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

Over the last 10 years of my career I’ve worked in product development, mostly as a Product Manager, but in some instances as a Project Manager as well. I’ve also had the unique experience of being a Product Manager building digital products for Project Managers.

I’ve been asked many times what the difference is between Product and Project Management, and while the difference in responsibilities is often described as Strategic versus Tactical, the two roles also share some overlap in their areas of responsibility. One of these shared responsibilities that can make or break what is being delivered is how the two manage their stakeholder engagements.
Whether talking about a product or a project, stakeholders generally fall into two groups:

  • Those with a direct interest in the product or project
  • Those who are directly affected by its outcome

Whether you are building a building, changing how a feature works, adjusting a process, or switching CRM systems, these are the people that will sing your praises and influence the organization to perceive the end result as a resounding success, or grumble when the project ultimately doesn’t deliver what they expected. It’s worth taking the time to manage these engagements with care.
So, here’s three things from the product world that I feel can help foster better relationships with stakeholders in the Project world too.

“Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.”- Winston Churchill

Be clear when setting expectations.
Scope creep is often identified as for project failure, and it often starts with improper expectations on the part of those connected to the projects outcomes. So, from the get-go, be clear about what your project expects to achieve. If your charter is ambiguous in any way about what might be expected upon completion of the project, that’s a warning bell that should be sounded right away. Take the time to discuss the wants and needs of the stakeholders before diving into the plan, be clear about the outcomes, and make sure everyone understands what you are coming together to accomplish.

Speak their language
If you’ve ever travelled to a country where you don’t speak the native language, you’ve seen just how difficult it can be to accomplish simple things like get directions, and how quickly something can get lost in translation. The same is true in business. One of the most emphasized traits of a Product Manager is empathy. Truly understanding what those affected by your product decisions are experiencing and what problems they are trying to solve goes a long way to being able to make good decisions, and you can’t do that without taking some time to learn their lingo and learn to see the world from their point of view. Are your stakeholders in Sales? Finance? IT? Part of the leadership team? What are their concerns? What are they most interested in, and how will the outcome positively affect their departments/jobs/roles – in terms they relate to?

Tell a story
We would all like to believe that – especially in a working context – we make rational decisions. But we don’t. If you’ve done any work with a marketing team, you know just how much emotion is connected to decision making. The same is true for getting stakeholders bought into and aligned with the project objectives. Don’t stop with stating what your project is trying to achieve and how you will achieve it, complete the circle by connecting them to why this is so important. Tell the story of what the world looks like when this project is finished. Help them see themselves as part of the picture. That gives them an emotional connection with the vision of the project which, if told using their language, goes a long way towards turning your stakeholders into your supporters and allies in the delivery of your project.

Stakeholder management is important
A recent survey of nearly 11,000 projects revealed that the executive teams of the companies who had initiated those projects felt only 2.5% of these had achieved 100% success when completed. There are many reasons why. Clear communication around expectations and desired results, in language that your stakeholders understand and relate to, goes a long way to bridging that gap.

As Aristotle said: “First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.”

By Paul Taylor – Research and Product Development, Counterpart North America

To contact Paul Taylor or any other members of staff at Counterpart, go to www.counterpart.com

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