Product Management vs. Project Management: The Perils of Dual Roles

  • 28 May, 2023

Product managers, how many times have you seen this in a product manager job description?

Must be proficient in project management

Lately, I’ve been spending my time reading product manager job descriptions and come across this way more than expected. You know what I do?

Swipe left and move on.

people swiping on their phone


Because this juggling act can lead to frustration and a perpetual battle between competing needs.

Let’s dig in and explore why product managers tasked with project management responsibilities often find themselves in a state of misery.

Product management and project management priorities are different

Product managers and project managers have distinct objectives that can sometimes be at odds with each other. Product managers are primarily focused on external factors, such as understanding the market and customers’ needs, in order to develop successful products. We thrive on gaining insights from the market, conducting customer research, and adapting our product strategy accordingly. Our decisions are driven by external factors, allowing us to pivot and respond to evolving customer needs.

If you’re a project manager thinking about a career shift into product management check out the “Essential Guide to Software Product Management”.

On the other hand, project managers are internally focused, concentrating on operational requirements like ensuring the project is executed within the constraints of time, resources, and budgets. These competing needs create inherent tension, making it challenging for one person to effectively wear both hats and make decisions that satisfy both aspects.

Dual roles will keep you up at night

If you are a product manager wearing both product and project management hats you wake up every morning with an existential crisis. Should you prioritize a customer request for a new feature, even if it threatens the project timeline? Or should you compromise on customer demands to ensure project milestones are met?

These dilemmas can lead to decision paralysis, frustration, and a constant battle over which “hat” should prevail. Struggling to strike the right balance, product managers may find themselves stretched thin and unable to deliver optimal results in either role.

How do you ever get any sleep?

Can a product manager be a project manager?

As we pointed out above, these are two distinct roles within an organization. They are distinct for a reason.

Each role has its own focus and responsibilities.

While it’s possible for an individual to transition from being a product manager to a project manager, it usually involves a shift in focus and skill set (see above.) If a product manager finds that they are more interested in the operational aspects of managing projects and enjoys the hands-on coordination and execution, they may decide to pursue a career as a project manager.

However, it’s important to note that if a product manager decides to become a project manager, they will need to let go of their current product management responsibilities. Project management requires full dedication to the specific project at hand, and trying to juggle both roles simultaneously could lead to conflicts of interest, divided attention, and potential difficulties in effectively managing both the product and the project.

What specific skills distinguish a product manager from a project manager?

Specific skills that differentiate a product manager from a project manager include:

Product Manager Skills:

  • Strategic Thinking: Ability to see the big picture and set long-term vision and goals for the product.
  • Market Understanding: Deep knowledge of the market, including competitors, trends, and customer needs.
  • Customer Research: Skills in conducting and analyzing customer interviews, surveys, and feedback to inform product decisions.
  • Product Roadmapping: Creating and managing a product roadmap that aligns with business goals and user needs.
  • Data Analysis: Using data to make informed product decisions, measure performance, and identify opportunities for improvement.
  • Stakeholder Management: Ability to communicate with and influence stakeholders across different functions, including marketing, sales, and development teams.

Project Manager Skills:

  • Detailed Planning: Developing detailed project plans that outline tasks, timelines, resources, and budgets.
  • Time and Resource Management: Efficiently allocating resources and managing time to ensure project completion within constraints.
  • Risk Management: Identifying potential risks and developing mitigation strategies to keep the project on track.
  • Communication: Strong communication skills to keep all project stakeholders informed and engaged throughout the project lifecycle.
  • Problem Solving: Quickly addressing and resolving issues that arise during the project.
  • Project Execution: Focusing on the tactical aspects of executing the project plan, from initiation to closure, ensuring deliverables meet quality standards.

These skills highlight the different focuses of each role: product managers are more concerned with the what and why of the product (strategy, market fit, user needs), while project managers concentrate on the how and when (planning, execution, delivery).

How do product managers and project managers measure success?

The metrics of success for product managers and project managers reflect their distinct roles and objectives within an organization. Here’s how they differ:

Product Manager Success Metrics:

  • Market Share: The percentage of an industry’s sales that the product represents, indicating its competitiveness and customer preference.
  • Customer Satisfaction: Feedback and ratings from users, which reflect the product’s ability to meet or exceed customer expectations.
  • Product Adoption Rate: The speed and extent to which a new product is used by customers, demonstrating its market acceptance and value.
  • Revenue and Profitability: The financial performance of the product, showing its contribution to the company’s bottom line.
  • User Engagement: Metrics such as daily active users (DAUs) or monthly active users (MAUs), session length, and retention rates, indicating how engaged users are with the product.
  • Feature Utilization: How frequently and extensively users are engaging with different features of the product, highlighting its usefulness and relevance.

Project Manager Success Metrics:

  • Project Completion On Time: Finishing projects within the predetermined timeline, indicating efficient time management.
  • Project Completion Within Budget: Managing project costs effectively to stay within the allocated budget.
  • Scope Fulfillment: Delivering all project outputs as defined in the project scope, ensuring that all project goals are met.
  • Quality Standards: Achieving or exceeding the quality standards defined for the project deliverables, reflecting the project’s overall success.
  • Stakeholder Satisfaction: The level of satisfaction among stakeholders, including clients, team members, and sponsors, with the project’s outcome.
  • Risk Management: Effectiveness in identifying, mitigating, and managing risks throughout the project lifecycle.

These metrics underscore the different focuses of the two roles: product managers are evaluated on the product’s impact in the market and its ability to meet user needs, while project managers are measured on their ability to deliver projects efficiently, on time, within budget, and to the satisfaction of stakeholders.

How do companies typically structure teams to accommodate both roles?

Companies structure their teams to accommodate both product managers and project managers in a way that leverages the strengths of each role, ensuring that product strategy and project execution align effectively. Here’s a general outline of how teams are typically structured:

Separate Roles Within Cross-Functional Teams:

  • Product Management: Product managers are often part of product development teams that include designers, developers, and marketers. They focus on the product’s vision, market research, customer needs, and defining the product roadmap. The product manager works closely with all stakeholders to ensure the product meets market demands and aligns with business goals.

  • Project Management: Project managers typically oversee specific projects within the organization, which might involve new product development, software upgrades, or launching marketing campaigns. They work with cross-functional teams, including members from the product, design, development, and marketing departments, focusing on planning, timelines, resources, and execution to ensure the project’s success according to its defined scope and objectives.

Collaboration for Alignment:

  • To ensure alignment between product strategy and project execution, companies often establish regular communication and collaboration channels between product managers and project managers. This can include joint planning sessions, regular update meetings, and shared project management tools to keep both parties informed of progress, changes, and challenges.

Organizational Hierarchy and Reporting:

  • The reporting structure can vary. In some organizations, product managers and project managers report up through different lines of business—product managers might report to a Chief Product Officer or VP of Product, while project managers might report to a Chief Operations Officer or VP of Project Management. In other cases, especially in smaller organizations, both might report to the same executive, such as a Chief Technology Officer.

Project-Specific Roles:

  • In some cases, especially in smaller teams or startups, roles may overlap, with individuals taking on both product and project management responsibilities as needed. However, as companies grow, they often move towards more specialized roles to ensure both strategic product management and efficient project execution.

Agile and Scrum Frameworks:

  • Many companies adopt Agile or Scrum frameworks, where the roles and responsibilities of product managers and project managers (or Scrum Masters in Agile environments) are clearly defined yet highly collaborative. Product managers prioritize the backlog and define user stories, while Scrum Masters (a role similar to project managers in Agile) facilitate sprint planning, daily stand-ups, and retrospectives to ensure the team remains productive and focused on the sprint goals.

This structured approach allows companies to leverage the strategic insight and market focus of product managers while ensuring the tactical, day-to-day execution of projects is handled efficiently by project managers, promoting a harmonious balance between long-term product success and immediate project achievements.

How do these roles evolve in companies as they scale?

As companies scale, the roles of product managers and project managers often evolve to accommodate the growing complexity and expanding scope of operations. Here’s a look at how these roles typically adapt and change in scaling companies:

Product Managers

  • Specialization: As a company grows, product managers might specialize in certain product lines, customer segments, or stages of the product lifecycle. This allows them to maintain a deep focus and expertise in specific areas, contributing to more targeted product strategies.
  • Leadership and Strategy: Senior product management roles, such as Director of Product Management or Chief Product Officer, become more common. These roles focus on high-level product strategy, portfolio management, and cross-functional leadership to ensure alignment with the company’s strategic goals.
  • Increased Focus on Data and Metrics: With the expansion of products and markets, product managers rely more heavily on data analytics to inform decisions, track performance, and identify opportunities for growth and improvement.
  • Broader Cross-Functional Collaboration: Product managers collaborate with an increasing range of functions, including international teams, to ensure global product relevance and alignment with diverse market needs.

Project Managers

  • Project to Program Management: Project managers may transition into program managers, overseeing multiple related projects that contribute to a strategic objective. This shift requires a broader perspective and the ability to manage interdependencies between projects.
  • Emphasis on Governance and Risk Management: As projects become more complex and impactful, project managers focus more on governance, compliance, risk management, and ensuring projects align with strategic business goals.
  • Agile and Scrum Adoption: Companies often adopt or deepen their commitment to Agile methodologies as they scale. Project managers or Scrum Masters play a key role in facilitating Agile practices, fostering team autonomy, and ensuring continuous delivery and improvement.
  • Expansion into Change Management: Project managers increasingly take on change management responsibilities, helping teams and the organization adapt to new processes, technologies, and strategies introduced by scaling projects.

Both Roles

  • Increased Autonomy and Decision-Making: Both product and project managers gain greater autonomy in their roles, making strategic decisions with broader impact on the company’s direction and success.
  • More Strategic Involvement: They are more involved in strategic planning and decision-making processes, contributing insights from their respective areas of expertise to guide company strategy.
  • Global and Remote Team Management: With company expansion, both roles may involve managing or collaborating with global and remote teams, necessitating strong communication skills and cultural sensitivity.
  • Continuous Learning and Adaptation: As the business environment becomes more complex, continuous learning becomes crucial for both roles to stay abreast of industry trends, methodologies, and best practices.

The evolution of these roles in scaling companies reflects the need to balance deep specialization with broad strategic oversight, ensuring that both product development and project execution align with the company’s growing ambitions and changing market dynamics.


Product managers who are tasked with project management responsibilities often find themselves in a challenging predicament. The clash between external and internal focus, along with the competing needs of product and project management, can result in a perpetual state of misery. Recognizing the inherent conflicts and understanding the limitations of wearing both hats simultaneously is crucial for maintaining sanity and achieving success. By acknowledging these challenges, organizations can provide the necessary support and structure to enable product managers to focus on their core responsibilities while ensuring effective project management through dedicated project managers.

Does your organization expect product managers and project managers to be the same person, let me help you untangle that..

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