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Product manager vs. project manager: What’s the difference?

Team Asana contributor imageTeam Asana
January 30th, 2024
7 min read
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A product manager focuses on product development and releases while a project manager focuses on coordinating, managing, and overseeing projects. In this article, we cover the key differences between the two roles. Learn more to determine which role is right for your team.

Curious about the difference between a product manager vs. project manager? While similar, the two roles take on very different responsibilities. 

A product manager is someone who identifies the what and why of a product. They are responsible for ensuring that all new products or features will fulfill customer needs and business objectives. A project manager, on the other hand, is someone who focuses on the how and when of a project by coordinating, managing, and overseeing projects. 

While they are two different roles, product managers and project managers overlap frequently in order to deliver a successful project. We’ll go over the key differences between product management and project management, and provide you with what you need to determine which role is right for your next launch.

What's the difference between a product and a project?

In order to understand the two roles, let’s first explore the differences between a product vs. a project: 

  • A product is a good that satisfies the needs of a particular group, also known as a target market. A product can be anything from software to jewelry, or even a service such as consulting. Each product goes through the product lifecycle, from development to market testing and, ultimately, release. 

  • A project, on the other hand, is a collection of tasks to accomplish a specific goal. Projects should have outcomes and deliverables, which can be anything from a website revamp to a new internal process. 

As you can see, there are some large differences between a product vs. a project. It can also be helpful to understand the difference between the two systems as a whole.

What is product management?

Product management aims to oversee the products being developed within an organization. This includes managing every aspect of the product lifecycle, from the analysis stage to release management

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What is project management?

Project management helps teams organize, track, and execute work within a project. This includes managing stakeholders, tasks, and progress; seeing the project through to completion; and implementing necessary tools for success. Project management also focuses on team collaboration and encourages it through the use of tools and team building games

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Product manager vs. project manager

As you can tell, a product is quite different from a project. This is the case when looking at the roles of a product manager vs. project manager as well.

[Inline illustration] Product manager vs. project manager (Infographic)

Overall, a product manager spends their time overseeing product needs. This includes coordinating with the development team, prioritizing different product launches, and creating a product strategy. 

Here’s an example of a day in the life of a product manager. 

Your day starts by troubleshooting product implementation issues and documenting them in your risk register. Once your product has been successfully completed, you connect with the project manager to suggest new product initiatives. You then double-check that your products will meet the 5% sales increase goal before moving forward. 

A project manager spends their time overseeing project needs. This includes assigning tasks, leading kickoff meetings, problem-solving to meet business goals, and executing work in order to hit project goals on time.

Here’s an example of a day in the life of a project manager. 

You’ll start the day by leading a team meeting about a new project coming down the pipeline. Once you send out meeting notes, you’ll check the progress of the current product launch. You notice it’s slightly behind based on the timeline you helped estimate. You reach out to the product manager to check in and offer support. 

Read: Program manager vs. project manager: key differences to know

What is a product manager?

A product manager’s role is strategic by nature and requires market research and big-picture thinking to be successful. It also consists of coming up with product ideas, pricing, and success metrics. This makes it similar to program management, which focuses on developing strategies to meet business goals. 

[Inline illustration] What is a product manager? (Infographic)

As a product owner, a product manager should have strategic product vision, prioritization, and customer support skills. They should also have experience owning product marketing workflows and meeting customers’ needs.

Along with these skills, it’s also important for a product owner to be able to problem-solve challenges such as product failures and tight deadlines. 

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What does a product manager do?

A product manager owns a variety of product-related tasks such as gathering product data and using it to inform new product launches. 

Problems may arise, as with any new product or project, so it’s also necessary for product managers to strategically problem solve. This can be done with the help of a change control process which helps document and track project changes.

Additional tasks a product manager oversees include:

  • Gathering customer satisfaction data: Gathering data through reviews and surveys can help lead product development and gauge product success. 

  • Creating a product roadmap: A roadmap outlines the strategy, priorities, and progress of a product over time and helps to organize deliverables.

  • Problem-solving product plan roadblocks: Roadblocks like time inefficiencies and lack of resources can hinder completion dates. 

  • Prioritizing product launches: In the case of multiple launches happening at once, product managers need to prioritize products based on revenue, success rate, and project needs. 

  • Keeping up to date with market trends and competitors: By forecasting product needs early based on market research, your organization will be set up for success. 

  • Managing a backlog of product releases: A product backlog is a log of product changes, new features, and development issues. It helps you document and communicate inconsistencies during a new release. 

The types of tasks needed to be completed will depend on the volume of product releases your organization conducts and the size of your product team. 

Challenges of being a product manager

A product manager faces many strategic product-related challenges. This is because developing and launching new products can be complex. Some of these challenges include working with various teams, tracking progress, and sourcing the necessary resources. 

Other challenges a product manager may face include:

  • Correcting product failures: If products are underperforming, it’s up to the product manager to make changes or remove the product altogether. 

  • Handling cross-departmental communication: Product launches require multiple teams to work together which makes it important to keep communication clear for all stakeholders. 

  • Sticking to a tight product launch timeframe: Product launches are complex so it’s important for product managers to stick to the schedule to prevent delays. 

  • Working with vendors to source materials: It’s the product manager’s job to communicate with vendors and source the required materials on an ongoing basis.

Even a great product manager will face similar challenges from time to time. Luckily, most have the opportunity to work alongside a project manager who can help them delegate, track, and ensure your product releases come to completion. 

What is a project manager?

A project manager is responsible for breaking down project tasks and strategic goals into actionable initiatives. This role involves coordinating, collaborating, communicating, and managing complex project dependencies and team resources. 

[Inline illustration] What is a project manager? (Infographic)

Since a project manager is ultimately responsible for hitting a project's goals, they frequently tackle responsibilities such as scoping, capacity planning, stakeholder management, and keeping the team updated through project status reports. Doing so requires the ability to overcome challenges such as meeting business objectives and problem solving project changes.

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What does a project manager do?

A project manager owns a variety of tasks related to project planning, implementation, and performance tracking. In other words, all initiatives involved in a project lifecycle and the five project management phases

Additional tasks a project manager oversees include:

  • Communicating with team members: Project managers need good communication skills in order to connect and collaborate with various teams. 

  • Implementing and owning project management tools: Project management tools help move projects forward by tracking progress and increasing visibility into who’s doing what by when. These tools are owned and managed by the project manager. 

  • Delegating and tracking project tasks: Task delegation requires assigning, tracking, and seeing tasks through to completion. 

  • Tracking strategy KPIs that contribute to business objectives: Project managers are responsible for tracking project performance and ensuring the project is on track to meet program objectives. 

  • Scoping project resources and priority: Before a project begins, project managers perform resource and priority scope analyses to determine project relevancy.

  • Leading team meetings: Scheduling and leading meetings is important for strategic planning and project scoping purposes. Depending on the complexity of the project, project managers may run project kickoffs, daily standups, or biweekly syncs. 

  • Sharing project timeline: Project managers share time forecasts through a timeline tool or Gantt chart so every team member is on the same page. This can be done using the critical path method which helps calculate timelines using a specific formula.

A project manager’s role focuses on identifying and managing processes to better organize priorities, increase efficiency, and create organizational clarity.

Read: 25 essential project management skills you need to succeed

Project manager challenges

Since project management can be a complex role, project managers face similar challenges as product managers. The difference is that project managers focus on solving project issues vs. product issues.

Some challenges a project manager may face include:

  • Owning and tracking risks: Project managers are responsible for owning a risk register in order to track and mitigate potential project risks.

  • Keeping projects on track: It’s important to track project timelines and deliverables to ensure they meet larger business objectives.

  • Working with product and program managers: Project managers should work closely with other teams to ensure consistency across various initiatives.

  • Problem solving project changes: Similar to tracking risks, project managers should track changes when they arise so stakeholders are informed. 

  • Staying up to date with market trends: Project managers should stay ahead of new tools and resources in order to streamline processes and help improve team efficiency

The challenges you face will differ depending on the size and complexity of your organization. Your project manager responsibilities may also vary depending on if you work with a program or product manager. 

The right role for your team

The right role for your team depends on the initiatives and goals your organization is looking to meet. While a project manager helps projects move forward, tracks progress, and bridges communication gaps, a product manager is needed to strategize new launches, coordinate with production and development teams, and innovate across your product portfolio. 

[Inline illustration] What roles is right for your team? (infographic)

Take a look at these example scenarios your team may be facing to determine which role is right for your team.

Scenario 1: Is your team struggling to continuously release new products and keep production moving efficiently?

Solution: A product manager can strategize new product ideas and coordinate with production and operations teams to ensure deadlines are met. 

Scenario 2: Is your team struggling to keep projects on schedule and connect about project changes and key objectives?

Solution: A project manager can oversee deliverables and allocate resources while keeping your team in the know about project plan changes.

In the case of your team struggling with both issues, adding a program manager and a project manager to your team can solve product and project issues. 

Build your strategic plan with a product or project manager

Both a product manager and a project manager can help organize initiatives, connect team members, and keep your organization moving forward. The real key is determining your most important goals and matching the right manager to those objectives. 

Plan and manage your product roadmaps and launches in one place with templates from Asana.

Free templates for product teams

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