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  4. Product management vs. project management: what’s the difference?

Product management vs. project management: what’s the difference?

PostsDesign & UX
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

August 04, 2023

Project management and product management are often used interchangeably. And it’s easy to see why. They’re both managerial positions, have similar-sounding job titles, and have the same acronym. But hold it right there! 

As similar as they may sound, they’re very different jobs, each with their own unique purposes, skill sets and methodologies. But in the face-off between product management vs. project management, what really separates these two strategic power roles? Let’s take a closer look.

What’s the difference between a product and a project?

A product is a good, service, or system that delivers value to the customer. 

It could be a tangible thing like a shoe, an intangible service like customer support, or a system like a software application. Regardless of its form, a product is something that meets a customer’s needs or wants and generates revenue or value for the business. It exists indefinitely and evolves over time through multiple iterations based on user feedback and market dynamics.

A project, on the other hand, is a temporary mission to create a unique product, service, or result. 

It has a set start and end date, and it is considered successful if it achieves its objectives within the agreed budget and time constraints. A project could involve developing a new product, improving an existing one, or setting up a new business process. However, once the project’s goals are achieved, the project ends.

Product management focuses on the entire lifecycle of a product, from concept to market to continual improvements based on user feedback and market changes. It’s an ongoing process with the aim of maximizing the product’s value to both the customer and the business.

In contrast, project management is about delivering a defined outcome within a specified timeframe and budget. The project manager’s role ends once the project is completed, unlike the product manager who oversees the product throughout its entire existence. 

Let’s unpack these in more detail.

What is product management?

Product management sits at the intersection of business, technology, and user experience. Those in the role need a deep understanding of their respective market, coupled with empathy for the user and technical acumen to guide their teams.

From apps and apparel to consultancy and construction — project management involves a strategic blend of conceptualizing, developing, marketing, and continually improving a product or product line. Product managers often act as the voice of the customer within their company, interpreting and articulating user needs, and transforming them into product requirements. They also analyze market trends and the competitive landscape to keep their product competitive.

One of the central tasks in product management is defining the product’s vision and strategy

A PM ensures the product aligns with the company’s broader business objectives. They map out its strategic direction, including key features, pricing, target audience, and position within the market.

Product managers are also responsible for developing and managing the product roadmap — a detailed plan outlining the product’s development stages, including what features will be built, when, and how they’ll be implemented. This document is an essential communication tool that ensures all stakeholders, including the development team, marketing, sales, and leadership, are aligned on the product’s direction and priorities.

What is project management?

Project management is about initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing projects. A project manager (PM) takes the helm, navigating different stages of a project to ensure it meets its goals within the pre-agreed scope, quality, time, and cost constraints.

Unlike product management, which is ongoing and product-focused, project management is generally temporary and project-specific. 

A project manager oversees a project from conception to completion, ensuring it aligns with the strategic goals of the organization. At the heart of project management sits the project life cycle. This typically comprises five phases: 

  • Initiation: Evaluating the project’s feasibility and value to the business
  • Planning: The project manager maps out a detailed project plan, which includes defining the project’s scope, objectives, deliverables, timeline, and resources.
  • Execution: The project team works on the tasks defined in the project plan. The project manager ensures the team has the necessary resources and guides and motivates them toward the project goals.
  • Monitoring and controlling: This happens concurrently with execution. The project manager oversees the project’s progress and makes adjustments to keep it on track. They also track key performance indicators (KPIs), manage risks, and handle any issues that arise.
  • Closure: This involves finalizing all project activities, delivering the end product to the client or stakeholder, and conducting a post-project evaluation to learn from the experience.

Differences between a product manager and a project manager

Objective and focus

A product manager’s primary goal is to deliver a product that offers value to the customers, all while aligning with business strategy. Not an easy tightrope to walk! To do this, they focus on the product’s direction, user needs, market trends, and competition. A project manager, meanwhile, is primarily concerned with delivering a specific project within a set time, cost, and scope. Their focus is on resource allocation, task management, risk mitigation, and adherence to project plan.

Scope of work

The scope of a product manager is wider and more long-term than that of a project manager. They are involved in a product’s entire lifecycle, from ideation to launch to continual improvements. A project manager, on the other hand, is involved from the initiation to the closure of a project. Once the project ends, so do their responsibilities.

Stakeholder interaction

While both roles require stakeholder management, the nature of these interactions differs. PMs often liaise with a broad range of stakeholders, including customers, sales, marketing, and senior leadership, in addition to the development team. Project managers typically interact more closely with the project team, sponsors, and other internal stakeholders to ensure the project is executed without a hitch. 

Skill sets

Both roles require leadership, communication, and analytical skills, but the emphasis differs. Product managers need a strong strategic and commercial mindset, user empathy, and often some technical knowledge to define the product vision and guide its development. In contrast, project managers need excellent organizational and risk management skills to coordinate tasks, manage resources, and keep the project on track.

Measures of success

Product manager success depends on the product’s performance in the market, as well as its impact on business goals, for example, user engagement, revenue, and customer satisfaction. For a project manager, success is determined by the project’s timely completion within the defined scope, quality, and budget benchmarks. 

What does a product manager do?

Here’s a detailed look at the daily responsibilities of a product manager:

  • Product strategy and vision: PMs draft the company vision and the strategic plan for achieving it. They use market research, competitive analysis, and user feedback to inform the product’s direction and the strategic decisions surrounding it.
  • Customer insight and market analysis: Product managers need to get under their users’ skin to work out what they want, and they do this via customer discovery. This is the process of gathering and analyzing customer feedback, conducting user research, and closely following market trends. This knowledge helps them make smart decisions about product features, pricing, and positioning.
  • Product roadmap development: A product roadmap outlines the product’s strategic direction. The product manager is responsible for developing and updating this roadmap, determining which features to build and when based on strategic priorities and user needs.
  • Cross-functional leadership: Product managers work closely with teams across the organization—including design, engineering, sales, and marketing—to deliver the product. 
  • Product Backlog management: The product backlog is a list of tasks, enhancements, and fixes for the product. The product manager prioritizes this backlog, deciding which tasks are most important to the product’s success and should be completed first.
  • Product launch and go-to-market strategy: When the product is ready to roll, the product manager collaborates with marketing, sales, and customer support to develop and initiate a strategy. They help determine the product messaging, pricing, and promo activities.
  • Performance metrics and KPIs: A product manager measures the product’s success and tracks key performance indicators (KPIs), such as user engagement, churn rate, and revenue. They use these metrics to assess how the product is performing against its objectives and to inform future product decisions.

Key challenges for product managers 

It’s a tough job with more than a few challenges along the way. Here’s where PMs need to hone their skills.

  • Balancing user and business needs: Product managers need to balance market demands, business goals, and technological feasibility, all while shaping the product’s direction. They also need to make strategic decisions about features, pricing, and positioning to drive the product’s success. This is no easy task, since objectives often conflict on the surface (e.g. the company wants to make lots of money, but the customer doesn’t want to spend). 
  • Prioritization and roadmap management: Product managers need to assess competing demands, user feedback, and market trends to determine which features to prioritize and when to deliver them. Balancing short-term needs with long-term goals requires top-notch prioritization skills.
  • Collaboration: Collaborating with diverse teams, including engineering, design, marketing, and sales, is all part of the PM job description. Aligning these teams around the product’s vision and goals can be a challenge, especially since each team will have varying priorities and technical understanding. 
  • Competitive landscape and market disruption: The market landscape changes like the tides, and it’s up to PMs to stay on top of trends and developments, as well as anticipate disruptions. They need to stay flexible to keep a competitive edge.
  • Metrics and performance measurement: Multiple metrics come into play, such as user adoption, customer satisfaction, and revenue growth — and they can be tricky to track. Product managers must establish relevant key performance indicators (KPIs), track them well, and make data-driven decisions based on the product’s performance.
  • Managing product lifecycle and iterative development: Product managers must balance maintaining the existing product with planning for future enhancements and innovations.

Typical product management job roles

The product manager career path is a rich and varied one, with an array of job roles available to those who embark on this career. Some of the more common titles you’ll spot include: 

  • Senior product manager 
  • Product owner 
  • Technical product manager 
  • Product marketing manager 
  • Product analyst 
  • Product UX/UI designer; and 
  • Product strategist.

Product manager: key skills

Being a successful product manager requires a diverse skill set that combines business nous, strategic thinking, and strong interpersonal abilities. Here’s what you need to make it in this career: 

Strategic thinking

Product managers need to consider broader business goals and market trends. They analyze complex information, identify opportunities, and make informed decisions that align with the product’s vision and the company’s overall strategy.


Understanding customer needs, pain points, and behaviors is crucial for effective product management. Product managers should have strong empathy for users and the ability to gather and interpret user insights through various methods, including user research, customer interviews, and data analysis.

Good communication

PMs need to convey the product vision, requirements, and strategy effectively, so good people skills are a must. Strong collaboration skills enable product managers to work effectively with a range of teams while fostering a collaborative culture.

Data know-how

Product managers should be comfortable working with data and using it to drive decisions. They need to analyze quantitative and qualitative data, identify patterns and trends, and derive actionable insights. 

Leadership skills

Product managers work with cross-functional teams, including designers, engineers, marketers, and salespeople. They need strong leadership skills to inspire and motivate these teams, influence stakeholders, and drive everyone towards achieving the product’s goals. Effective leadership involves setting clear expectations, providing guidance, and supporting a culture of innovation.

Business acumen

A strong understanding of business principles, revenue models, pricing strategies, and financial analysis is a must for product managers. They should be able to evaluate the financial viability and potential ROI of product initiatives. Business clout helps in making sound decisions that drive growth and maximize the value of the product.


Product managers operate in dynamic environments where change is a given. They need to be adaptable, open-minded, and happy to embrace feedback. Meanwhile, learning agility is vital to quickly get to grips with new tech, market shifts, and industry trends.

What does a project manager do, day to day?

Next, let’s take a closer look at a day in the life of a project manager.

  • Project planning and initiation: The project manager kicks off the project, getting everyone hyped up and working with stakeholders to define project goals, objectives, and deliverables. They also develop a project plan that outlines the scope, timeline, budget, and resource requirements. 
  • Team management and leadership: Project managers assemble and lead project teams, assigning roles and responsibilities until everyone knows what they’re doing. They also offer guidance and direction, ensuring clarity on things like objectives and expectations.
  • Risk management: Project managers identify potential risks and develop strategies to mitigate their impact on the project. Risks pop up, so this is an ongoing thing that requires alertness and flexibility. 
  • Project execution: The project manager oversees project activities, making sure they are carried out according to plan. They also monitor progress, track milestones, and manage project dependencies. If deviations occur, they take corrective actions to keep the project on track.
  • Communication and stakeholder management: Project managers act as the primary point of contact for project communication. They keep regular and effective lines with stakeholders, giving updates on project status, risks, and changes.
  • Quality assurance: Project managers define quality standards and make sure project deliverables meet the specified requirements. They conduct quality checks, reviews, and tests to verify that the project’s output meets the expected level of quality.
  • Project closure and evaluation: Once the project is near the finish line, the PM oversees the closure phase, ensuring all deliverables are finalized, project documentation is complete, and necessary handovers occur. They conduct project evaluations to identify lessons learned and areas for improvement.

Key challenges for project managers

Project managers need to navigate various obstacles along the way. Here are some key challenges they often face:

  • Scope creep and changing requirements: The dreaded scope creep — project manager enemy number one! This refers to uncontrolled changes or additions to the project deliverables. For example, stakeholders asking for new features or modifications, impacting project timelines and resources. Project managers must navigate these choppy seas, negotiating where possible and agreeing on everything in writing before project kick-off. 
  • Resource management: PMs must balance the availability and skills of team members, equipment, and other resources with the project’s requirements. Limited resources or unexpected resource constraints can pose hurdles, so the project manager must stay flexible.
  • Time and schedule management: PMs need to create realistic project schedules, set milestones, and monitor progress. They need to address potential bottlenecks and make timely adjustments to keep the project running smoothly.
  • Communication and stakeholder management: Project managers need to navigate different communication styles, manage a range of stakeholders with varying expectations, and ensure clear and timely information flow among team members. 
  • Managing multiple projects and priorities: Project managers often have to juggle multiple projects simultaneously, each with its own complexities and priorities. Balancing competing demands, allocating resources appropriately, and ensuring effective coordination across projects is no walk in the park! 
  • Change: Changes happen as surely as night follows day. Project managers must be adaptable and responsive to shifting circumstances, such as market conditions, technology advancements, or organizational changes. 

Typical project manager job roles

From project manager to Agile pro — here’s where this varied career path could take you.

  • Senior project manager
  • Agile project manager
  • IT project manager
  • Construction project manager
  • Infrastructure project manager
  • Operations project manager; and
  • Business project manager.

Project manager: key skills

More organized than a librarian’s bookshelf? Great at negotiation? A born leader? It’s all in a day’s work for a project manager. If you’re thinking of becoming a PM, here’s what you’ll need: 

  • Leadership skills: Project managers need top notch leadership skills to inspire and motivate their teams. They should be able to communicate expectations, delegate tasks, resolve conflicts, and give guidance to keep the team working towards their goals.
  • Organization and planning abilities: Project managers need to define project scope, create work breakdown structures, set realistic timelines, and allocate resources on a daily basis. 
  • Communication skills: PMs need to articulate project objectives, give regular status updates, and address concerns. Clear and timely communication helps you manage expectations and maintain stakeholder engagement from project start to finish.
  • Budgeting and cost management: Project managers need strong business know-how, from developing budgets, to tracking expenses. 
  • Problem-solving and decision-making: Project managers need to address issues, balance the alternatives, and make smart choices based on real, data-backed evidence. 
  • Adaptability and flexibility: Project managers operate in ever-changing environments that demand adaptability and flexibility. They should be able to take change in their stride, manage unexpected events, and adjust project plans accordingly. 
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution abilities: PMs must be a pro at facilitating discussions, finding common ground, and resolving conflicts among team members or stakeholders. 
  • Critical thinking and analytical skills: The ability to think critically and analyze information is a must. PMs need to evaluate project data, assess risks, and identify areas for improvement. 

How to choose the right role for your team 

  • Project complexity and duration: If you’re working on a project with a clear start and end date, a project manager is the one you want. For ongoing initiatives that require long-term planning and continuous improvement, a product manager is the way to go.
  • Strategic focus vs. tactical execution: Determine the primary focus for the role. If you need someone to define the product vision, identify market opportunities, and drive strategy, a product manager fits the bill. But if you need someone to manage resources, timelines, and deliverables, a project manager is well-suited for overseeing the project’s tactical execution.
  • Customer-centricity and market expertise: If you need someone to fully understand customer needs, run user research, and drive product-market fit, a product manager is who you want. A project manager, while customer-focused to an extent, primarily focuses on the successful completion of projects within defined constraints.
  • Team dynamics and leadership style: If you have a cross-functional team that needs collaboration and stakeholder management, a product manager’s skill set aligns well. If the team requires strong task management, resource allocation, and risk mitigation, a project manager’s expertise is what you want.
  • Organization’s goals and maturity: If you’re in the early stages of product development or entering new markets, a product manager can help shape the strategy and guide growth. For well-established organizations with multiple projects running simultaneously, a project manager will guide project delivery and resource management.

By carefully considering the above factors, you’ll raise your chances of project AND product success. Remember that the roles can complement each other, and in some cases, there may be a need for both disciplines on the team to achieve the results you want. 

How Backlog keeps product managers and project managers on track 

Whether you’re juggling projects or products, having a central hub for all tasks, timelines, and comms can streamline operations and send your efficiency to stratospheric heights. 

For greater transparency, improved collaboration, and better task management, give Backlog a try for free. It gives teams real-time visibility into project status, helping everyone — from product managers to project managers (and the teams they lead) — stay focused, on the same page, and collaborate smoothly. 



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