Naturally when someone finds they are drifting from their job description into someone else’s, the reaction can be “this isn’t what I signed up for.” Often, product managers are asked to take on a project manager role, and vice versa.
The two roles are like peanut butter and jelly – they may get smooshed together into a sloppy mess, but many hungry executives don’t understand the finesse in the intricate balance between the two, how to optimize each or how the flavors play on each other. They’re just making a sandwich.
One of the key arguments here is to clearly define the difference between project and product management. I’ll throw mine out there – product managers are focused on what to build when, and project managers are focused on how to build it and who is going to develop or provide which parts when.
I can also share the specific priorities and tasks our company recommends as product versus project management.
- Value delivery –what to build that the market will value
- Priorities – what to build first (when) and what shouldn’t be built at all (what)
- Iterative approach – timing incremental releases (when)
- Focusing resources on the items that have the biggest impact on the business
- Maximizing resource utilization (how & who)
- Order taking
- Delivering on-time and on-budget (how & when)
- Managing the details of complex projects
Now that that’s done, I don’t really think defining it is the core of the issue. Doesn’t everyone involved know – approximately – the difference between the two roles? Would it make a difference if one company understood the roles a little different than the next? Obviously the two positions overlap enough, that there is a need to specifically distinguish them.
I have two theories on the common roots of the issue, so lets peel back the layers of the onion on the first:
- Outer layer:Product managers are frustrated they’re doing too much project management – we see that
- Skin deep:The real problem isn’t that product managers are doing project management, but that this means they aren’t doing product management –nor is anyone else.
- Teary Eyes:This entails that management doesn’t view product management as enough of a priority to preserve the product manager’s role – that’s typically why product managers get pushed into projects
- The Core:The root problem is actually that management has lost their taste for the strategic peanut butter and now want an all-jelly sandwich.
Have you ever had an all-jelly sandwich? Not very tasty.
Especially during a time of economic difficulty, organizations feel they need an “all heads down” approach to slim costs and work harder and leaner. It’s a dire mistake that can cause the company to dovetail further if they keep working even harder on the wrong products. This puts you in a tough spot, because the situation “fix” is to get management to value strategic work again.
The other, much less grandiose possibility, is simply that the organization doesn’t have a systematic hand-off method to pass off the strategic work the product manager does to a team that will execute on that strategy. In this case the product manager ends up “owning” the entire cycle because they have intimate knowledge that’s too difficult to pass off to a project manager.
Obviously as providers of collaboration software, we encounter this one a lot. And it’s a lot easier to fix than changing the CEO’s mind about the company’s strategic priorities (good luck on that one). Sometimes the only reason product managers end up “owning” the entire product lifecycle is because there’s no efficient and systematic way to hand off the product to an execution team.
Create a systematic hand off process with:
- A clear point in time where the product gets handed off
- A consistent delivery format
- A single system of record that enables collaboration and ensures tight alignment
- Clear and organized next-step instructions