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Project Management vs. Product Management: What’s the Difference?

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Project management and product management — they sound so similar, how different could they be?

In reality, very different.

The difference goes as deep as the mindset that they bring to work. At their core, project managers are task-oriented and budget oriented, while product managers are business and user-oriented. Product managers are focused on the what and the why of an initiative, while project managers are focused on the how.

Let’s break that down with an example.

Imagine you’re setting out to renovate your home. Product managers would be focused on understanding your goals and vision for the home: are you a single bachelor who wants to be able to host big groups? Or are you a growing family that needs the space to handle a few rambunctious kids? Once they have a complete list of your dream features, they’ll work with you to prioritize the key improvements that will be most impactful based on any budget or timeline restrictions.

Project managers would then take this prioritized plan with the responsibility of managing, communicating, and tracking the execution of those plans. They’d manage the multiple construction projects and make sure the crews were all on the same page, and they would ensure that the project was being executed on time and under budget.

Product managers are focused on the what and the why of an initiative, while project managers are focused on the how.

Just like in home construction, product managers and project managers play distinct roles and address different needs for a product team. But understanding this distinction is critical to serving the needs of your product and your users. This was something that Craig Sturgis, VP of Product at SmarterHQ, recognized as he tried to shift the team into scale-up mode.

As Craig explains, “A lot of product management as I've experienced it, or at least as I'm familiar with it, and especially in B2B enterprise-focused companies is very much more project focused. It is very much, take the requirements from the customers to the engineers and break them down, and it's much more task oriented.” Craig recognized this task-oriented mindset at SmarterHQ, and was determined to make a change. “The mindset that I'm more interested in is a customer focused mindset. We need to understand and meet the needs of our customers in a way that serves the needs of our business.”

But how do you actually change the mindset of an entire team?

According to Craig Sturgis, it is a process that needs everyone on board. The first step is giving everyone, regardless of discipline, personal accountability to customer conversations. To do this, Craig has built a cross-functional team that collects, discusses, and collaborates on customer feedback.

Giving team members a personal connection to customer feedback allows them to apply those learnings to their own work, but it also allows everyone to benefit from other perspectives. As Craig explains it, “The developer is going to get a entirely different perspective on it and they're going to be able to tell something and then act on it in a way that I can't… We can discuss it and all come to a better common understanding than any of us could on our own.” This strategy allows teams to feel personally invested in the customer feedback their receiving, and can help them make better decisions based on user needs and goals.

Efficiency and execution is important when it comes to product, but at the end of the day the most important responsibility of product teams is creating something that actually solves real problems for users. As Craig Sturgis puts it, “What I learned over time is, it doesn't matter how efficient you are at shipping the product if it's not the right product.” By listening and connecting to users and understanding their pains, goals, and needs, you take a product manager’s perspective to your work and create a product that works for your customers and your business.

To hear more from Craig, tune in to this week's episode of the Better Product Podcast.

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