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Projects-to-Products: The Real Difference Pt 1

By Brian Nathanson posted Dec 10, 2019 05:16 PM

I've made over 2 dozen blog posts already, but I don't think I've addressed the key question that's probably on your mind: What's the real difference between project management and product management anyway?

Addressing that question is - on some level - the point of this blog's existence, so it'll take months if not years to arrive at a final answer, but I think I can highlight (in this post and the next) 2 critical differences that illustrate why making the transition is not just about changing people's titles.

First up is the difference in the way that project managers and product managers address complexity and potential overruns.

Consider the following example: Our organization, Acme Corporation, has decided to add social login capabilities to our main shopping site. There are 3 big players in social login - Google, Amazon, and Facebook - so we plan to enable all three within the next 3 month development cycle. After 30 days, it becomes obvious the job is bigger than originally expected and it will not be possible with the current constraints to address all 3 platforms.

What happens next is a key illustration of the difference between these two disciplines:
  • A project manager would typically write up a change request that either asks for more time and/or more resources to finish all 3 platforms. While it's possible that a project manager would consider a scope change to descope one of the platforms, it is far more common to pull on the cost and time dimensions of the iron triangle -- mainly because projects are what they are --> a single chance to accomplish whatever has been requested.
  • A product manager, on the other hand, generally only has the scope lever to move but also has the benefit of subsequent releases (e.g. chances to accomplish the goal). Sure, you might be able to supplement with contractors to get more scope, but much like the scope change for the project manager, that's an exception rather than the rule (for a variety of reasons). As a result, the product manager is much more likely to pick 2 of the 3 platforms to proceed with in the next 90 days. Then -- and here's the critical part -- the product manager will now work to convince stakeholders that the 2 that will be delivered are the best choices out of the the 3 (MVP) and that the 3rd will be delivered next release (if ever).

This act of "selling" stakeholders on changes in scope within a particular timeframe is a constant reality for the product manager. Thus, a keen understanding of product marketing principles -- as well as what drives your customers -- is critical for success. We're still only getting 2 of the 3 things we wanted within the next 90 days; the art of product management is making that OK as part of the broader plan (roadmap).

This psychological aspect relates to the second key difference between product management and project management that I will cover in my next post.