What To Do When You’re Confused With a Project Manager

We’ve already touched on the main differences between Product Managers and Project Managers. Several times in fact, since it seems to be a pretty pervasive issue that these two disciplines are confused. Our CEO Carlos even stepped in on the conversation!

Please don't hire junior Product Managers just to make them work as Project managers.

Even for those deeply entrenched in the tech world, Product and Project continue to battle it out. Both are well-respected and exciting career paths in their own right (though you can probably imagine which one we’re biased towards!) and it’s true that they have a lot in common.

But the confusion goes deeper than people just calling you by the wrong name. There are still companies that think they want a Product Manager, and yet upon hiring them, treat them more like a Project Manager.

Do titles really matter? What’s the cause of the issue? And what can you do when you realize that your boss thinks you’re a Project Manager?

We’re going to dive into all that and more right here.

What Are The Similarities Between Project and Product?

Aside from both being abbreviated to PM, there are several very real similarities between Product and Project. In fact, Product Management does involve a hefty dose of project-style skills, and in many cases the software they use for planning and tracking overlap.

Both Product and Project are very people-centric roles that require collaboration and management of people across disciplines and teams. They require similar soft skills, such as good written communication and an ability to juggle various tasks under pressure.

As Product Management is still relatively new and somewhat undefined (in that every Product Manager works a little bit differently to others), the day-to-day of a Product Manager at one company may look very similar to that of a Project Manager at another company.

Product Managers are very often referred to as conductors of an orchestra. The musicians are the teams that build the product (the symphony) and the Product Manager conducts them to make that sweet music. The Project Manager is more akin to a stage manager – the person who books the venue, makes sure everyone has their instruments, and that everyone gets to the stage before the show begins.

The show can’t go on without either of these roles, but you couldn’t say that they do the same job!

The Big Mistake Made By Companies: Ignoring a Big Strategic Asset

Here’s the kicker. When companies ignore their Product Managers, and given them nothing but budget allocation and timelines to work on, they’re missing out on a key strategic asset.

A Project Manager’s time to shine is once everything has already been defined. They take the requirements and the goals and find a way to make them into a reality, working alongside the Product Management teams to build a great digital product.

When companies treat their Product Managers like Project Managers, they’re missing out on everything that happens before this point.

For many in product, the most exciting part of the job is the discovery phase. At this point, you get to know your users, figure out what their problems are, and start testing out different ways to solve those problems. It’s a time for great creativity, but also great strategy.

person on top of mountain near body of water

And yet, many junior Product Managers are left out of this process, and left with only Project Management tasks.

Why does this happen exactly? It could be down to shifting priorities and quick pivots in younger companies who haven’t quite figured out what their needs are yet. Mostly it’s down to a lack of understanding of what a Product Manager is.

Of course, Product Managers aren’t the only strategic thinkers in an organization! Great teams are filled with them, not least of all the engineering team who are a great source of innovation.

But Product Managers are the keepers of user knowledge, and sit at the intersection of business, tech, and design. To have one in your back pocket and not use them is an incredible waste of talent.

You might also be interested in: The Product Manager’s Role in Digital Transformation

Community Talk: Have You Ever Been Confused With a Project Manager?

Don’t just take our word for it! We asked our community on Facebook to weigh in,

“Anytime this happens, I pause whatever meeting or side convo I’m in and calmly explain for 5-10 minutes the difference between project and product managers. Do this enough times, and people will make sure to get it right. It’s obnoxious but it works.”

This is actually a pretty effective way of both making your position as a PRODUCT Manager clear, and educating the other people in your org about the discipline. This is especially important if the confusion keeps happening with people you have to directly work with in a weekly basis.

“As a Product Manager you always do Project Manager type stuff. I would say 30% of the job is of a Project Manager…communicating to stakeholders, project risk assessment, helping with project timeline, helping run sprints, scheduling meetings, etc.”

“I usually say, “while there are some overlaps between product and project management, each adds different value.”

“Yep. [It’s] why I had to quit product management for a while. [It was] all I ended up doing.”

What To Do If Your Company Thinks You’re a Project Manager

Now we know what a waste of skills it is for companies to waste their Product Managers, it’s time to think about what professionals can do when they realize

  1. Apply for the right jobs: Don’t just apply for anything that calls itself a Product Management role. Get very familiar with what typical job requirements are for PM roles, and be sure that you’re actually applying for the right job. This is especially important if you’re applying to a smaller company. (Places like Google and Apple know what a Product Manager is!)
  2. Speak up: Most jobs have a probation period, and this isn’t just so the company can assess your fit for the role, it’s also for you. If you find after your first three months that you’ve only been given Project Manager tasks, you’re within your right to raise your concerns.
  3. Be proactive: Find ways to flex your Product Management muscles. If you’ve got the title, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take on the appropriate tasks. If there are other Product Managers at your company, confer with them.
  4. Find a new role: It’s not uncommon in this situation, if things can’t be improved, for people to leave for a new role. If you’re not able to make your job work for you, find one that will.

It can be hard when you’ve landed your very first Product Manager role, and you’re so excited to roll up your sleeves and dive in…only to find that all your doing is Project Management. Not that that’s a bad job but…it’s not the one you wanted.

Don’t let this discourage you! The right job for you is out there, and our awesome community is here to empower you to find it!

The Product economy banner

Enjoyed the article? You may like this too: