The Difference Between Product, Program and Project Management

Thaisa Fernandes
Nov 18, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Many people confuse the terms Product Manager, Program Manager, and Project Manager. For this reason, I decided to write about the differences between Product Management, Program Management, and Project Management.

I hope this post provides some clarity. Already I can see myself sending it to some folks who have asked me the difference between these terms. Keep me posted about your thoughts, and we can extend this discussion.

All these roles are different, and each should be performed by the team member with the right skills and experience. Don’t assume your Product Manager can also serve as Project Manager because they have different priorities and also skills.

Definitions

Product Management

You can define a product as anything that can be offered in the market to solve a problem or satisfy a need. It varies from a service or software to a physical product. The Product Management role includes responsibilities like planning, research, forecasting, and production.

  • Products have a life cycle: introduction, growth, maturity, and decline.
  • It can never be considered complete since your user is always evolving with different needs.
  • A product is anything that can be offered to a market to satisfy your user’s want or need.
  • During a product life cycle multiple projects may occur.

Product Manager main responsibilities:

  • Product go-to-market success.
  • Create product roadmap.
  • Support product life cycle stages.

Program Management

Programs comprise different projects that are interconnected and are also part of the long-term business objectives. The Program Manager leads the program strategy, objectives, and assesses the business impact.

  • Expands beyond the completion of its projects to the long-term program execution.
  • Is about business and operations, programs are strategic in nature.
  • Is susceptible to market and business goals changes.
  • Translates strategic objectives into measurable business goals.

Program Manager main responsibilities:

  • Implement strategies and measure success.
  • Oversee a group of dependent projects to reach the program goals.
  • Align with long-term business objectives.

Project Management

“A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. Project management, then, is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.” — Project Management Institute (PMI)

  • A temporary endeavor with a defined start and end date.
  • Defined scope, budget, and resources.
  • Unique, not a routine operation.
  • Falls into five phases: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring, and Controlling, and Closing.

Project Manager main responsibilities:

  • Develop timeline and project milestones.
  • Organize workflow and resource allocation.
  • Provide on-time and within budget project completion.

Differences

Product Manager

  • Doesn’t have a clear definition of what has to be delivered since the product will evolve over the course of its life cycle to meet the customer needs.
  • Has a never-ending job because a product is never completed or finalized, a product is a continuous process to anticipate the user needs.
  • Sets the product strategy, releases, ideations, features, go to market strategies.
  • Doesn’t have a hard deadline because the user expects the product to improve on an ongoing basis.
  • Answers the question of what problem the product is solving and how the team will build it.
  • Creates the product roadmap, which is a strategy to meet the product vision.
  • Develops and manages product documentation like acceptance criteria, product requirements documentation (PRD), and user stories.

Program Manager

  • Manages a group of related projects in an interconnected way.
  • Embraces uncertainty since changes can impact the organization (for the better or worse).
  • Outcome can be a benefit, a company goal, or a new process within defined constraints.
  • Objective is always long-term, and the risk is influenced by external factors.
  • Multiplicity of stakeholders, deliverables, requirements, and internal team interacting with the program.
  • Focuses on maximizing the benefits to the organization.
  • Aligns delivery value with the organization’s operational and strategic goals.

Project Manager

  • Has a clear definition of what is being delivered with little room for changes.
  • Faces fixed start and end date. It’s crucial to deliver on time, budget, and quality.
  • Tackles a temporary endeavor with a defined end.
  • Executes the strategy set by another team, for example the product manager or program manager.
  • Responsible for delivery, status updates, problems resolution, budget, resource estimation, and allocation.
  • Maximizes quality while minimizing risk.
  • Breaks down strategic plans into task-oriented initiatives managed by the project management team.

Similarities

  • Work with cross-functional teams
  • Requires the following:
  • Good organization skills.
  • Effective communication skills.
  • Problem-solving abilities.
  • Negotiation skills.
  • Natural leadership.
  • Strategic approach.
  • Time management skills.
  • Flexibility.

Can they play different roles?

Project Managers have mainly an internal focus, while Product and Program managers are more focused on what is happening externally with their users and also the market. Ideally, select and hire for the roles and skills you need and reinforce the differences between those roles.

You might have a Product Manager that also works as a Project Manager or a Program Manager that does Project Management. Although not ideal, it can happen especially in small companies/startups with products and programs without much complexity.

Recap

Product Managers:

  • Play strategic role setting the overall product direction.
  • Focus on satisfying and anticipating users needs.
  • Responsible for generating value for their customers.

Program Managers:

  • Deliver sustainable benefits to the business.
  • Focus on integrating the deliverables into the organization operation.
  • Deliver benefits incrementally during the course of the initiative.

Project Managers:

  • Manage the scope and responsible for delivery, budget, resource allocation, and quality.
  • Every project is a temporary endeavor, it’s not recurring tasks.
  • Oversee and manage the development of the project by mitigating risks, and managing issues.

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Disclosure: This post might contain affiliate links and first-party promotion. If you click on these links and buy a product, I may get a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Thaisa Fernandes

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Problem solver and perfectionist in recovery willing to stretch myself and risk making mistakes to achieve innovative solutions and validate my learnings

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