Why organizations need both product and project managers

  • April 12, 2022
Employees are discussing some point.

Companies are complex entities with different personalities, teams, priorities and methodologies. Agile, Scrum, Waterfall, Kanban and XP are all topics floating within the headspace of executives looking to keep the growth trajectory moving up and to the right. The difficulty of trying to manufacture synergy between teams operating within diametrically opposed methodologies further complicates how delivery can be achieved.

The growing trend of Agile transformation across industries forces companies into binary ways of thinking when it comes to delivering products versus projects. It’s easy to start thinking that traditional project management must be ousted in favor of a product-focused mindset, but focusing on products/outcomes shouldn’t be considered an attack on the more traditional forms of project methodologies. Companies today are highly fragmented. Teams operate at different stages of an agile transformation or do what they can to resist changes. We should examine the differences between management roles within a product-focused mindset versus a project-execution mindset. While the differences can be stark, there are opportunities to identify how the two can work together to support and enhance the overall delivery pipeline.

Projects vs. products

A product is “anything a business sells that solves a market problem or a customer’s need or desire.” Marty Cagan explains that technology products are summarized by the equation Product = Customer x Technology x Business. A successful product must address all three components. It must deliver value to the customer, ensure ROI for the business and deliver the product within the reasonable confines of the technology available.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as a temporary effort designed to deliver future value through a product, service or result. Once the product is delivered, the project is considered complete.

Role differences: product managers vs. project managers

Since it’s possible for businesses to conflate the roles of product managers and project managers, it’s important to clearly define the roles, as they aren’t interchangeable.

A product manager is highly concerned with providing value to customers by solving their problems via the product they are offering. Product managers should serve as the chief empathizer with the customer. They need to be intimately knowledgeable of the issues the customer is intent on solving. Data is a core piece of a product manager’s toolset to keep products relevant. A product’s development needs to be backed by real-world data including user surveys and feedback, product usage analytics and group or one-on-one interviews. The product manager must be obsessed with the data customers generate interacting with their products. These insights enable the business to prioritize the further delivery of value or quickly pivot to higher ROI features.

An effective product manager must know when to say no. As the face of the product for the company, it’s inevitable that competing priorities are placed within the product manager’s orbit. Executive stakeholders may aggressively bid to have their pet features in the next release. Saying no doesn’t exclude these requests indefinitely. Instead, they should be placed in the product backlog while the features that can provide the most value to customers are prioritized.

Traditionally, a project manager is chiefly concerned with the day-to-day delivery: What percentage complete is the total scope? What percentage of the budget has been used? Are there enough team members to do the work? What potential risks could hinder the project schedule? Are we aligned to achieve the business objectives? This traditional view has changed in recent years to emphasize the business needs of the project and, consequently, for the project manager to be closely aligned with that business need. While the project manager is executing to deliver the product, they must be keenly aware of the project’s potential to drift outside the stated business need. A product manager can determine the long-term strategy of a product. A project manager is deep in the ground-level tactics of how the eventual product can be delivered.

A project manager may be heavily involved in the delivery of a product and the business case driving that delivery but doesn’t have the same focus on the end product as the product manager.

Why do we need product managers?

A core benefit of incorporating product managers into your business is that they serve as a single point of responsibility for a product. Committees can negotiate away impactful features and arrive at a product with partial value, but product managers guide products and teams to deliver the highest-value features.

As the central point of responsibility, product managers can save time on development overall. They can make sure the right features are being developed, keep a team aligned to its goals and prevent them from pivoting between initiatives. Rather than relying on the whims of a single powerful stakeholder or committee, the product manager uses insights gathered from market data and customer interactions to make decisions.

Another core benefit product managers provide is having someone exist simultaneously with their head in the clouds while their feet are firmly planted on the ground. They can determine the long-term strategy of a product, but at the same time, they’re working to define the features that must be built to realize those outcomes. The business gets a manager who can determine how to provide immediate value and guarantee a steady stream of new users, sticky existing users and reduced churn.

The most impactful benefit is generating a customer-centric culture. Product managers are customer obsessed, which eventually trickles down to teams. A culture that puts the customer first empowers development teams to suggest improvements to the customer experience. They can determine creative ways to implement a feature and ensure bugs are mitigated or fixed quickly.

Why do we need project managers?

While product managers perform much of the strategic planning and document/prioritize critical features, the project manager executes on the development of those features. Most projects today cross many teams to build a new product. Project managers are key to tracking the progress of this complex work and anticipating and removing roadblocks before they affect delivery. They’re especially needed if various teams throughout the organization are operating with different project methodologies (Agile vs Waterfall) and/or within a matrixed organization.

Teams working across different project execution methodologies can produce significant dependencies and risks. Product managers may not have total visibility into the breakdown of work among teams. The project manager is there to help surface those risks and dependencies to give a full view of the project work. Just as product managers serve as the single point of authority on a product, the project manager does the same for a project.

Product and product managers complement each other

By reading blog articles on either role, one would assume it’s possible to have all the benefits of an engaged product manager and leave the project manager out of the equation. Or that it’s possible to shoehorn product management responsibilities into the role of an already busy project manager. These roles are complementary and must exist together if the business wants to deliver new products to market.

The product lifecycle begins as a new project. During this stage, it’s crucial to have a deep alignment between the two roles. Everyday businesses must make tradeoffs when it comes to what can be prioritized, built and paid for. A product manager can do all the market research and develop a backlog of high-impact features, but at the end of the day, they’re constrained by the realities of the business. Project managers help inform on those realities, enhancing the product manager’s decision-making process. As a result, the product manager can determine what’s truly a priority for the product.

Project managers provide information on the implementation to the product manager: potential or realized risks to delivery, alignment to business needs, schedule and resource constraints and budgetary constraints, among others. If the development of a new feature requires a skill set the business currently doesn’t have access to, that feature may need to be pushed to a later phase. If the budget doesn’t allow building the top five features the product manager has selected, then what is the minimum feature set that can be delivered and still make an impact on the customer? When they inform each other of these tradeoffs, the business can agree on a realistic view of what can be delivered. The exercises performed by the project manager can also reduce the burden on the product manager to think strategically and increase the time spent with the customer.

The product power of AND

One may argue that product managers and their teams should be left alone to lead and deliver, but one key KPI demonstrates a harsh reality that not only impacts the bottom line but is also fixated upon by executives: dollar spend vs dollar gained per feature. Without a product manager and project manager at the helm, product initiatives tend to land heavier on the dollar-spend side. Arguments suggest a typical project manager’s role can be further rationalized/optimized for a closer fit toward product management, but the synergies that exist between the two have the power to create a product that is forward thinking, provides exceptional value and is delivered at the lowest cost possible.

— By Zach Lindberg

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