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  4. Product vs program management: what sets them apart?

Product vs program management: what sets them apart?

PostsDesign & UX
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

December 08, 2023

The terms ‘product manager’ and ‘program manager’ get used interchangeably, especially in the startup space — but these roles are two very different things. 

With unique skill sets, approaches to the work, and spheres of influence, these they’re best thought of as complementary. Not the same, not totally different, but two parts of the same harmony. While there is crossover, to truly get the most out of your team, it’s wise to know the distinguishing features of each. Let’s take a closer look!  

What’s a program?

A program, in a business context, refers to a set of related projects managed in a coordinated way. This way, it’s possible to achieve things that might not be possible were the projects managed separately.

Programs are broader in scope than individual projects. They also require a high level of coordination and resource management. A program is evaluated based on its ability to hit its strategic outcomes.

What is a product?

A product is a tangible item or intangible service that is created and developed to fulfill a market need. It can range from physical goods like electronics or clothing to services like software or consulting. 

Products are defined by their features and uses. They’re usually developed to solve a problem or improve a customer’s experience. Product success is measured by its market acceptance, customer satisfaction, and financial performance.

What is a program manager?

A program manager oversees a portfolio of related projects, ensuring they work together effectively to achieve broader organizational objectives.

They have a broader focus than product managers, overseeing multiple projects that collectively contribute to the organization’s goals. It’s a role that blends high-level planning with meticulous coordination, ensuring that all these moving parts work in harmony.

Their day-to-day involves keeping a keen eye on timelines, resources, and any risks that might crop up. They also need to be adaptable, strong communicators, and adept at managing resources. 

What is a product manager?

Product management focuses on the lifecycle of a specific product, from ideation to market launch and beyond.

The product manager is responsible for understanding customer needs, defining the product vision, and working closely with teams like engineering and marketing to develop and position the product successfully in the market.

Product managers need a strong blend of skills, including strategic thinking, technical expertise, and solid communication abilities. They apply these skills to a range of tasks that span the entire product lifecycle, including ideation, market research, product development, and launch strategy.

Product manager vs. program manager: a side-by-side comparison

Now we know what each role involves, let’s look at the key differences between the two. 

AspectProduct managerProgram manager
FocusConcentrates on the lifecycle of a specific product from conception to market and beyond.Oversees a portfolio of related projects, aligning them with the organization’s strategic goals.
ResponsibilitiesUnderstanding customer needs, defining product vision, collaborating with teams for development, and handling market positioning.Coordinating project efforts, managing resources across projects, and ensuring program coherence.
Key activitiesMarket research, product development, feature prioritization, go-to-market strategies.Strategic planning, resource allocation, inter-project coordination, stakeholder communication.
Outcome goalsSuccessful launch and sustained market performance of a single product.Achieving broader organizational objectives through the successful management of multiple projects.
CollaborationWorks with engineering, marketing, sales, and design teams focused on one product.Collaborates with various project managers and teams across different projects within the program.
Skill setStrategic product planning, customer empathy, marketing knowledge, and technical understanding.Strategic program oversight, resource management, risk assessment, and multi-project coordination.

A day in the life of a product manager 

A day in the life of a product manager is a blend of strategic planning, team collaboration, and hands-on problem-solving, often structured as follows:

Morning: Vision and strategy review

  • The day kicks off with an overview of the product roadmap. This is when the product manager aligns the day’s tasks with the long-term market demands and business goals.

Mid-morning: Customer insights and team collaboration

  • Diving into market research and customer feedback is next. This could involve meetings with the user experience (UX) team to discuss how to better align the product with user expectations.
  • Shortly afterward, they might convene with the engineering team. This is where prioritizing features, setting requirements, and discussing the finer points of product functionalities happen.

Lunch break: Networking and informal discussions

  • Lunch might be a casual meeting with a team member from marketing or sales, discussing cross-functional alignment or brainstorming new ideas in an informal setting. Or it might just involve a sandwich in Pret. 

Afternoon: Tactical execution and meetings

  • Post-lunch hours are often reserved for leading and coordinating with various teams. It could involve back-to-back meetings with design, marketing, and sales teams to ensure everyone is working towards a common goal.
  • Part of the afternoon is also dedicated to developing and refining go-to-market strategies, focusing on product positioning, pricing, and promotional tactics.

Late afternoon: Performance analysis and forward planning

End of day: Problem-solving and strategic thinking

  • The day often concludes with addressing any immediate challenges or uncertainties. This is a quiet time for strategic thinking, finding solutions that align with both the product’s needs and the business’s larger objectives.

A day in the life of a program manager 

A day in the life of a program manager is a strategic balancing act of overseeing multiple projects and managing resources.

Morning: Strategic overview and planning

The day typically begins with a strategic overview of the program. This involves reviewing the status of various projects under their purview and aligning them with business objectives.

Mid-morning: Resource management and team coordination

  • Next, they may focus on resource allocation, ensuring each project within the program has the necessary tools and personnel to proceed effectively.
  • This time is also used for coordinating with project managers, discussing progress, addressing any roadblocks, and ensuring that each project is on track.

Lunch break: Networking and informal check-ins

  • Lunch could be an opportunity for informal check-ins with team members or networking with other departments, which helps in gaining broader organizational insights and fostering collaboration. Or maybe they’ll just take a nap. 

Afternoon: Meetings and stakeholder communication

  • The afternoon often involves meetings with various stakeholders. These could include project teams, senior management, or external clients, making sure everyone is aligned with the program’s progress and objectives.
  • This is also the time for high-level decision-making, addressing any inter-project dependencies or conflicts, and adjusting strategies as needed.

Late afternoon: Risk assessment and problem resolution

  • Program managers dedicate part of their afternoon to risk management, identifying potential issues that could impact the program and developing mitigation strategies.
  • They might also spend time resolving any immediate problems that have arisen in any of the projects, offering solutions and guidance.

End of day: Reflection and preparation for the next day

  • The day usually ends with a reflection on the progress made and preparation for the next day. This might include updating program documentation, sending out communication updates, or planning for upcoming meetings and deadlines.

Product managers: key skills

These skills help product managers navigate the complex landscape of product development, market trends, and customer needs:

  • Strategic thinking
  • Technical knowledge
  • Customer empathy
  • Analytical skills
  • Communication and leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Adaptability.

Program managers: key skills

To be effective in their role, program managers need a specific set of skills that enable them to manage programs, navigate organizational dynamics, and achieve successful outcomes:

  • Strategic vision and alignment
  • Leadership and team management
  • Communication and stakeholder management
  • Resource management
  • Risk management and problem-solving
  • Adaptability and flexibility
  • Organizational skills and attention to detail.

Why do product manager and program manager roles get confused?

First of all, the shared acronym ‘PM’ doesn’t help. Throw in PM for ‘project manager’ and no wonder people are scratching heads. But beyond this, there are some overlaps between the two. 

1. Overlap in strategic roles: Both product managers and program managers play strategic roles in an organization. They both require a vision for the product and need to align their strategies with the business goals. 

2. Similar skill sets: Both roles require strong leadership, communication, and organizational skills. And they both involve stakeholder management and decision-making.

3. Shared goals of success: Both product managers and program managers aim for the success of their projects, whether it’s a single product or a suite of projects. 

4. Cross-functional nature of roles: Both roles require working across multiple functions and coordinating with various teams. 

5. Evolving job definitions: The definitions of these roles can vary and evolve across different organizations and industries. In some companies, the lines between product management and program management might be more blurred, depending on how the roles and responsibilities are defined internally.

Is a program manager more senior than a product manager?

It’s better to think of this less in terms of hierarchy and more in terms of scope and job focus. In most organizations, the two are seen as being on parallel tracks with distinct areas of expertise. 

  • Different areas of focus: Product managers are focused on the development and success of a specific product, while program managers oversee a set of related projects that contribute to the organization’s strategic goals. Their roles are specialized and tailored to different aspects of the business.
  • Organizational structure: In many companies, the organizational structure determines the relative positioning of these roles. In some cases, program managers may have a broader scope, overseeing multiple product managers. However, in other organizations, they might operate independently of each other, with neither role having direct authority over the other.
  • Dependence on company size and industry: In larger organizations or certain industries, the roles can have different levels of influence and responsibility, affecting how they are perceived in terms of seniority.
  • Leadership and influence: Both roles require strong leadership skills, but the type of influence they wield differs. Product managers often have significant influence over the direction and features of a product, while program managers influence the coordination and strategic alignment of multiple projects.
  • Career path and progression: The career paths for product managers and program managers can vary significantly. In some cases, professionals might transition between these roles as they progress in their careers, depending on their skills and interests.

Program manager Vs. product manager: do you need both?

Determining the need for both product managers and program managers in an organization depends on several factors, like business nature, operational scale, and specific organizational goals. Here are some considerations:

1. Complementary skills: With different focus areas, their distinct skills complement each other more than they overlap. 

2. Handling complexity: In larger or more complex organizations, having both roles helps manage different aspects effectively. Program managers can handle the overarching coordination, allowing product managers to focus on individual product details.

3. Resource optimization: With program managers overseeing resource allocation across projects, product managers can concentrate on optimizing resources for their specific product, leading to more efficient overall resource use.

4. Risk management: Program managers can focus on broader risks affecting multiple projects, while product managers can address risks specific to their product. This division enhances overall risk management.

5. Balancing innovation and execution: Product managers can zero in on innovating and executing their product development, while program managers ensure this innovation aligns with the business strategy and is supported by organizational resources.

How to set up both roles for success

Both product managers and program managers each bring something special to the table, and getting them to work together smoothly can really make a difference. 

Product management software can help you do just this. With time tracking, resource assignment, Kanban boards and more, it’s a Swiss Army knife for managing tasks, keeping everyone on the same page, and ensuring resources are used just right. 

Think of it as a digital meeting room where both product and program managers can plan, track, and execute their projects more efficiently. By leveraging these tools and recognizing the unique strengths each role brings, businesses can collaborate in a way that drives success.



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