skills.”

Throughout the program, students have the opportunity to work on project teams.  Within most courses, project teams consist of four to six students, typically coming from different industries and experiences, which creates a unique dynamic and helps students to appreciate diverse perspectives.

“At the end of the program, we utilize the program’s curriculum and leverage it in one final class where students create an integrated project plan throughout the entire project life cycle,” Bolick says. “Students take turns acting as a project manager on a project team to execute the assignments throughout the course. Students come away with a plan that has all the tools, processes and knowledge areas, allowing them to effectively implement project management concepts to a multitude of projects.”

Product Management

While an advanced project management degree can also be useful for managing a product lifecycle, many product managers instead pursue technical degrees or MBAs. There are also many IT-related certificate programs that can help product managers improve in the skill areas important to their specific industry.

Challenges for Project and Product Managers

Project Managers

“One of the challenges for project managers is that some organizations are still unclear when it comes to understanding project management roles,” Bolick says. “Having a greater understanding about what it takes to successfully execute a project will not only benefit the project manager but also the organization. Another challenge for project managers is getting team members across the organization to contribute to help fulfill project goals. Often project managers are put in a leadership role to get results, but they have little direct authority over the people who are needed to execute project activities. Thus, they need leadership acumen to persuade those individuals to get the work done—and keep them engaged throughout the project. Project team members may have their own responsibilities, so there’s a lot of give-and-take involved with securing their commitments.”

Product Managers

In most cases, there is pressure—from many different groups—to deliver a product swiftly. This requires flexibility, expectation management, and quick turnarounds to balance the needs of these diverse stakeholders. For example, QA may feel they need more time to work out bugs while marketing may be facing demands to release a product ahead of the competition. Reconciling needs and viewpoints is a major part of this role. Similarly, there are often varying opinions about which direction to take a product, and a product manager needs to help build consensus.

Getting Started as a Project Manager

Many professionals begin to acquire project management skills while working in other types of careers. Bolick says it’s not uncommon to start out working in a  role unrelated to project management and then end up serving on a project team or practicing some form of project management within that role. “Once you gain project team experience or manage a project successfully, others in the firm will likely notice, and you’ll be given more project-related tasks,” he adds. “However, this often occurs without any formal project management training.”

Learn More: Building Your Project Management Career Path

 A PMI survey revealed that only 61 percent of companies provide any type of training on project management tools and techniques, meaning many professionals look outside their organizations for formal training on how to deliver a project most effectively.

“It’s not a plug-and-play profession,” Bolick says. “A project management degree is the way to learn the technical, professional and strategic skills necessary to successfully manage a wide variety of projects. Having foundational project management education makes each step in the process more efficient, from scoping projects, communicating with stakeholders to risk planning. For example, if you’re gathering project requirements, there are several tools and techniques you can employ to get the information you need and to secure stakeholder approvals. There are an array of tools at your disposal, and it’s helpful to learn how and when to use each one effectively.”

To learn more about advancing your career in project management, download our comprehensive guide below. 

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