Product vs. Project Management — Or is it ?

Many people, many companies, and entire professions consider project and product management as parallel beasts. The tools and tricks of one do not filter over into the other. Here’s some evidence from a recent job posting I saw on the interwebs:

We’re not hiring project managers; you’ll be given substantial feature ownership on products that sit at the intersection of big data and computer vision.

and here’s the ad for a project manager:

If you’re a hyper organized go-getter with an uncanny ability ‘talk tech’ with non-technical folks, we’re looking for you

The implication being that a product management role is strategic and the project management role is tactical. While that may be true in some scenarios — I can’t tell you about a single project that’s been successfully completed without significant strategic thought. Nor have I met a product pipeline that’s been wholly dependent on the “intersection of big data and computer vision.”

Based on my own experience of sitting in both seats — it seems as if we’re limiting ourselves by considering these two “positions” as distinct entities. This is not to say that if you’re a great project manager you’ll be a great product manager (and vice versa), but at the end of the day it’s all about the customer.

Data can only tell you so much. It doesn’t really matter that you’ve got all the analytics in the world if your product is shit. Nor does it matter if the project is completed with a dissatisfied client. In both cases — the mistake that was made had to do with people. If your product is shit then it’s likely that you/the primary stakeholder ignored protestations to the contrary or didn’t even hear them. There’s always someone who’s voiced the correct viewpoint — even if it’s not popular. And if you delivered a shitty project deliverable then the same answer applies. Again — it’s all about the people. After 6 years of working with different project and product managers the thing that separates the good from the terrible is communication skills. Can you communicate your vision, strategic plan, or project roadmap without great communication skills? Not just verbal — but are you able to project an aura of confidence (or read a corresponding lack in someone else)? Are you able to read the subtle cues that exist all around you?

So many project and product managers get lost in the weeds or deem this kind of thing unimportant. And it’s this kind of thinking that separates the good from the great. So if you’re looking for a way to improve your skills I quote the great Atticus Finch —

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

Before you quote the latest statistics or blindly follow a plan consider if the action you’re about to take will ultimately benefit your customer. If not — then you’d better find a different way. Again bringing us full circle that the differences between product and project management are minimal — and that true success in either profession is pretty standard.

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