Product Manager vs Project Manager: What separates them?

When you hear the abbreviation PM, which occupation do you think of, product manager or project manager?

If you are asking yourself, “Does it matter? They are both the same.”, then you are wrong because they have their differences.

Product and Project managers are often confused and in this article, I will quickly go through the differences.

Actually, before diving into this article, you should check a similar article of ours: Product Manager vs Product Owner – Differences and Similarities

This way you can comprehensively cover all three insanely critical occupations:

  1. Product Owner
  2. Product Manager
  3. Project Manager

Introduction

Honestly, we’re blown away by the sheer digital-Grand Canyon-sized amount of content on this subject right now. It’s jarring!

Apparently, you’re onto a pretty hot topic and there’s plenty of discussions to be had. 

How about we skip all that, what do you say?

We could save the insanely long drawn out collegiate-style conversation for another time… just stick to basics. 

And, because so many brilliant people have covered the topic, we can weave a tapestry with threads of their wisdom instead of trying to recreate the carpet.

Let’s get started. 

product vs project manager difference

Key Definitions: Product Manager vs. Project Manager

Definition of a Product Manager

There are so many places to turn to for a definition of what being a Product Manager is; what it means; what it takes, who’s the crème de la crème, and so forth. 

Sherif Mansour, writing for Atlassian, brilliantly summarizes the profession like this:

“A product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.”

An innovator. A team builder.

That said, Product Managers don’t have direct executive-level power over far too many system levers to be considered the ‘CEOs of Their Products’ (a widely-held misconception). 

Want to become a product manager? Here’s the product management career path and here is our product manager training article.

Okay, so who is? Who’s ultimately to blame for a loss, or should get the MVP after a big win?

Many would argue the entire team, but Project Managers hold many executive keys. 

Definition of a Project Manager

In her feature article for CIO, Moira Alexander published a great to-the-point definition.

“Project managers play the lead role in planning, executing, monitoring, controlling and closing projects. They are accountable for the entire project scope, project team, resources, and the success or failure of the project.”

As you’ll see in the following section, both kinds of leaders can step on each other’s toes.

They share a lot of common ground, especially when we’re looking at smaller startups vs. larger more matured corporate structures with highly-defined differences.

Confusing? Yes, a bit. But both are vital in tech. 

They can and do overlap (for example in certain leadership and management tasks), to the point some refer to them as ‘two sides of the same coin.

Primary differences have to do with control.

Project Managers are in the weeds, so to speak, while Product Managers are keeping their eyes ‘on the market,’ the consumers or users, and spending their time collaborating with core stakeholders. 

Responsibilities: Product Manager vs. Project Manager

One of the best ways to sort of getting an eagle-eye view of their responsibilities is to look at official Job Descriptions on major player websites and professional platforms.

The 280 Group is a perfect example, with 20+ years of history in their rearview, and over 75,000 customers from 120+ countries. 

Here’s their short and sweet, easy-to-digest bullet points. 

  • Define the product strategy and roadmap
  • Deliver MRDs and PRDs with prioritized features and corresponding justification
  • Work with external third parties to assess partnerships and licensing opportunities
  • Run beta and pilot programs with early-stage products and samples
  • Be an expert with respect to the competition
  • Act as a leader within the company

Now contrast that with what you’ll see in terms of Project Managers. The language density and complexity is VERY different. 

From providing regular project updates and managing contracts to assigning tasks, monitoring progress, and measuring performance…one look at GlassDoor’s breakdown of Project Management requirements is GRANULAR.

Because there’s too many to list, here’s the top five.   

  • Determine and define project scope and objectives
  • Predict resources needed for objectives, then manage them effectively and efficiently
  • Prepare a budget based on scope of work and resource requirements
  • Track project costs in order to meet budget
  • Develop and manage a detailed project schedule and work plan

Crudely speaking — one’s about communicating an inspired vision, while the other’s about taking that vision, breaking it down into achievable chunks and then working to make that happen.  

project manager vs product manager

Required Skill Sets These Positions Demand

Needless to say, both demand a serious aptitude for working in and with teams in a management sense.

If we once again turn to our previous article that was linked in the introduction, we drew upon a creative take by a talented woman named Anna Hackermon.

Let’s re-use the ones we came up with for the Product Manager and add a set for The Project Manager this time.

The Product Manager

  • A product cheerleader and core advocate.
  • A product-focused creative thinker and innovator.
  • A product-focused market researcher extraordinaire.
  • A gifted external and internal communicator.

Here is an extended and more detailed list of skills required to be a product manager.

The Project Manager

  • A gifted scheduler, calendar strategist, and maven of to do’s.
  • A ‘coach’ and ‘leadership’ type of personality who motivates.
  • A team-focused communicator and master of meetings.
  • A skilled tactician at project budgeting and allocating resources.

Common Techstack Used In These Roles

Another area where you can see their differences and similarities a bit clearer is in the most popular technological solutions used in their niche.

What is the average Product or Project Manager leveraging to improve their day-to-day and work smarter?

Answers tend to be all over the board. So, once against we’ll use the ‘north star’ basics.

Project Management Software – JIRA, Basecamp, Trello, etc.

These solutions are focused on augmenting your workplace and work habits. Drawing on CareerAddict’s 9 Key Benefits of Project Management Software, here are a few highlights. 

  • More Efficient Communication
  • Better Scheduling
  • More Efficient Task Delegation
  • File & Document Sharing & Collaboration
  • Budgeting Management

Product Management Software – Wrike, Asana, Monday.com, etc.

These solutions are focused on the deeper more defined minutiae of moving a product from conception to market release. 

  • Work-tracking, planning roadmaps, assigning tasks.  
  • Coordinating cross-team workflow-communication for smooth launches/roll-outs.
  • Feedback collection, requirements management, simplifying collaboration, and more.

Product Walkthrough & User Onboarding Software – UserGuiding

We’ll try not to boast too much, but we believe we have one of the very best, most lightweight tools in this department. Both POs and PMs find it rather useful. 

With a no-code user onboarding software such as UserGuiding, you can…

  • Build product tours in minutes with a user-friendly ‘no coding necessary’ tool.
  • Quickly show new users, both internal and external, exactly how products work. 
  • Showcase or spotlight updates; walk users through features step by step.

Wrapping Up

Most of the monstrous heavy-hitting articles covering this matter begin by looking at the differences in the two core words on the table — Project & Product. 

We saved it for last because, honestly, everything in this subject is headache-inducing after a while, and toning things down feels better.

Managing a Project and Managing a Product does blend and meld together yes, but they’re distinctly different in some paramount ways.

Hopefully, our neat 3-minute article added in some way to your understanding. Thanks for reading!


Frequently Asked Questions


👽 Who is a Project Manager?

A project manager is a person who is responsible for executing the project and tracking every aspect of it while increasing efficiency.


😎 Who is a Product Manager?

A Product Manager is someone who is job is to manage every aspect of the product from development to customer service, ensuring the product’s success.


❓What is the main difference between a Product Manager and a Project Manager?

While product managers are responsible for the progress and the overall success of a product, project managers act as executives on the project they are working on and responsible for the budget, efficiency, and roadmap.

product manager vs project manager

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Alican Bektas

Alican is the Product Manager of UserGuiding, a code-free product walkthrough software that helps teams scale user onboarding and boost user engagement.

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