What is the difference between project management and product management?

As with the functions of product marketing and product management which, as we saw in the previous chapter, are quite distinct but overlapping, project management and product management functions are also quite distinct, but they also have a lot in common.

Before talking about the difference between these functions, we need to make clear the difference between project and product. I will turn to Wikipedia once again:

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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project)

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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Product_(business))

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

See the table below for the main differences between project and product:

Clearly defined beginning, middle, and end.The beginning and middle are identifiable, but the end is not.
Focus on delivery with a well-defined path.Focus on results with a well-defined objective.
Closed scope defined during planning.Testing and validation of ideas lead the way.
May work in predictable scenarios.Suitable for volatile scenarios and contexts.

To help make these differences tangible, here are some examples:

  • Locaweb: before having its own data center, Locaweb placed its servers in Embratel’s data center. In 2006, Locaweb decided to invest in its own data center, which was clearly a project. In fact, two projects, the project to build their own data center and the project to migrate the servers that were at Embratel to their own data center. Locaweb’s products (Site Hosting, Email Marketing, Virtual Store, etc.) are clearly products.
  • Building: The construction of a building, from its conception to the delivery of the keys, is a project with well-defined phases. On the other hand, after the keys are handed over to the buyers, we can look at a building as a product. People will live in the building, some apartments will be rented, others will be sold, there will be renovations, condominium management, and so on.
  • Marriage: the decision to get married and the entire wedding process is clearly a project, with the wedding ceremony, party, and honeymoon. After the honeymoon is over, and married life begins, we must look at marriage as a product, married life, children and grandchildren, the family, and family life.

So, managing projects and products are two distinct functions?

Yes. While one manages a project, her concern is with the process and everything that surrounds it, ie if it is on time, has everything that is needed and is being done with the expected quality.

On the other hand, when building a product, the main concern is to ensure that it solves a problem of the customer to whom it is intended, and meets the company’s objectives.

In a 2007 blog post How To Be A Good Product Manager, author Jeff Lash recalls some important points to keep in mind when thinking about project management and product management:

  1. Just as every product needs a product manager, every project needs a project manager.
  2. The fact that product managers believe they are capable of managing their own projects does not mean that they should manage their own projects.
  3. The skills, talents, and knowledge involved in project management are very different from those involved in product management.
  4. Just as it is difficult to find a person capable of doing product management and product marketing at the same time very well, it is difficult to find a person capable of doing product management and project management at the same time.
  5. Project management is not a step in the product management career, nor is product management a step in the project management career.
  6. Good project managers are as valuable as good product managers.
  7. Having a good project manager to manage your projects will help you be a better product manager.
  8. The less time a product manager spends managing projects, the more time she spends managing the product.
  9. To avoid conflicts between project management and product management, project managers, product managers, and the entire team involved in the project should agree on the goals shared by the team as much as possible.

Marty Cagan makes clear the need to separate these roles in one of his posts:

“For internet companies, it’s really important that the roles are separated. You’ll have trouble managing your releases if you don’t separate those roles, and your releases will always be late and longer than they should be.” — Marty Cagan

And how do agile methodologies view these functions?

Agile methodologies, specifically Scrum, have two clear roles in the team: one more focused on the project, the Scrum Master; and another one more product-focused, the product owner (PO):

  • Product Owner: a person responsible for maintaining the product backlog, which represents the interests of stakeholders.
  • Scrum Master: a person responsible for the Scrum process, ensuring that it is used correctly and maximizing its benefits.
  • Team: Multifunctional group of people responsible for managing themselves to develop the product.
  • Scrum Team: Product Owner, Scrum Master, and the Team.

There is an article on InfoQ written by Mark Levison in 2008 called Can Product Owner and Scrum Master be Combined? – where the theme of having a single person managing project and product is discussed. Both in the opinions that make up the text – and include testimonials from people like Mike Cohn and Ken Schwaber – as in the comments made by readers of the article, it is unanimous that, although it is possible to combine the two roles – and if the team is very small, it is even acceptable – the most recommended is that they are performed by different people.

And in real life?

All the reports seen are based on actual facts, but we know that each company has its own reality and context. So, what is better to do: leave these roles separate or combined?

Ideally, you should experiment and at some point, you will find a combination that suits you, the team you work with, and your business. Note that each group of people has its own dynamics, and what works in one group of people may not work for another.

At Locaweb, we have several teams developing different products, and each one has its own dynamics where the product manager assumes different responsibilities with respect to the team. In some, the responsibility for technical project management tasks – that is, taking care of product development, deployment and operation issues – is handled by a project manager, while at other times this responsibility is shared between the engineering leader and product manager.

On the other hand, in all teams, the product manager plays the role of project manager for all non-technical tasks. That is, she coordinates with the marketing team product communication, coordinates with legal and finance areas the product’s legal and tax requirements, supports marketing in training for sales teams and takes care of passing knowledge to the customer support team.

You must find a balance that makes sense to you, your team, and the company you work for. Be careful not to absorb all project management responsibilities. Try to share them with someone, especially the technical issues; otherwise, there will be no time left for you to manage your product.

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