Project vs. Product Management

Why it matters

In my work with start-ups and innovation teams, I often find the two concepts wrapped into one and managed by the same person. Large companies avoid such practices and assign these roles to two distinct positions. As a startup leader, should you find the resources, separate the roles, or combine the two functions into a single position? My recommendation is to avoid extra costs while the budget is limited, yet follow strict rules that avoid possible damage caused by confused duties.

The difference between the two

While both roles are expected to ensure the successful development of an optimal product, there are fundamental differences in the parts assigned to each position. The Product Manager is responsible for finding and validating a close match between market needs and developed solutions. On the other hand, the project manager is the person looking for practical solutions to implementation needs, whether personnel, logistics, or budget issues. These differences are illustrated next:

As depicted above, the two roles cross each other’s line of actions, yet their view of the goals is substantially different: The Product Manager is looking to define a road map of features and releases that matches users’ needs, as he continuously studies and verifies. On the other hand, the Project Manager is not concerned with features but with implementation hurdles that may delay the project and eventually avoid successful implementation of the MVP.

Are these conflicting approaches?

Conflicts between the two positions are common and should be anticipated and managed correctly:

  • The Product Manager seeks to create the best MVP, and while omitting non-critical features, as the MVP concept requires, those selected should be complete and of high quality, or users may reject the whole idea.
  • The Project Manager is less concerned with the feature’s completeness but prefers to minimize risks and resource needs to avoid delays, budget overruns, and missed milestones.

Conflicts arise when product managers ask for additional time and resources to improve implementation, while project managers ask to compromise and adopt a more straightforward, less demanding part.

Avoiding conflicts and building a common path

Finding the correct balance between completeness of the MVP vs. missed milestones and budgets might be tricky. Experience shows that it can be achieved by conducting open and active teamwork designed to evaluate various options and ideas.

Product Managers should invest time and energy to clarify the importance of the features at risk and provide as much as possible quantitative information as two what might be the damage.

On the other hand, Project Managers should be informative and accurate about consequences, avoiding as much as possible hidden “safety margins” kept to handle the unknowns of the project.
The decision as to whether the venture is going to complete the implementation of the discussed feature or agree to postpone to a later stage should be a team decision and set the ground for continuous cooperative work.

So can the two roles be unified?

Founders of budget-constrained startups often raise this question, trying to free resources for different needs. My answer is, “Yes, it is possible, yet certain rules must be followed:

Do not confuse implementation responsibilities with product management: In many cases, you see CTOs and VP R&D assigned with one or both of these roles. Such assignment leads to an unavoidable conflict of interests, as CTOs and VP R&D often seek technological excellence rather than create a ‘minimal’ product.

The same rule applies to overall project management responsibilities: Ensure the assigned person has a broad view of the project needs to avoid missing elements that will prevent a successful launch. Implementing a working sample does not mean the marketing measures have been taken. Excessive focus on launch strategy while ignoring implementation issues yields missed milestones and confusion.

In most cases, the best scenario is to assign project and product management to a person independent of either team (R&D or marketing). Through creative teamwork, make sure non of the pitfalls of combined roles do not occur towards the desired launch.

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