I’ve often been faced with the dilemma of shifting project managers into product management roles. In this post, we are going to talk about the qualities of both and how the differences stack up. Each have their place in an organization but if you arent careful, the wrong role can absolutely spell doom for market products.

Project Managers

Time. A project manager’s purpose is to take a list of things and get it done by a certain date. This may sound like exactly what you want but you should be cautious. Project managers have a key role in organizations. For known tasks that are business critical, without outside influences or changes, project managers keep up with assignments and verify that service projects are on schedule. The “I say, you do” approach. Distractions are common.

Product Manager

Quality. A product manager’s purpose is to take an idea and evolve that idea to align with changing business requirements, market needs and then, with quality, execute the vision through technology. Another key aspect of a product manager’s role is the ability to make critical decisions regarding the business vision. Products are never complete, it is a constant flow of information that guides product development and takes the product in different directions as the market requires. The “Focus and Finish” mentality. Keep your team focused on the priorities and complete the work. Stop the distractions.

Why it matters

Traditionally, the majority of product managers started out as project managers. Keeping time on projects, making sure everything goes to plan. As technology and market demands increased, product managers have had to do more. Consistent shifts in market requirements and shifts in company strategy to deal with competitive markets have created product roles centered on quality and decision making capabilities.

Understanding these differences is important for success. When you have competition, the ability to adjust and scale quickly is the difference between success and failure. I see these 2 roles as important but very different. It takes training to get really good at both but the training is very different.

Service vs Product

When you are a service organization, it takes a lot of people and effort to give customers solutions that are customized. In my experience, I have never seen a customer completely happy with custom applications. There are always problems, cost overruns, personality conflicts and the products are never really what you thought they would be. Project managers keep a list of requests and things just get done one by one. and as new things are added, no thought to the overall project matters, just “give the customer what they want”. Costs are so high and margins are so low that companies will cut corners and lower quality to meet deadlines.

Many people supporting many projects because they are custom. Requires tremendous employee count to support growth.

Products are built for the 85% (generally) of use cases in the market. You take an idea and you solve that problem for the 85%. Let the outliers, the remaining 15% get custom solutions. Costs will go down, you have a consistent product that can be sold out of the box. As new market requests come in, they are logged and when a majority of the market asks for a feature, it is added to the mix. The product manager listens to the market and makes the decisions on how these are implemented. There are dates that guide features but there are no deadlines. The features are built with quality, regardless of date. Most of the time, these applications are now looked at as Software-As-A-Service (SaaS).

Fewer people supporting single product because its built for a market need. Growth is built on sales and technical infrastructure.

Responsibility vs Accountability

You have responsibility for a thing, you are accountable to the business. Project managers are responsible for executing a list of things. Product managers are accountable to the business and their team. This seems so subtle but if you get nothing else from this article, let that sink in and feel what it means to be accountable. As a leader, i feel that responsibility is a burden and accountability is empowering.


Always think through your goals with your offerings. If you want to grow products at scale, you organize your offerings around the product approach. If you are focused on quick turn, customer specific projects, focus on project management. You cannot just move project managers into product roles, it is a specialized skill.