The Importance of Project Management in Product Management

William Delaney

A product and project manager communicating

2020 has seen our lives personally and professionally change course! If you asked someone in 2019 to predict such a drastic shift in the world we live in, you’d be hard pressed to find a capable mind with such a large imagination.

But with the pandemic putting our world almost at a standstill, our race needed to combat it in every way it possible – not just focusing on the vaccine. Companies, families and communities became more adaptable to social situations and their surroundings than ever before.

Of course, this led to our reliance on technology becoming even more ingrained in the way we live and work. But with technology taking a prominent position at the forefront, how we work needs to adapt. Previously the majority of us had a rhythm when it came to our job, but with the circumstantial changes and increased innovation the needs for management processes have become a matter of survival.

Most companies outside the digital sectors have been impeded by the devastating effects caused by the pandemic and government upheld sanctions put in place for our own safety. This has put a drastic emphasis on companies to become more efficient, within every aspect of their organisation from resources, to budgets. Project management, which was one an informal initiative for many businesses, has become the corporate world’s answer to an internal essential service.

Focusing on the product

There are many concepts and rationales that have derived from project management, but the focus is in an administrative succession of project completion, focusing on duration and task management. However, because of new innovations within the technology space changes now can occur more frequently which invokes the need for product management: a skill set developed to oversee product and not the project. But lately these rolls have become more and more intertwined.

2020 has seen both professions be that product or project management re-route their foundational beliefs to achieve goal-oriented results. But to understand this clearly, we must identify the differences and similarities between them.

The standout differences between project and product managers.

Project management can be defined in its most basic form as an established set of methodologies that allow managers within diverse settings to efficiently organize work in a timely and budget-oriented way.

In contrast, product management, whilst also following methodologies is less rigid and focuses more on adaptations and changes such as in an agile environment. Product managers look at the plan and seek to meet targets but to drive the product to completion in a qualitative manner.

These are of course basic definitions of both project and product management, however the key thing to understand here is that project management skill sets are of course vastly more transferable than that of the product manager. This is because within the majority of departments project management can be utilised, whilst product management needs to be in a product-focused environment (given away a little by its very title.)

Another fundamental differentiator between project and product management is the need for the product manager to completely understand the product, its need and use case but most importantly, its potential consumer and how they will engage with the final product. Then they must emphasize this during production and with vested stakeholders.

This also brings the principal fact that a product manager is required to be somewhat creative and future focused, conceptualizing new features or add-ons that maintain the innovative nature and quality of the product. They must then align this with a roadmap which can be interdepartmentally used to predict financial gains or to allow for sales and marketing to address new campaign initiatives.

Being company-focused and negotiating between different departments and sectors of an organisation is more commonly recognised within a product management capacity. Project managers are focused within a select discipline or department and have less communication outside of their comfort zone.

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Bring project and product management together!

The similarities between a project manager and a product manager are quite significant, and even more-so of late. Being meticulously organised and following methodologies are at the core of both professions. Their key drivers are the same from planning and execution to communication and reporting. The successful completion of a product or project based on accurate data and future planning predicted from the same.

Being budget-oriented and cost effective might sound like a no brainer within both professions, but the approach is slightly different. Product management looks at costs from an optimization stance, how to maintain innovation in a financially pleasing manner, whilst the project manager looks at ways to be more efficient when it comes to costs based on time and resources. Over the past few years, we’ve seen these professions come together when it comes to budgetary matters like never before, to assure business financial objectives are met.

Communication is at the centre of both professions, however product professionals mainly communicate directly with their own team and in a limited capacity interdepartmentally to explain and report on initiatives. The project manager on the other hand, has a much wider scope, and usually communicates with anyone involved in the project to ensure its successful completion and to negotiate resources where needed.

Being detail-oriented and data driven is a fundamental skill set to have whether you’re a project or product professional. Being able to sieve through data and identify possible risks, plan for unforeseeable bottlenecks and report on performance are part of the everyday life of such a role.

Flexibility and stretching your adaptation muscles can be a common occurrence within both professions, as no matter how much planning you do it’s almost inevitable that something will go wrong, be it from a capacity, creative or resource perspective. The project or product manager needs to be a quick thinker and find work-arounds when such events happen.

Now let us look at how the results of 2020 have intertwined these roles even further.

As well as contributing to the recent changes within management processes, the increase in technology use in 2020 has pushed both project and product managers to become more technically proficient. Employees have had to learn new platforms that can be easily interlinked between both professions and tasks on such platforms have become diverse.

Communication is a part of every position, but pitching a product is most known to come from the product manager (where applicable). However, 2020 has seen many project managers take on the role of speaking directly with stakeholders or large groups in order to secure resources. This is a huge change in the food chain dynamic.

Understanding the market

Project managers were usually the executioners behind the screens, deep-diving into data and planning, scheduling and managing tasks. Understanding the market was never a core focus once the job was done. However, 2020 indicated that teams were pushed more to question tasks assigned and it was up to the project manager to defend decisions, understanding the consumer made this more plausible.

Resourcefulness is a common theme within project management, but 2020 saw product managers become even more resource-focused as budgets were cut and people were laid off. This saw the need for product managers to engage with resource management in order to ensure product quality and delivery.

If you’re in a product environment and looking to scale as a business – it’s essential you have a well-rounded team that can deliver a marketable product. Having both project and product professionals safeguards this path. The two roles do overlap but also have distinct differences. But just like in other areas, the two have adapted to the current situation and are proving that they can simultaneously take on whatever is thrown at them, not just as individual roles but as a team with a core purpose to deliver on what’s promised.