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Last updated on 2/11/21

Identify when a project management approach is appropriate for a product manager

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Project management for product managers

A product is a good or service that is offered to customers.

A project is a set of tasks and activities that need to be planned. They must have a set duration, start date, end date, and a related cost or budget.

The contribution of a product manager involves:

  • Determining what product features are required.

  • Creating a plan and monitoring progress to get a set of product features built on-time and on-budget. 

It is not common for a project manager to determine which features are the most important and which are required. Although a project manager would certainly have input, he would typically not be the final decision-maker on this topic. Usually, a stakeholder or project sponsor would determine which functionality is in scope.

However, it is more common that a product manager role might entail an element of project management. Thus it is helpful to look at scenarios where a product manager may have to either work closely with a project manager or be responsible for project management themselves.

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Most product managers work in a situation where:

  1. They do plan releases but the work on the product is not project-oriented. The work is ongoing rather than lasting a duration that is known in advance. For example, a product manager at Facebook may have certain targets and features they intend to build in the next three months. However, their contribution to the product is not defined in advance as starting on a certain date and ending on a certain date. 

  2. They have a set of resources who always work on this product (namely the tech team!).  The cost and budget are not high priorities. The salaries of the team are indeed the cost of working on the product - but this is not an input into decisions. The team is already committed to this product and the question is what should they work on rather than should they be working on this product. 

  3. They have measurable targets to achieve but work with the team to determine exactly which features will best achieve those results. The feature set (i.e. scope) is not known in advance but rather determined as the team experiment and learn.

When cross-functional work is done, members are often pulled from other product teams. Project management is needed to handle the many stakeholders if the improvements are to be completed and implemented into each product of the organization.

In this scenario, each product team may find they are free to work on which features they like for their product, yet make some internal commitments (with fixed scope and deadlines) in the case of cross-functional project implementation.

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Product managers work with teams to create digital products such as:

  • Websites

  • Apps

  • Software

Software product management has some unique considerations because it requires the customer to install something on their computer. An example of this could be Microsoft Excel.  In order to get Excel on your computer, you have to download a file and then install it on your hard drive.

Let's compare this with a web-based product like LinkedIn. If LinkedIn updates their website, you might not even know it! The next time you visit the website, you might see a different version from the last time you visited. However, with a software product, you will not see a difference unless you update or re-install it.

What this means is that your customers will often be aware of the version they are using and will be looking out for new features in upcoming versions. Because you need them to install an update, you may be in a situation where you specify in advance what you will release and when so that they can plan their updates and testing accordingly.

In order to deliver a set of features by this deadline, some project management will be required!

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If you agree to build a product for a paying client, then typically the scope and cost are defined in advance. This is a typical scenario for a software development agency.

Time must be spent analyzing requirements and planning the set of necessary tasks before calculating a cost and duration for the project.

Once a proposal is submitted and accepted and a contract signed, then some project management will be necessary to complete the tasks on-time and within budget.

Summary

  • There are some common scenarios where a product manager may have to either work closely with a project manager or be responsible for project management themselves

    • Cross-functional projects

    • Software implementations

    • Public commitments

Additional resources

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement