Over the years, professional roles and titles in project management have gone beyond the basic title of Project Manager. Despite the rise in popularity and increasing understanding of project management methodologies including agile, these titles are often mixed up.
For instance, the titles of Project Manager, Product Manager, and Product Owner are more often used interchangeably. So, what is the difference between a Project Manager, a Product Manager and a Product Owner?
All of these roles are created to manage and supervise projects from start to finish, right? Yes, albeit in slightly different ways.
Product Owner vs. Product Manager vs. Project Manager Compared
To understand the roles more clearly and be able to differentiate between them, let’s dig deeper into the set of responsibilities each role actually embodies.
1. The Project Manager
The role of a Project Manager has been around since the very beginning. These usually lead projects following the Waterfall framework, overseeing teams and projects.
Leading a team through individual or multiple projects, a Project Manager takes control of a certain phase of a product or service e.g. a new product release. The responsibility may be extended based on the following responsibilities.
From the ideation of the project, the Project Manager needs to be on top of the game. They need to be well informed having collected required information in terms of possibilities, project threats, and optimizing resources.
In most cases, Project Managers are the decision makers. They have a major say in how the projects will be initiated, planned, monitored and delivered. In a way, it is at their discretion whether or not to involve the team in the thought process and decision making.
Organization and Detail
Project Managers are also highly responsible for the project outcome. They need to be meticulously organized and detail oriented. A slight oversee or mistake can cause them dire changes incurring cost and time wastage.
The Project Manager is a central source for communication between the team and stakeholders. They need to be consistently in touch with the teams as well as the customers. It mostly comes down to Project Managers to keep teams motivated and stakeholders happy.
As with all decision making, Project Managers also need to be on the look-out for potential conflicts and have plans established to tackle them.
Project Managers need to continuously review and regulate team progress and performance. They need to track the project to ensure it is on schedule and does not encounter any potential roadblocks.
Project Managers finalize the projects in every aspect. This includes the project deliverable, payment processing and project closure.
2. The Product Manager
Contrary to a project, that can comprise a temporary slot in time, a product itself is more long term. In essence, product management revolves around the product, i.e. anything that can be offered to a market to solve an issue or cater to a need (or want).
The role of a Product Manager is responsible for a product’s success through the whole product lifecycle. Focusing on the “what” more than the “how”, a Product Manager holds a high-level view and steers the growth and progress of the product.
Here is how a Product Manager manages a product:
In order to start with any product or service, the Product Manager needs to gather details about the driving need for the product and the target customers it will benefit.
Identifying Issues and Opportunities
To design and promote a product, the Product Manager needs to be well aware of the issues driving the need for the product.
In order to understand how to serve it better, the Product Manager determines the problems and how to bring potential opportunities for the product in question.
Setting Priorities and Strategy
Once the issues and opportunities are laid down, the Product Manager needs to make their pick. Now is the time to develop a strategy to work with the information and resources at hand.
This means deciding which of the issues are more important and must be covered by the product.
This also entails determining which features of a product to focus on more creating a competitive edge.
Since product management is a long term process, it is only but natural to create a roadmap – a route the product/service needs to follow through its evolution.
It is critically important for a Product Manager to be aware of the rising trends, potential competitors and changes in the market for such long term planning.
Once the roadmap is defined or while it is in the process, the Product Manager starts working with various teams to get the product started. This includes design, marketing, sales, manufacturing, customer support and whichever team or external clients may be involved.
A Product Manager may also collaborate with external resources for parts of a product.
Being a repetitive process, a Product Manager works with project managers closely to help complete various phases for a product or service. Marty Cagan is the author of the book “Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love”. In this book, Cagan explains the product manager’s role in detail.
3. The Product Owner
The role of Product Owner came into being after the advent of agile project management. Though similar to Project Manager in many ways, the PO works relatively more in coordination with the entire agile team. This means the Scrum Master, the development team, as well as the stakeholders involved.
Here is how the Product Owner gets work done:
The Product Owner is responsible for the end result in a project. However, instead of defining straight up rules and tasks to complete, s/he carries out the planning through team discussions.
After discussing the important elements of a project, the Product Owner devises a set of sprints with backlogs encompassing stories for task completion.
The Product Owner works closely with the team and Scrum Master and monitors the progress daily through Scrum meetings. The Product Owner assigns the tasks to be done by team members and the team is answerable to the Product Owner.
A significant part of working in an agile team is to practically monitor the feasibility and practicability of the tasks assigned. If any task seems to be incurring more hurdles than results, the Product Owner can choose to reposition or eliminate it altogether. This calls for continuous improvisation along the way.
Unlike the Project Manager who is responsible for the communication between the team and customers, in agile the team and customers can collaborate together.
Though there is a Scrum Master to facilitate the process, the initial meeting, the weekly Scrum or meetings after a Sprint ends requires everyone to sit together for a discussion.
This discussion involves the Product Owner, Scrum Master, the development team and the customers. Everyone can offer suggestions, reveal roadblocks and shed light on the progress.
At the end of a project, the Product Owner can present the deliverable to the customer along with the entire team. Instead of bearing the entire responsibility, the customer can discuss the required changes with the entire team or accept the deliverable altogether.
Tips from the Experts
Who knows better than the experts themselves? Check out what project management professionals have to say to understand the concepts better.
Talking about Project Managers, Jeff Sutherland, one of the inventors of the Scrum software development process, comments:
Scrum doesn’t have Project Managers. Instead, the team is empowered. They’re responsible for the outcome, and they can manage themselves. The classic Project Manager ‘boss’ of the team isn’t needed in Scrum.
Roman Pichler is an expert in Agile Product Management training and is a certified Scrum Master. Pichler considers the Product Owner is similar to an agile product manager; someone who looks after a product for an extended period of time and is responsible for achieving product success.
Maja Janowska, an independent business owner at Red Cat Studio and process manager/scrum master at Brain Hub writes:
Modern Project Manager is a position that stems from military contract control. The success it led to, impacted how the role is perceived in various types of projects, entailing that a Project Manager naturally thrives in structured, straightforward environments, such as organizations working with Waterfall method.
The Product Owner role is a much younger one, born from the Agile approach. That gives a good Product Owner an advantage in flexible and complex systems. He is used to acting based on changing conditions and current requirements, instead of set goals and long-term plans.
Andrei Țiț, CX & Product Marketing at Paymo states:
The product manager sets the vision for the product that needs to be built, gathers requirements, and prioritizes them, while the project manager acts upon this vision and makes sure that it is executed on time and on budget. Complementary roles indeed, but distinct at the same time.
There are multiple perspectives on the roles in project management. How would you define the difference between the Product Owner vs. Product Manager vs. Project Manager? Join the discussion in the comments below.
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Nice article, Steve! You explained the differences very well. But I’d like to add that these three often overlap, and sometimes it’s even one person performing all three roles. For example, in our startup our CEO pretty much does all three roles. I’ve touched on this topic as well in one of my recent projects, it’s a product management framework: https://startinfinity.com/product-management-framework If you’d like to take a look, would appreciate your thoughts.
I will look into it over the weekend , Jovana
Thank you Steve, I appreciate it.