Have you ever heard certain job titles and wondered how they differ from each other? One common area of confusion is the role of a project manager compared to a product manager. They may sound similar, but there are key aspects of these positions that make them unique. At a high level, project managers are responsible for overseeing and leading projects on time while ensuring they are within scope and budget. Product managers are involved from planning to execution throughout a product’s lifecycle, and their responsibilities range from gathering customer requirements to delivering the end product. It is important to acknowledge the distinctions in their responsibilities and skill sets in order to meet the resourcing needs of any project and ensure adequate support. We interviewed two Credera team members who have experience in both roles to gain a deeper understanding of the differences in these positions.
Blakely Kemp is a manager in Credera’s Management Consulting Practice with over nine years of consulting experience in a variety of industries, including energy, retail, and airlines. In most Credera projects, she serves as a project manager.
Peter Yobo is a principal in Credera’s Management Consulting Practice and leader of the Experience Design Practice with 10 years of business and technology experience. In most Credera projects, he serves as a product manager.
Differences Between Project and Product Manager Roles
How would you describe the core job?
Blakely Kemp, Project Manager: The core job of a project manager is to be the quarterback of a project team. You’re captaining a ship and guiding the boat. You are helping keep things on track. You’re at a higher level looking down across the whole project and making sure everything is covered. The project manager is responsible for having the right resources and skill sets needed to keep that ship moving and reach that final destination safely.
Peter Yobo, Product Manager: I would define that as owning, managing, and overseeing the lifecycle of a product that brings value into a marketplace. In some cases, they create the product, too. The scope of the role depends on the size of company and methodology the company uses to build and manage products. At Google, for example, someone might build the idea and says, “This would be awesome.” But if they’re an engineer and don’t want to be a product manager, they won’t serve that role. But sometimes a product manager builds an idea.
What are your main responsibilities?
Blakely Kemp, Project Manager: The three core things you want to keep on track are time, scope, and cost. You are helping the project team stay within scope, watching for unnecessary scope creep, delivering on time and with quality, and doing that while staying within budget. You are responsible for communicating with the client when anything impacts those things, communicating with the project team when things shift, sharing the hard realities, and problem-solving with the team.
Peter Yobo, Product Manager: You have to care for the product. The product is your baby. Every product has a beginning and end to its lifecycle, and it’s the business’s objective to think through how they can keep the product alive for the longest amount of time in order for it to bring maximum value to the company. As much as a product owner needs to extend the life of a product, it is also important for them to know when to retire it. If you build a good product, that product should have a meaningful impact to the profit and loss (P&L) of the business. Ultimately, the product manager is responsible for that.
What are the core skills needed for your role?
Blakely Kemp, Project Manager: The ability to communicate both verbally and written is crucial. Not just down to your project team, but also up to your managers and stakeholders to make sure they are aware of the project’s status and decisions that have been made.
To do all of that, you must be organized. Everyone has their own method of how to stay organized. Good project managers have an organization system, whether it’s about keeping track of actions, decisions, or risks. Project managers should always be prepared to justify a decision or be able to recall past decisions that a project team member or client forgot were made. It’s critical to be diligent about your documentation and organization.
Peter Yobo, Product Manager: You have to really understand the market you're playing in to stay ahead. You need to know and be obsessed with your user to set yourself in a position to meet their needs. If you don’t know your user, and you’re not obsessed with your user, you will continue to miss the mark. You need to understand what your team can build so you’re able to deliver realistic products.
You also need to know the product you're building. For example, you can’t be a product manager in software if you don’t know how technology works at a high level. You don’t need to be a super technical person, but you need to understand why a database is important, why security is important, how login works, etc.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Blakely Kemp, Project Manager: Every day looks different, sometimes it's budget focused, depending on the time of the month (typically beginning or end of month). Other times it’s managing daily scrum and executing various tasks for the day (interviews, meetings, or deliverables).
Peter Yobo, Product Manager: As a product manager, you start your day with stand-up. The goal of a stand-up is to know how your product is doing and see if your team is on track to deliver what the users want and what the market needs. You want to know how your baby (product) is doing. Then the majority of your day is spent learning about the product—from product reviews to user interviews and executive suite meetings, you are gathering data and insights into how your product is performing and the opportunities you need to prioritize to continue to evolve the product.
What are some of the challenges you face in your position?
Blakely Kemp, Project Manager: You might be a project manager for a project with a subject matter you don’t know a ton about. You might not be the subject matter expert (SME) in that space and that can be uncomfortable, but you can still be a really good project manager. Also, because you’re the project manager, you are accountable for the project’s delivery and success, so there is pressure that comes with that. Lastly, you are working in a team, and there are challenges that come with working, leading, and keeping people on track and on time with tasks.
Peter Yobo, Product Manager: The biggest challenge a product manager will face is building a product for an ever-changing vision. When a CEO is always changing the vision for the company or pivoting on what the product needs to be without input from users or market demand, that creates a recipe for disaster. This means you never have enough time to collect statistically relevant data on your product. This usually means you will never have a fully defined product to bring to the marketplace because it will keep changing. This means the customer will not have their needs met.
What are the measures of success or key performance indicators (KPIs) in your role?
Blakely Kemp, Project Manager: There are three tenets of success in project management: on time, on budget, and within scope. For me personally, another measure of success is how the project team worked together. Was it enjoyable? Did we collaborate well? The intangible parts are also important to think about in this role. Leading well and wanting people to have fun at work are valuable because even though not all projects and work are fun, we can still create an environment that is enjoyable.
Peter Yobo, Product Manager: Is the product making a meaningful impact on the business? Is the product profitable? (Is the revenue generated greater than the cost for us to manage, nurture, and bring to market)? Does it provide a competitive advantage that justifies the investment? Unfortunately, many people measure the success of a product manager based on the roadmap and how much of the roadmap gets delivered. That’s the wrong way to do it. The true measurement should be the user’s level of satisfaction and the impact to the bottom line.
In the resource planning stage of any project, a critical step is to acknowledge the skill sets needed. For example, a project that focuses heavily on a user may require a product manager while a business optimization project needs a project manager. At Credera, we help organizations by analyzing the work and deliverables involved in a project to plan our resources accordingly.
Interested in gaining a deeper understanding of project management and product management, or are you working on staffing a project with the appropriate resources? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.