What’s the difference between product and project?

I already wrote about the difference between product management and project management but I believe there’s room to go a bit deeper on the differences between product and project. So, a quick remembering of the definitions of product and project:

Project

A project in business and science is usually defined as a collaborative venture, often involving research or design, that is carefully designed to achieve a particular goal.

Source: Wikipedia

Product

The term product is defined as “something produced by work or effort” or as “the result of an act or process” and has its origin in the Latin verb produce(re), ‘make exist’.

Source: Wikipedia

That is, while the project is a process with a beginning, and an end; the product is the result of a process.

Product and project differences

The above definitions can be expanded to help understand a bit more the differences:

  • While in a project we focus on the delivery with a well defined path, in a product we focus on the result with well defined objectives.
  • While in a project we have a clearly defined scope during the planning, in a product we use tests and idea validation to define next steps.
  • While a project approach may work in predictable situations, a product approach is useful in more volatile contexts.
  • While a project has clear and well defined end, a product is not designed to have a finite end in the foreseeble future.

To help us better understand these differences, I’ll provide one example from the tech world and two analogies from our daily lives.

  • At Locaweb, from the very beginning to around 2007 we used third-party Data Center services to host all of our services. As we grew, it made more sense to build our own data center and move our servers to this new data center, where we had better control and lowered costs. Building Locaweb’s own data center and moving all the servers to this data center can be easily identified as a project. On the other hand, all Locaweb services (Hosting, E-mail, eCommerce, etc.) can and must be managed as products. Even the data center, after being ready, was (and is) managed as a product.

And now the two analogies from our daily lives to help illustrate the difference between project and product::

  • A new apartment building construction is typically a project, including all the planning needed not only to build the building but also to sell all its apartment units. On the other hand, as soon as the building is ready for use and families move into their new apartments comes a phase where we can view the building as a product: apartment maintenance, condo management, renting, acquisition.
  • When two people get married, it’s easy also to see a project and a product. The marriage ceremony, party, honeymoon, moving in together, all of these events must be managed as projects. On the other hand, your daily life with your marriage partner, living together, growing a family, having children, grandchildren can be seen as a product.

Finite and infinite games

Simon Sinek, author of “Start with Why” and “Leaders Eat Last”, launched in 2019 a very interesting book called “The Infinite Game” where he built on top of the argument from the classic book “Finite and Infinite Games”, by James P. Carse, an American academic who was Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at New York University. In his book, Carse explains that while a finite game has an end and a clear winner, like sports, politics, and war, infinite games, like our life, cities, countries, carreer, are those activities that has no clear and defined end and not necessarily a winner. According to Carse:

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Sinek “started to see that many of the struggles that organizations face exist simply because their leaders were playing with a finite mindset in a game that has no end. The leaders who embrace an infinite mindset, in stark contrast, build stronger, more innovative, more inspiring organizations.”

It’s easy to see that projects are finite games while products are infinite games.

When I’m asked about the difference between a project and a product, I’ve been using the two analogies above, apartment building and marriage to help illustrate these concepts, with good feedback. Hopefully now that I was able to write down these concepts and analogies, they can help more people.

Digital Product Management Books

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