What is the difference between Product Manager, Project Manager and Programme Manager roles? What are the different skill-sets required? And why is there always so much confusion about this?
A group discussion recently on LinkedIn started with the question “Should Product Managers get involved in the user experience? And if so, how much time should you allocate to it?” – there followed a series of responses from product manager professionals unanimously agreeing that indeed they should get involved; and that they should allocate as much time as it took.
A subsequent LinkedIn discussion asked the question “What is the difference between a Project Manager and a Product Manager?” – this brought far more varied responses, and demonstrated the wide range of organisations which were represented in the discussion.
What I found particularly interesting was that there were clearly two different sources of confusion:
- Confusion caused by different terminology. Different organisations interchange the titles. Some refer to a product manager; others a project manager.
- Confusion caused by the difference between roles and responsibilities. The difference between people and hats; the difference between “who” and “what”.
Many businesses seem to look at this from a purely internal perspective – the way in which they organise themselves is a reflection of the way they work, rather than what their customers need. They are rather inward-looking based on their existing skills, hierarchies and management aspirations. I can’t correlate the degree of success with the method of organisation, but one thing I’m sure about – the customer is king, and someone needs to be responsible for ensuring the customer is looked after.
Distilling the entire discussion into a short summary of the differences:
The Product Manager:
- represents the customer (or user)
- ensures the right things get done
- manages consumer insights, competitive landscape, usability, user experience, product positioning etc.
The Project/ Programme Manager:
- represents the business
- ensures the things get done right
- manages risks, costs, schedules, resource, suppliers etc.
Programme Manager and Project Manager titles are frequently interchanged – “Programme” most often being the term used to represent a collection of (smaller) projects.
These roles and responsibilities of Product and Project Managers are distinct – they have different accountabilities and objectives. Ideally they will be different people, but that is not always possible (often dictated by size of organisation, headcount constraints etc.) and they might conceivably be the same person. However, even in that case, the responsibilities remain distinct. We’re just talking about one person wearing two hats – one to look after the customer; the other to look after the business. The danger in this situation is the blurring of lines of responsibility in which the customer is likely to be the loser.
Returning to the start of this post and the LinkedIn discussion about whether or not the Product Manager should be involved in the user experience, I’d ask the follow-up question – “What else are they there for?” Given that the Product Manager represents the user, I can’t think of two more appropriate words to describe the totality of the product manager’s responsibility than “user” and “experience”.
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