The Difference: Project Manager vs Product Manager

It can be hard to tell twins apart, especially when they share the same initials. But while these two members of the Manager family have a fair bit in common, when it comes to the workplace, their roles are distinct. So, to avoid an embarrassing faux pas at your next office Zoom party, let’s dive in and once and for all resolve the time-honored question of the industry: What, exactly is the difference between a Product Manager, and a Project Manager?

So that you need never mix up your “PMs” again (except in the afternoon… get it?) let’s begin with a little trip to the theatre… 

Take Your Seat, The Orchestra Is About to Begin

Orchestra

Imagine that you’ve somehow obtained exclusive tickets to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra live in concert. On the stage facing you is a large, talented group of musicians, dressed in the finest livery, seated before various instruments including violins of all sizes, wind instruments, a couple of pianos, and even some drummers and other assorted percussionists.

In front of the musicians but with her back to the audience, stands the conductor. She is the one person on the stage without an instrument before her, but it so becomes clear that she is perhaps the most indispensable person in the performance. 

Hands flying, batons whirring in the air, the conductor acts as a conduit between the audience and the musicians. She knows exactly who should play what note and when, exactly how the audience will experience each moment, each harmony, when she needs to tell one group to play louder, play softer, play quicker, end sooner. 

The Curtain Falls, And the Product Manager Turns and Gives You a Bow

The conductor in the orchestra is the Product Manager: The person who does not necessarily perform the individual roles (coding, designing, engineering and so on), but understands exactly who should be doing what, and how it will all be received by the customer (audience).

But there is another person who has been critical to the successful performance you have just witnessed, but who did not appear on the stage at all.

This is the person who made sure each musician had the right instrument before the, tuned in the right manner. This is the person who set the budget, booked the theatre, set the schedule for rehearsals, and generally made sure that everything happened when and where it should. A theatre goer may call this person a stage manager or perhaps a producer… We call them a Project Manager.

The Product Manager Interprets the Vision of the CEO

To briefly revisit our orchestra metaphor, the conductor didn’t compose the musical score, but she made it actually happen in the moment, in the way a contemporary audience could enjoy and be moved by. Likewise, a Product Manager doesn’t typically invent a product, but they do in a very real sense bring it to life.

A Product Manager will take the vision of the CEO, and translate this into a Product Vision, which may be laid out step by step on a Product Roadmap. Communicating with stakeholders such as investors, prospective clients or customers, marketers and related departments, the Product Manager aligns their team of designers, programmers and others around the successful creation and delivering of the initial idea.

Check out: Product Managers Are NOT the CEO of Product

The Project Manager Makes Things Happen On Time and Within Budget

conductor in an orchestra

Working in parallel with the Product Manager may be a Project Manager. This person is not typically involved in the creative aspects of bringing a vision to life. But they are often critical to a successful outcome. While a Product Manager will repeatedly use terms such as “vision,” “stakeholder” and “customer,” a Project Manager will be heard muttering under their breath words like “budget,” “expense,” “schedule,” “scope,” and “resources.”

It is possible for there to be healthy tension between a Product Manager and a Project Manager. A Product Manager obsesses over the customer, and dreams of delighting and surprising the end user with the perfect product that solves their problem and/or performs the jobs that need to be done in the life of the user. However, if creating the perfect product will lead to the project running late or costing more than was intended, the Project Manager will not be pleased! 

The family drama is normally pretty easily resolved, however. The Product Manager role is forged in the fires of the artful compromise. They are experts at balancing the needs of the designer with the specs of the engineers, and placating the demands of Stakeholder A when they are in direct conflict with the demands of Stakeholder B. As an expert in communication skills, empathy, and the art of leading through influence not authority, the Product Manager should be able to see eye to eye with the Project Manager, and align themselves towards a shared timeframe.

You might also be interested in: The Power of Influence to Manage Challenging Stakeholders 

Don’t Like Definitions Define You… Too Much

It makes sense to want to brush up on your terminology. After all, we can’t have a functioning discourse if we all think that various terms mean totally different things. That said, there isn’t a “Ministry of Managers” anywhere to set a divine, never changing definition of exactly what is entailed by each role. Each firm will have their own distinct definition and set of expectations for the roles they hire for. So ask around, and make sure you know exactly what you are getting the shoulder tap for.

If you were the person in the school project worrying about running out of cardboard and getting penalized by the teacher for being late… then maybe Project is your first name. But if you were the one who, early on, helped the team define exactly what they were building and for who, and then organized your school friends around their talents, giving Sally the glue and keeping Timmy away from the scissors, then maybe Product Manager is the title you should be going for. 

Either way, at least you’ll be a Manager!

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