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Product Manager vs. Project Manager: What Do They Do?

Learn the difference between a product and project manager, and the benefits to implementing both product and project management.

Motion Blog
at Motion
Nov 14, 2023
Table of contents

Are you coasting on your product or service that hasn't changed in years? Do you envision changes that your product or service might need to increase your bottom line?

Or have you ever put out a product that you thought would be successful, but found your competitor put out a similar product with features that were more popular with your target customer?

It might be time to consider product management tools and techniques to develop a product strategy.

But do you know the differences between product and project management? Or the difference between what product and project managers do? Do you need to consider both for your business?

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • Product management and project management: what’s the difference?
  • Benefits of product management
  • Benefits of project management
  • Product manager and project manager: how do they differ?
  • What you can steal from product management for your projects
  • What you can steal from project management for your projects
  • Why use software for your product and project management?

Product management and project management: what’s the difference?

What is product management?

To understand what product management is, first, let’s look at what a product is. A product is a good or service.

Products do not have a finite timeline. Products can be developed and improved over many years. Think about things you use daily and how they’ve changed over the years. For example, the car you drive has improvements such as better fuel economy and safety features than cars from decades ago. Car companies are working on more environmentally friendly options such as hybrid and electric vehicles instead of gas-powered ones.

These improvements are where product management comes in. Product management involves performing continuous research and development to improve products. A product manager is responsible for the product vision and the product roadmap. Product managers research market trends and competitors and develop a strategic plan.

Let’s take a company that creates apps as a product. Suppose the company develops apps library patrons use to request and pick up materials. The product strategy includes keeping up-to-date on market trends. The library app will be updated as needs change in the library world. Delivery of library materials to patrons without transportation may become a market need. Product management would define what updates should be made to accomplish a delivery option.

Besides improving existing products, product management involves developing new products as needs change. For example, product management for our library app team might find an opportunity to expand their services to a different market. The technology in their library app might be helpful for other places that offer pickup of items, such as stores or restaurants.

Benefits of product management

Let's take a look at some benefits of successful product management.

A list of six benefits of product management

‎When a product team understands the market and what customers are looking for, they spend their time developing relevant products and services. When done right, the business will hit goals like sales targets more easily.

Using our library app example, if the team assumes that the app is straightforward and doesn't require customer input, they might miss opportunities to meet customer needs.

For example, they might not realize that the library has issues with patrons not paying fines and that the app should block users from additional requests if their fines exceed a certain amount. They might also discover that the library would like to allow users to pay fines through the app. If patrons use curbside pickup, they may never come into the library to physically pay a fine.

The development team in our example library app is excellent at programming, but they don't know the ins and outs of the library business. Product managers can lay out business expectations to keep them focused on their coding so they know what's expected. For example, what functionality is needed around fines?

When product managers take a customer-first approach and deliver, customer satisfaction stands to increase. In our example, librarians will likely be happy if fines are paid through the app.

What is project management?

To understand what project management is, let's first look at what a project is. A project is a process with a beginning and end to produce a definitive result. A successful project results in a product or service (or updates to those).

As products are developed, new projects are created. Project management involves planning and organizing the resources needed to complete a project.

Project management on our library app involves managing the phases (and tasks) to create the app: gathering requirements, designing, developing, risk management, testing, and releasing the app.

There might be an initial project to get the app off the ground that allows users to search a catalog, request materials, and receive notifications that materials are available for pickup. Project management ensures the project is done per requirements while sticking to the agreed-upon schedule and budget.

Benefits of project management

Project management offers many benefits to keep your projects moving forward.

Effective communication is key to successful project management. When project managers communicate with stakeholders and customers (from the start), project deliverables are more likely to meet customer expectations.

Resource management ensures the right resources based on skill set and availability are assigned to projects. When done well, projects tend to stay on schedule.

Project managers must also watch costs to ensure projects stay on budget and track and mitigate risks to keep projects from going off track.

This project planning and tracking enables the project team to focus on what they do best: doing the work.

A list of six benefits of project management

‎Product manager vs project manager: key differences

A day in the life of a product manager

Let's go back to our example of the library application.

A product manager would do research into the market before product development begins. They'd look at what apps already exist for library applications and what features they have.

They'd meet with providers - for example, a librarian - to review challenges that the app could help with. They might ask a librarian:

  • What features are you looking for in a library app to make your job easier?
  • Have your patrons expressed frustration with missing features from the app?

Product managers also might develop a survey for library customers to learn what features they'd like. For example, a mom with young kids might love a curbside option to pick up books. Other patrons may prefer to come in and browse other materials and want their materials available on a pickup shelf.

Product managers are then responsible for communicating the product vision to stakeholders and the product team working on the product. Keeping everyone on the same page ensures a better quality product.

A day in the life of a project manager

A project manager, on the other hand, is responsible for leading cross-functional teams in bringing product ideas to fruition, on time and within budget.

To get a project off the ground, a project manager works with clients and stakeholders to define the project scope, and the budget and develop plans to accomplish the project.

Once project plans are in place, a project manager spends a lot of time tracking, course-correcting (if necessary), and reporting on the work.

For example, if our library app is expected to be in QA in two days, the project manager might find out in a daily stand-up that a critical task is running late. A junior developer is having trouble getting the fine functionality in the library app to work. The project manager might ask a senior developer to help.

During project execution, the project manager will also track and manage project risks based on a risk mitigation plan developed during planning.

A list of differences between product and project managers in two boxes side by side

‎Project managers are also responsible for communications around the progress (and issues) of the projects, including regular status updates to the team, stakeholders, and the customer.

What you can steal from product and project managers for your projects

Stakeholder and customer management

Building and maintaining good relationships with stakeholders and customers is critical for product and project management.

Stakeholder management is understanding key stakeholder needs and managing their expectations. As part of that, product and project managers determine what communication method the stakeholders prefer (meetings, e-mailed updates, or visual updates such as a Gantt chart).

Customer management involves managing relationships with current customers (and finding new customers). A great way to improve your product is to have regular contact with your customer base. If you are just starting out and have a small customer base, talking directly to customers might be manageable. As your business grows, sending surveys to customers to find out what they are looking for and analyzing the results might be more realistic.

Open lines of communication

Make sure you keep the lines of communication open with customers, stakeholders, and the project team. Don’t work in a silo. The more input customers have throughout your process, the more likely you are to deliver a quality product.

For example, showing the customers prototypes of the library app (or giving them demos throughout the development process) allows them to give feedback before the final app is finalized.

Encourage and manage the flow of information

Information (data) is the lifeblood of products and projects.

Artifacts like project documentation and meeting notes should be readily available to the entire team. Updates should be distributed promptly.

For example, if our project manager has an update to the project scope, they should distribute it to everyone, including the team and stakeholders, as soon as possible so they know about the change.

Why use software for your product and project management?

Both product management and project management have many components to keep track of. Project management software can help others keep track of items.

Document management

No one wants to dig through mountains of documents and emails to find meeting notes about the project scope. Consider using software that allows you to store and share documents in one central location and is easily searched.

In-app collaboration

In addition to storing documents in a central repository, it's even better to attach those documents to their corresponding tasks (and then collaborate on those directly in the app).

Our product team might have a question for the business analyst about the requirements of our library app project. Parts about curbside pickup functionality are unclear. If the business analyst (BA), the QA team, and developers collaborated "in-app," not only would they save valuable time, but the dialogue would be available for future reference.

Task Tracking

Product and project managers are always concerned if the work is on schedule.

Product and project management software makes it easy to see the status of tasks in various ways (views), such as Kanban boards and list views.

Even better, consider software that'll proactively alert you if a task is in jeopardy of not meeting its deadline. The sooner you know about an issue, the sooner you can work to resolve it.

Use Motion to manage projects and products

Now that you understand (and can steal from) what project and product managers do, use Motion to make your life easier on both fronts.

The Motion Project Manager can be used for project planning, and the Task Manager can keep tasks organized with information about priorities and deadlines.

Motion's Intelligent Calendar automatically creates schedules for you and your cross-functional team. If Motion notes a task won't be done in time, an alert will be generated so you're aware (and can find a workaround.)

Even better, you can collaborate with team members directly in the app.

Access your free trial today.

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Written by Motion Blog