Guest Post: What’s the Difference Between Product and Project Management?


Today we are proud and honored to present a guest post on a topic that is very interesting and pertinent to our discipline.  Since we’re all about deliverables, including products, this is key.  And since at EarthPM we have been stressing the connection between strategy and execution, this is tied to sustainability as well.

Enjoy.  Thanks to Greg Geracie.

What’s the Difference between Project Management and Product Management?

Subtitled: How Project Management Played a Key Role in the New Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge® (ProdBOK Guide)

While it was not clear at the time, the product and project management communities set off on a path of discovery and clarification approximately three years ago. The original mission was to establish an industry consensus standard about what product management is and does. Ironically, the product management profession had been around almost as long as Proctor and Gamble’s great leap forward – establishing the brand management profession. However, for a variety of reasons, the product management profession never codified its Body of Knowledge. This was the challenge that triggered the answer to the question about the differences between product and project management. We just did not know it at the time!

As the core editorial team, sponsored by The Association of International Product Marketing and Managers, hashed out our approach to developing a PMBOK-like guide for product managers, we realized that to effectively define the product management profession we had to answer the question of what product management is not.

Historically, there has been much confusion about the difference between our two professions. But as we began to codify the product management world the difference became clear. The mission of product managers is to optimize results across the span of the entire product management lifecycle – from the conception of an idea to a product’s ultimate retirement. Product managers are tasked with creating and maintaining the optimal amount of value (for a product, product line, or product portfolio) at each of the seven unique stages of the product management lifecycle. We tend to think about this in terms of “horizontal leadership.”

Project managers by contrast tend to engage during the Plan phase of the product management lifecycle and roll off when a product/project gets to the Launch phase. Thus project managers touch approximately four of the seven phases and provide “vertical leadership.” By vertical leadership we mean working to manage scope, schedule, and cost and all the other variables that must be managed to deliver a successful project to market.

Given that our two professions had yet to come to terms with the overlaps and inconsistencies inherent to the pre-ProdBOK world we, the editorial team, sought out many of the leading thinkers in the project management universe. We realized we needed their support to help us collaboratively define how product and project management should interface in order to create optimal value for organizations and eliminate the confusion that hung like a haze over our two professions.

I am proud to say that we enjoyed tremendous support from the project management community in our mission. The project management thought leaders who contributed to the effort included: Lee Lambert, Stacy Goff (IPMA), Gary Heerkens, Frank Saladis, Jack Duggal, Johanna Rothman, and Ken Hanley.

We also were able to recruit Kevin Brennan, Richard Larson, and David Heidt from the BA community and Rich Gunther and Carol Smith from the UXPA as well.

So this really was a collaborative effort. The project incorporates some of the best minds in the product, project, business analyst, and user experience professions all working toward a common goal of not only defining the product management professions boundary’s but how to best work together for the good of our customers and our organizations.

This brings us back to the central question about the difference between product and project management. Our conclusion, we are stronger together. Or as Einstein once said, and I paraphrase, “it takes a certain level of thought to create a problem, and another more elevated level of thought to solve it.”

The most difficult challenges often lie in the grey zones between our spans of control. The ProdBOK Guide is an excellent example of how we can work together to achieve the common good and advance both of our professions.

My sincere thanks to all who contributed!

Greg Geracie is the author of Take Charge Product Management©, the Editor-in-Chief of The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK), and the leader of this initiative. Greg is an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University and the President of Actuation Consulting a global leader in product management training, consulting, and advisory services to some of the world’s most successful organizations.