Product Manager vs. Project Manager: What’s the Difference And How Do They Work Together?
There's only such much work you can accomplish in one day. Setting boundaries for yourself and your team goes a long way toward building effective workflows, but there will always be bleed-through between job descriptions. The most susceptible positions to this crossover are product manager vs. project manager.
It makes sense. Product managers and project managers work closely together and share a lot of goals and desired outcomes. Even their names sound the same. But they go about accomplishing those goals in very different ways.
When you understand the differences between product management vs. project management, it cuts down on the potential for any confusion about redundancy between the two roles. Because that confusion can wreak havoc on your team's productivity and morale. Defining each role creates clear boundaries for both individuals and helps you refine how they work together.
What Is a Product Manager?
Product managers define product development strategy and help your team understand the core customer and business goals that guide their work. They communicate high-level ideas and concepts clearly to help your team connect with the customer. This guidance not only clarifies your company vision, but it also grounds individual team members in a deep understanding of how their work contributes to the success of your business.
Product managers are solution-driven—focused on surfacing, combining, and refining various desired outcomes to rally the team behind a shared goal.
What Do Product Managers Do?
Product managers are first and foremost researchers. They strive to gain deeper insight into your business, market, customers, and competitors. All of this research is in service to their primary goal—discerning how your team adds value to the customer experience through the development of new products and features.
That knowledge isn't locked inside a product manager's head, though. These individuals are highly skilled at documenting their findings and sharing those insights with the team. They use this documentation to justify their decisions with data and have informed conversations about various aspects of your business.
Metrics are a product manager’s best friend. They understand which product metrics matter most to your business and how to use that data to make smarter decisions for your team.
Product managers communicate high-level goals with stakeholders throughout your organization. They get feedback from these stakeholders, refine their thinking around these goals, and bring that knowledge back to the team. This consistent and clear communication ensures that every member of the team—from the developers writing code to the salespeople bringing in leads—has a concrete understanding of the value your product or service provides.
And they ensure that this value is differentiated from the competition. Product managers prioritize your product release around core metrics and company goals. They create and manage your product roadmap to communicate these timelines with the team and make adjustments to the priorities based on any new information that comes their way.
Think of your product manager as the guiding force behind your company’s evolution—the person who takes your leadership team’s long-term company goals and maps out a plan to accomplish them.
What Is a Project Manager?
Project managers manage team processes and workflows to facilitate the product development process. They break down high-level project milestones into individual tasks based on available resources and help your team execute on their work as efficiently as possible.
That means project managers are inherently process-driven—grounding product manager’s high-level goals and objectives in the daily tasks and activities. Their goal is to build frameworks for how your team thinks strategically about the way they work.
What Do Project Managers Do?
Project managers have an in-depth understanding of the workflows and processes that move projects forward at your organization. They know which teams work best under certain circumstances and help plan out the minute details of each project. Project managers work with product managers to allocate resources based on the company roadmap and overarching business goals.
Project managers are the critical point person in the planning process because they break strategic objectives up into individual tasks and communicate those tasks with the team. And they bring together stakeholders across these teams to talk through bandwidth constraints, potential bottlenecks, and anything else that could negatively impact that product experience.
Project managers also keep track of timelines and schedules to ensure that your team can pivot to new tasks if these issues arise without causing additional stress or delaying your release. The simple fact is that projects change—your ability to shift priorities as a team depends on a project manager’s deep understanding of how your team works together. They define the path forward so your team can focus on accomplishing their individual tasks.
Project managers will often help the team visualize this information via a Gantt chart or timeline, connecting back each task to the overall product plan.
Example project timeline via Asana.
As the conduit between teams, project managers are in the position to build, refine, and update processes across various stages of the product development life cycle. They document wins as well as areas of opportunity to ensure that every member of your team can execute on their daily tasks with autonomy and trust.
But that autonomy is only possible through visibility, which is why project managers also need to be master communicators. They need to share progress with product managers and other key stakeholders throughout your team while holding each individual accountable for their contributions to the overall success of your project.
Boundaries Are the Key to Working Together as a Team
There’s definitely overlap between product management and project management, so it’s easy to get caught up trying to do both at the same time—especially if you’re working for a brand-new startup or a smaller team. Setting boundaries for yourself and your colleagues ensures that every project can get off the ground smoothly without causing additional work for either type of PM.
The best product managers and project managers work in tandem. They clearly define individual goals, communicate regularly to ensure those goals haven’t changed, and delegate work according to each person’s strengths. When you divvy up responsibilities in this way, it helps both product and project managers focus on what matters most—delivering value for customers.
Building out a new product requires a considerable amount of work. Whether your team is working on a simple update to your user control panel or a complicated new feature current customers have been waiting for, both product and project managers need to provide guidance along the way. Product managers have to be willing to step back from the minutia of day-to-day task management, and project managers need to leave high-level strategic goals to their product counterparts.
When you work together in this way, it cuts down on the potential for overlap and confusion between these roles. And, more importantly, it builds trust throughout the team. Project managers can go to their product manager with important questions about the product roadmap and end goal, and product managers can quickly follow up on the progress of any project.
When so much of your company’s success depends on your ability to deliver continual value to customers with each release, this partnership will be one of your most important ones.
Don’t Let Product Manager vs. Project Manager Get in Your Way
Don't let a product manager vs. project manager mentality make it more difficult to deliver value for your customers. When product managers and project managers work together, it helps every member of the team stay connected with their work and how they solve problems for the customer. This builds empathy for customer needs throughout your team and makes working through long-term projects much less complex.