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Project Manager vs. Product Manager — What’s the Difference?

Robin Walters | June 11th, 2020

When AWH puts out an ad for a Product Manager as part of our new staffing initiative, we inevitably get a lot of resumes from Project Managers. Sometimes those resumes meet the requirements of product management, and sometimes they don’t. That’s because, while job skills are similar, there is a difference between project and product management. What’s the difference and how can you tell if your skills as a Project Manager will crossover into a Product Management role?

Product vs. Project Management: It’s Complicated

Let’s see if we can describe this in a decently crafted sentence or two—because it’s complicated.

The keyword to emphasize when considering the differences between product and project management is the first word in each title.

  • PRODUCT Managers do everything in their power to strategize and implement the promotion of a product. They are like the CEO of a product.
  • PROJECT Managers do everything they can to bring a project, which is a set of workflows and processes leading to a goal, in on time and under budget. They are the on-the-ground implementers of the stuff that makes the product successful.

Generally speaking, the Product Manager creates the strategies behind the successful launch or growth of a product. That could be a digital product such as an e-commerce website or a more tangible item like a new line of Doritos. (Um. Doritos.)

Project Managers support the Product Manager in the block and tackling implementation that leads to product success, however it’s defined. Product success is often gauged by sales or promotion KPIs. But success could also be defined as stakeholder buy-in of an IT integration or employee engagement during a merger or acquisition. The “product” can vary along with how you define its success. In both cases, the Product Manager obsesses over how to hit goals. The Project Manager comes up with the day-to-day steps necessary to make it happen.

(Although there is often a give and take between the two from a strategic and tactical perspective.)

See, we told you it was complicated.

What Skills Do Both Project and Product Managers Need?

What makes the two roles complex to understand is that there are so many crossover skills between the job requirements. Many of them are soft, squishy skills. For example, both roles need:

  • Communication
  • Creativity
  • EQ
  • Organization
  • Patience
  • Perseverance
  • Stress management
  • Troubleshooting

But Product Managers need leadership and management skills that help them decide what products to build to fulfill a customer or prospect need. Then they run the process of building the products from a high level.

McKinsey & Company lists what they believe are the key skills necessary in a Product Manager. It’s possible that Project Manager’s will recognize some of these skills in the roles they’ve held. They include:

  • Business acumen
  • Market orientation
  • Customer experience
  • Change management
  • Technical skills

Project Managers also may illustrate some of these same skills on a daily basis. But Project Managers spend more time in the weeds on the daily tasks. If the product is a dining room table, the Product Manager will do the market research to determine what consumers want then conceptualize the idea. The Project Manager will organize the teams that supply the materials and build the table for less cost and in less time (hopefully) than the Product Manager planned for.

How Do Project Managers Become Product Managers?

“Product management remains one of the most critical roles for any company for which software is a core growth driver.”
-McKinsey & Company

If you are a Product Manager these days, you have a place at the strategic table. Let’s emphasize that point for a second. If you send out a Project Manager’s resume to a Product Manager’s job, you should emphasize strategy experiences over block and tackling. McKinsey & Company

  • 80% participate in design
  • 90% make go-to-market decisions
  • 50% handle pricing decisions.
  • 60% also have analytical skills that let them delve into metrics to support decision-making

Product Management has evolved from what some HR teams considered a faddish tweak of the Project Management position in the digital startup world, to a real, credential career path. Now you can go to Carnegie Mellon or NYU and come out with something other than a PMP. So, it seems like the Product Management role has evolved into a career path that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says shows steady growth through 2024.

If you’re a Product Manager or a Project Manager looking to make the transition into a more strategic role, check out the AWH Product Management Recruiting and Staffing page. We are planning for post-COVID product launches around the country and would like you to join the team.