In the early days of this blog, I started writing a series of articles on what Product Management is, and what it is not, according to my experience. There’s a draft I initiated back then that I thought would be uninteresting. I’m pretty surprised that I’m now writing it, but after seeing some discussions about it in some product management communities, I felt it was time.
Product Management and Project Management are two very different things
Both can pertain to software development. But they apply to very different situations. Usually, you’d need a Project Management on a “project”. That is, something that has a start date, and an end date. A product surely has an inception date, but its end is usually not foreseen. A product usually evolves over time, adding, adjusting or removing features to improve its relevance to users, and its market fit performance. At least, it requires some maintenance.
This means very different paradigms.
Where a project manager can be designated as accountable for the delivery date, the resources, and the budget, this responsibility will be shared amongst multiple actors within a product organization. We often talk about the duality between “product” and “engineering”, so I’ll tackle this one first, but it goes the same way with other departments.
Sharing responsibilities with engineering
A quick reminder: to bring a product to the market, there’s work to do on the “Why”, the “What, and the “How”. The Why is clearly the responsibility of Product Management. The How (in the software world) is clearly the responsibility of Engineering. The What should be a negotiation between Product and Engineering.
This highlights that Product Management cannot be accountable for all deadlines, resources, and budgets. As the How is entirely under the responsibility of engineering, it is up to such teams to determine which resources and funding they need. They can (should) of course bring such considerations in the negotiations of the What. Still, ultimately, product management should stick to empowering them with enough information so that they can have relevant estimates.
Sharing responsibilities with all other teams
In the same perspective, product management collaborates for instance with marketing and sales for go-to-market strategies and tactics.
I haven’t heard of teams making product managers accountable for the sales pipeline, or events management (unless they cover those functions as well in small start-ups – yes, I did). Fortunately.
Product Management is there to support those teams. Feed them with the right content, information, and training. And each of those teams then has its own calendar and objectives.
If this is easier to grasp, it should be seen as exactly similar to how product and engineering collaborate.
Product Management is about enabling and empowering
Does a Product Manager need project management skills? I’d strongly recommend so, especially in growing product teams. But it’s “just” some of the skills in the required skill set. It surely will help the PM organize their own work, communication, and reporting to any stakeholder. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe Product Managers are “better” than Project Managers in any way. It’s different jobs.
Product Managers are listeners. They’re enablers. If I had to use a metaphor, I’d say they’re closer to being composers, whereas project managers are probably closer to orchestra masters.
And yes, some people have the skills for both roles.