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Product management vs project management: similarities, differences, and crossover
This may sound familiar: you’re at a family gathering and a relative asks you, “so what is it you do again?” You take a deep breath in anticipation of the inevitable conversation and say, “I’m a product manager.”
Your relative looks confused for a second, then their face lights up with what seems to be a flash of insight. “Oh, yeah! I’ve worked with a PM before. They were really good at moving our project along.”
“Here we go again,” you think. The product management vs project management discussion is a familiar theme when talking about your job title and role.
Whether it’s because of the shared initials or the similar-sounding words (product and project), it’s common for people to confuse the roles of a product manager and a project manager. But there are some significant differences between product management and project management.
This guide will explain the differences between the roles, and how those differences drive the ways product managers and project managers prioritize outcomes and outputs, strategize, and work with their teams.
Key differences between product managers and project managers
While product managers and project managers often work together as part of an effective team that creates or makes changes to a product, the type of work they do on that team can be different.
To illustrate those differences, we’ll refer to the following hypothetical scenario throughout this page:
Imagine you're the product manager on a product team for an ecommerce store with a goal to increase online sales. Your product team owns the website, and that team includes you—a product manager—a project manager, a product designer, and several developers.
When your product team investigates ways to increase online sales, you identify a year-on-year (YoY) increase in abandoned shopping carts. Your team decides to tackle the product outcome of reducing the cart abandonment rate to impact the business outcome of increasing sales.
Now let’s take a look at the roles of the product manager and project manager with this example in mind:
Product managers focus on outcomes, project managers focus on outputs
How they differ
As a product manager, one of your primary roles is discovering an outcome—what problem your product needs to solve for customers and why. You'll also work with your team to identify the how, or the outputs—features of a product, for example—that’ll enable the product to solve that problem. This step is a crucial tenet of product discovery.
Project managers manage the workflow and efforts to deliver outputs. Depending on when a project manager gets involved with an initiative, they may help manage the discovery process—the why and how—but their main goal is to know what outputs are needed, and when the team should deliver them.
What that looks like
In the example introduced above, you—the product manager—and your product team focus on discovering what problems you can solve for the customer—the jobs to be done (JTBD) framework—that will drive more sales. During discovery, you find the rate of abandoned shopping carts is 20% higher than at the same time the previous year.
You then conduct customer and market research and analyze user behavior data to help you understand why so many buyers abandoned their carts in the last year and devise an action plan to reduce churn during the customer shopping journey.
Watching session recordings of customers who recently abandoned their carts, you find many drop off during the 'select delivery options' part of the checkout process. Then you study heatmaps, which give an aggregate picture of where your customers are clicking and scrolling. You discover customers are no longer finding your delivery information FAQs section, which was moved in a site-wide redesign earlier in the year.
The data suggests the increase in abandoned carts is due to a lack of transparency about delivery details, affecting customer confidence and trust or causing confusion during the checkout process—neither of which is a win for customer satisfaction. You discuss these findings with your team and decide that a good solution is to make the delivery information clearer on the checkout page, rather than relying on customers to visit a separate FAQ page.
Now that you’ve decided on a course of action, it’s the project manager’s time to shine.
The project manager ensures that your product team—whose focus is solely on implementing the required design changes to the website—is on track and following an agreed-to workflow. They direct the team towards that goal and keep an eye on the project's overall progress, taking note of any red flags in the product workflow to make sure it doesn’t hit any bottlenecks, ensuring everything remains on track.
In this case, the project manager coordinates with other involved teams to make sure changes to the site are reviewed and approved by relevant stakeholders before they go live.
This stakeholder analysis includes checking with:
Inventory and Logistics teams to confirm all the information being added to the website is correct
Marketing to check that the messaging is on-brand
Legal to make sure you’re not making any claims that might put the business in a precarious position
Without a project manager, details get missed because of factors like poor cross-team communication, and the workflow hits unexpected bottlenecks that can cause big delays, which impact productivity and the product lifecycle.
Ultimately, the product manager will measure success based on whether your initiatives result in a decrease in cart abandonment rate—the outcome.
The project manager will measure success based on whether the website is updated to include delivery times on the checkout page—the output.
Product managers set timelines, project managers manage timelines
How they differ
As a product manager, you have to consider when a solution is delivered and how delivery time impacts its value in solving a customer problem. In many cases, when you deliver a solution has a large impact on how valuable it is—both to your customers and your company.
When you’ve identified a lot of problems that are worth solving during the discovery phase, it might not always be super clear which you should prioritize on your product backlog. To make this easier, you can run a cost of delay analysis to help figure out the impact of timing on your product solutions.
Project managers understand the reason for a specific deadline, and manage the workflows to deliver a solution on that established timeline. They don’t typically define the overall timelines, but they need to understand why the timeline was set. This context helps the project manager make tradeoff decisions when it’s impossible to deliver an agreed-upon scope within a specific time frame.
What that looks like
To continue our example, you take the impending holiday season into account when addressing the abandoned carts problem and decide a solution needs to be in place before your busiest time of year. With this in mind, you determine the proposed changes to the website need to be in place by November—reversing this 20% increase in abandoned carts in time for the holidays could have a massive impact on conversion, as well as your company’s revenue.
Once this November deadline is established, the project manager can ensure all other deadlines for progress along the way (i.e. “Send proposed website copy for review by EOD Thursday”) are reflected in a clear workflow.
For instance, if the team handling deliveries needs to provide data to the product team, the project manager will ensure they have the time they need to deliver their input—keeping in mind other projects the team may be working on and other deadlines they need to hit. They might also need to allocate time for additional rounds of reviews and will likely build a buffer into the project to account for unexpected delays.
As mentioned above, the project manager will use the context behind your timeframe—in this case, the need to reduce abandoned carts in time for the busiest sales period—to make sure everybody within this workflow is aware of the need to avoid delays or cause bottlenecks. That might mean making it clear to the inventory team why the data the product team needs is critical, so they understand the need to prioritize.
Keep in mind: for issues that directly impact revenue, like the abandoned carts issue in our example, a solution needs to be found ASAP—regardless of the season.
But there will be times when a solution isn’t worth working on at all if it can’t be done within a certain timeframe.
For instance, if something is broken on your holiday offers page, but those offers end a couple of days after you’ve discovered the problem—and before your team can enact a fix—then it’s not something you want to prioritize.
Product managers manage a product on an ongoing basis, project managers manage a project with a limited lifetime
How they differ
A substantial difference between product and project managers is how long they’re involved with a particular product.
Product managers have an ongoing, overarching responsibility for a product throughout its lifecycle. You have to establish a long-term product vision and goals and continuously look for ways to improve your product to help solve customer problems. The product planning process is iterative and based on continuous learning of the product experience (PX), as well as changing and evolving user needs.
Project managers manage the workflow to make necessary product changes that keep users satisfied and increase customer delight. Each project—like the launch of a new feature or the fix of a major bug—has a definitive end date, unlike the overall product, the development of which may continue indefinitely. When that work is done, the project manager often moves on to other projects, possibly unrelated to that product.
This is an excellent example of how the two roles are both necessary and completely complementary.
Product management is about managing the entire lifecycle of a product (cradle to grave), while project management is about delivering a preset number of functionalities within a specific budget and time frame.
What that looks like
Understanding the difference here is simple in practice. Back to our example: you want to solve the abandoned carts issue before November—but this can’t be your sole focus. As a product manager, you also have your eye on what comes next and which features you want to prioritize when things calm down after the holidays. You’re thinking about the product roadmap and continually reviewing user feedback and customer experience (CX) surveys on your product to understand the direction you need to take next.
The project manager is also not solely focused on the abandoned carts issue either—they might have dozens of other projects they’re managing in parallel—but they aren’t necessarily concerned with what’s next in the roadmap. They’re focused on guiding all the projects they're overseeing to completion in line with the agreed outputs and with a more granular understanding of who is doing what—and when they need to do it. As such, project managers must excel at organizational awareness as roles and deadlines are assigned.
For instance, the project manager knows that Sharon in legal is on vacation the week after next, so Sharon's approval of the copy will need to be in before then to meet the November deadline. The project manager also has visibility that a feedback loop in marketing is holding up the workflow for your product team, so they'll give the marketing manager a nudge to remind them of the importance of the workflow and why they need to prioritize a given task with the end goal in mind.
How product managers and project managers work with their teams
Product management and project management can be quite similar in one respect: both need to work with cross-functional teams. But the way they work with those teams differs, and how they’re different is closely related to what each role sees as their ultimate goal.
As a product manager, you’ll work with your product team and collaborate with key stakeholders across the business to reach a desired outcome.
This means meetings with senior management and rounds of ideation with your team; and making data-informed, customer-centric decisions based on your understanding of the user experience (UX) and the company's overall business goals such as increased revenue, buy-in, and product adoption.
The project manager collaborates with people across the organization to manage workflows to successfully deliver required product outputs.
This means connecting with people at all levels of the business, often across entirely different teams, to make sure everyone is working on schedule and the project is kept on track.
Both require great collaborative and interpersonal skills. Let’s take a closer look at what this cross-functional collaboration is like for each role:
How product managers work with product teams
Because products are ongoing endeavors, you’ll usually find yourself working with a long-standing, stable, and dedicated product team. You’ll need to keep this team engaged long-term, and you’ll want them to be fully dedicated to the problems you’re trying to solve.
Product managers also need to work through influence and suggestion rather than authority and be willing to share decision-making with members of the product team where it makes sense.
For instance, you may have the responsibility to make value and viability decisions for your product, but you’re going to have to look to your product designer to determine whether your product is usable, and your tech lead to determine if it’s feasible to bring your product idea to life.
Pro tip: as a product manager, you need to build a shared understanding with everyone on your team about the problem you’re trying to solve for your customer.
How product managers determine and solve product problems
Product Manager Kent McDonald uses the problem statement technique to help everyone on the team clarify their understanding of the desired outcome.
To do this, get your team together and ask each person to complete these four statements individually:
The problem of…
The impact of which is…
Characteristics of a successful solution include…
Once everyone has identified their statements, ask each person to read their statement aloud. Then, ask the group to synthesize everyone’s completed statements to develop a single problem statement.
The important result of the exercise is not necessarily the problem statement, although that can be helpful. Instead, it’s the conversation that your team has to make sure that everyone has the same understanding about the problem you're trying to solve.
How project managers work with project teams
Projects are often transitory with a finite length, so project teams are often pulled together to accomplish an output—and then disband.
The project manager focuses on the tasks necessary to deliver the solution. They’re primarily concerned with managing the workflow around these tasks and establishing deadlines to deliver the project on time.
Project managers also often handle communication and collaboration with parts of the organization outside the product team—they need to manage how projects move between teams and ensure people who may not directly communicate at opposite ends of the organization are working in sync. You need to ensure people remain focused and productive in a world of remote working.
“The project manager builds trust for internal and external customers,” says Nick Anderson. “Working with all team members to identify their own deliverables, timelines, barriers, etc. it’s more tactical in nature.”
Like their product counterparts, project managers have to work through influence rather than authority, but are primarily focused on delivery, ensuring milestones in the overall project are met in line with a detailed workflow.
I've never seen a website successfully built without a project manager. Try it without one and you'll quickly see why they're so important. Without their involvement, there are simply too many individuals trying to balance too many needs, and no one person to hold key players in the process accountable to deadlines and decisions.
How Hotjar helps product managers excel in their roles
We’ve explored a variety of ways that product managers differ from project managers. If you’re on the product management path, here are some ways Hotjar can help you out—to achieve desired outcomes for your product and confidently direct project managers towards pursuing the right outputs.
When the product team in our ecommerce example wanted to identify possible reasons for the high cart abandonment rate, they used Hotjar Heatmaps to see where people spend most of their time on the site before identifying an issue with customers finding the delivery FAQ section.
Heatmaps give an aggregated view of where customers are clicking and scrolling on your site, providing quantitative data that can inform your understanding of what’s working—and what isn’t.
The product manager in our example also used Hotjar Session Recordings to see their site through the customers' eyes, watching sessions that resulted in abandoned carts to get a clear understanding of what stage of the checkout process they got to before giving up.
Used in conjunction with the quantitative data provided by heatmaps, qualitative data from recordings can help validate assumptions, enabling your team to empathize with your customers. With a user-centric mindset, you can apply conversion rate optimization (CRO) practices and make decisions based on customer needs through an accurate understanding of their experience.
We didn’t cover this in our ecommerce example, but you could also use Hotjar to set up a Feedback widget on your site to actively solicit feedback in relevant context as customers experience your product. When you give customers the opportunity to provide feedback in their own words, you gain a more accurate picture of their experience.
In our example, using the widget to get feedback on the 'select delivery options' page would have reinforced the conclusions drawn from the heatmaps and session recording data for more confident, data-backed decision-making.
Used together, these powerful tools help you cut out the guesswork and reduce assumptions in the workflow. As you democratize data across your product teams, you empower your colleagues to make customer-led decisions about the direction of your product based on actual data—not on your gut.