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Projects-to-Products: The Real Difference Pt 2

By Brian Nathanson posted Dec 10, 2019 05:17 PM

In my last post, I highlighted a first critical difference between project managers and product managers: the former tend to pull on the cost & schedule levers of the iron triangle, while the latter pull on the scope lever. In this post, I'll address the psychological differences of stakeholders to projects vs products and why that matters to the managers involved.

We can use an analogy to help illustrate the difference: Projects are like running a marathon while products are like participating in a league sport.

With a marathon (like a major migration project), you decide to run the race, train for it, gather supporters who provide encouragement and then, when the big day comes, you execute. When it's over, you declare victory (or defeat), then you (and your stakeholders) go back to life and on to other things. Sure, you may choose to run another race (conduct another migration), but that decision is fairly independent of this one and the way you plan and execute for each event is to treat it as a special event.

With a league sport, the first key difference is that there is the expectation of many seasons (or in the case of products, many releases). You have to plan not only for this match, but the next, and not only for this season, but the next. Along the way, you have to make sure your fans (e.g. business stakeholders) stay engaged each and every season, so you need to deliver some kind of incremental success for them. As the season (release) progresses, the game plan may change because you've got injuries (e.g. customer escalations) that disrupt your team, and changes to the game plan to put you in a better position for the season (change in direction). When the season is over, you immediately begin preparations for next season and work hard to insure both fans and players stay engaged throughout the offseason (e.g. in-between releases).

And while all of this is happening, you have multiple goals for the team as a whole, not just winning games:

  • You're trying to win the division in 2 years
  • You're trying to increase attendance in the stadium
  • You're trying to improve your TV ratings
  • You're trying to burnish your public image in the community through volunteering 

In addition to playing the games, you also want the team as a whole to hit all of these goals.

Product managers often have to balance the demands of many different goals in a way that project managers do not because projects generally tend to have more focused outcomes to achieve -- in part due to the timebox involved.

The skill sets necessary to get yourself and others fired up once for the big race is an entirely different skill set than the one necessary to get fans fired up and engaged over a long period of time. Successful product managers seek to build lasting relationships with their customers that are not as necessary for project managers that just have to finish the current transaction.

Don't get me wrong: This is not to say that project managers do not build relationships. The point is that the persistent nature of customer relationships -- for better or worse -- adds a new level of complexity for product managers that just isn't there when you move from project to project to project.

I should also point out that the pure definition of a project involves a unique undertaking that has a definite end point. If you find yourself doing similar projects with the same stakeholders over and over again, you might be a product manager even if you don't have the title.