Project and product manager roles sound similar, but they are different. It causes a lot of confusion so let’s see what they are responsible for. In short, the product manager’s goal is to deliver the product that customers will love. Things like roadmap, features, and strategy are something they are working on. A project manager is working with the team to deliver the project on time and within budget, using the roadmap and feature description created by the product manager. Both roles are , and boundaries are vague in many teams, so let’s talk about them in detail.
Strategy vs. process
The main task for the product manager is to define what a product is and prioritize its features based on the business value. It is a product manager who does customer development and interviews customers to find out what their pain points are. She then translates those pain points into feature descriptions and arranges a roadmap. Both features and roadmap need to be constantly refined so this is an ongoing work. Product manager also communicates product vision to the development team. In most of the smaller-scale teams, this role is taken by the CEO.
On the contrary, a project manager is responsible for the tactical success of the team. He translates feature descriptions into actionable requirements and manages both team state and project state. It is a project manager’s responsibility to make sure that the project plan derived from the roadmap is reasonable, that project deadline is met, and the process is well organised. Project manager ensures that the team is moving in the right direction by communicating with the team members and leading them effectively. Project managers motivate team members to ensure smooth execution of a project. In many teams, I’ve seen CTO taking this role in early days.
Features vs. requirements
A product manager is responsible for the vision of the product and creating a strategy to make that vision happen. She works on creating, cultivating and validating ideas for the product. She is someone who defines the business value to the team and describes the intent behind specific product release. All this requires having a product sense and the intuition to know when to add or remove a feature, delay a release or start alpha testing.
The project manager then takes this vision created by the product manager and translated into a timeline with a focus on execution. Rather vaguely defined features are converted to clear and actionable requirements, balancing time, budget and quality. That's no easy task because short timeline might affect the quality or small budget might dramatically increase the timeline. A project manager needs to spot risks and issues early on working with the development team so that the roadmap can be refined.
Product roadmap vs. project plan
A product roadmap is quite different from the project plan and should never be treated like that. It typically lacks any details because its goal is to communicate a project’s strategic path to reach specific goals. There are no details about the product itself and features are not well defined. Main things we would typically find on a product roadmap would be goals, key releases, and features and sometimes essential milestones.
On the other hand, a project plan is very detailed. It defines who does what and when accounting for resources and potential risks. For projects managed in an agile way, detailed plan is usually created only for few weeks ahead because the team continually learns about the project, its requirements, and issues. It includes a backlog of items prioritized by the project manager and allocated to the team members and a forecast on when the team plans to complete them.
When do you need to hire a product manager?
When you are running lean in early days you typically know what to build, especially if your team is experienced. Team members working directly with customers and doing sales and support can provide direct customer feedback to the engineering team. But at some point, there will be too many customer needs and too many features to pull you in different directions. Having someone to filter them out and prioritize will be invaluable.
You definitely don’t need a product manager to manage the team, write user stories and requirements, plan meetings and keep the team focused. It’s just not their responsibility. You also don’t need a product manager when you don’t have a product. If you’re starting and there’s no clear business model, pricing and marketing then product manager won’t help you much.
When do you need to hire a project manager?
Again, if you’re starting and have really small and experienced team, you might not want to hire a professional project manager. CEO or CTO part-time usually take this role, and it works out really well in the beginning. But the project begins to suffer as soon as the business starts to grow. It happens because of split focus. It’s hard enough to focus on funding, marketing and sales while also trying to focus on the project management.
Project manager acts as a glue holding everything together and making sure that team’s work is organized for success. If you are consistently missing deadlines, your team is losing track of time or scope creep is plaguing your project then you need a project manager.
You need a team effort to complete the project successfully and build an outstanding product your customers will buy. Roles may vary, but you need to manage the team, and you need a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve. Product and product managers or other team members wearing their hats see a project from different standpoints. When they collaborate and join their efforts to work as a team, everyone benefits.
When a project goes off-track often the only way to fix it is to go back and define how you want to manage product vision, scope, time, resources and quality. It’s better and cheaper to invest in these fundamental things upfront rather than trying to fix them in the middle of the project.