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Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager

Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager

The most commonly confused job roles out there have to be the PMs. PM can refer to the following three titles: Product Manager, Project Manager, and Program Manager. These three job families have individual targets and duties, but these are not mutually exclusive and have a lot of overlapping skills. This post clarifies the famously misunderstood concept of Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager.

Every business strives toward a singular aim: to successfully serve its customer base. All the employees, irrespective of their positions, work towards achieving this common goal. But their approach and authority vary with the job title they have. Every position entails different responsibilities and functions, so it's crucial to understand them deeply before applying to companies. The most commonly confused job roles out there have to be the PMs. PM can refer to any of the following three titles:

  1. Product Manager
  2. Project Manager
  3. Program Manager

These three job families have individual targets and duties, but these are not mutually exclusive and have a lot of overlapping skills. This post throws some clarity on the famously misunderstood concept of Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager, and sheds light on the similarities and differences between these roles.

Product Manager

A product is anything that exists in the market to meet the user's requirements. It can be hardware, software, or a tangible or intangible element. A product solves a market need and usually follows a life cycle with its introduction and growth. Then it matures and finally declines. 

The job of a product manager is to define the product and coordinate actions across the organization to enable its success. Product managers sit at the intersection of business, technology, and design, to create and own the products. They are the visionaries who think from the users' mindset and build a valuable product ready for user adoption. Generally creative with sharp attention to detail, product managers have to balance the customers' needs and business ethos.

The definition of a product manager can be summed up in the words of writer and angel investor Lenny Rachitsky,

“Your job as a product manager is to deliver business impact by marshaling the resources of your team to identify and solve the most impactful customer problems.”

Key job responsibilities of a product manager 

  1. Identifying the customer needs and gaps by gaining expertise in the domain in which their product operates
  2. Collaborating with the engineers, designers, marketers, finance teams, salespeople, and customer support teams
  3. Devising a strategic product roadmap
  4. Planning the market launch and using a variety of user research methods to gather customer feedback
  5. Supporting product's growth through life cycle stages 
  6. Building business cases for new products while improving the existing ones.

Project Manager

Project Managers are concerned with the how's of the business instead of the what's. They don't focus on what to build. They’re more involved with how to execute a large-scale project. The job requirements of Project Managers vary from company to company or project to project, but they are mostly concerned with managing deadlines and resources. Their primary task is to ensure project delivery within the allocated budget and incentives. 

The success of a Project Manager is in the strategic delegation of work and delivering projects despite constraints. Their key responsibility includes dividing a project into smaller chunks of manageable tasks and distributing them amongst the teams.  They are concerned with initiating a project. Then they plan, execute, monitor, and control the delivery to finally close the project.

Key job responsibilities of a project manager 

  1. Meeting project milestones within the allocated timeline
  2. Predicting and managing the resources required to achieve a goal
  3. Organizing the workflow and designing a project schedule to ensure timely delivery 
  4. Utilizing the industry-standard practices to execute projects
  5. Maintaining quality project delivery 

Program Manager 

A program can have many projects and products under it, all representing the same focus area but with different managers. So it falls upon the Program Manager to coordinate between Product Managers and Project Managers for speedy and efficient delivery. 

A Program Manager focuses on implementing a distant vision instead of small, individual projects. They take a lateral view across the company and identify the interdependencies of all departments to smoothly deliver products and projects. They coordinate all processes with a singular goal: consistently improve the company’s trajectory through the programs they work on.

Key job responsibilities of a program manager 

  1. Coordinate and manage dependent projects to ensure program completion
  2. Identify and work towards the long-term business plan
  3. Strategize the approach and measure success
  4. Identify the areas of improvement with different evaluation methods
  5. Keep projects and products on track with a strong crisis management strategy
  6. Maintain transparent communication with stakeholders about project issues and critical decisions
  7. Focus more on the technical aspect of a project in software companies 

Similarities in Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager

There are multiple similarities between all those who manage projects, programs, and products. More than intersecting job responsibilities, there are similarities in personality traits and soft skills. Successful product managers, project managers, and program managers possess

  1. Problem-solving skills
  2. Time management skills
  3. Effective communication skills
  4. Crisis management abilities
  5. Great organizing capacity
  6. Negotiation power
  7. Attention to detail and the ability to make metrics-informed decisions
  8. Leadership traits
  9. Multitasking abilities to work with cross-functional teams
  10. Strategic approach towards completion
  11. Flexibility 
  12. Collaboration skills
  13. Ability to chase a vision with a strategic roadmap 

All three PMs ensure there are no loose ends, maintain thorough coordination across multiple channels, schedule and run meetings, and communicate all the necessary details to the stakeholders. In today’s workspace, where remote work is preferred by most companies, the key element is to track progress through multiple meetings and accountability checks by reviewing previous meeting notes. Switching back and forth between tabs to keep track of progress can be hard, and that’s where some Google calendar extensions come in handy. Loopin, an effective meeting organization tool, helps PMs make the most out of their daily calendar apps beyond scheduling. Right from taking notes directly on the calendar without switching tabs, to reviewing notes from earlier meetings with a single click, a tool like Loopin makes the process much more efficient.

Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager

Now that we can clearly define a Product Manager, Project Manager, and Program Manager, it gets easier to establish the differences between them. Despite demanding similar personality traits and several overlapping roles, all three PMs have very distinct focus areas. Let's glance through the differences between Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager.

Bridging The Gap: Product Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Program Manager

The boundaries between product management, project management and program management are blurred in most small and medium scale enterprises. But even in their distinct differences, the job roles are downright interdependent. 

  • The product manager needs to be at the top of their game with customer research, market understanding, competitive analysis, and product strategy. 
  • A project manager gives constructive input in the planning and works on how to execute the ideas. 
  • Finally, a program manager oversees the operation of all the departments and checks for technical feasibility. They ensure that all the individual products and projects are aligned towards a common, long-term goal. 

With a collaborative spirit and clear communication between the three PMs, companies can accomplish their targets faster and accelerate their growth. All managers require efficient workplace tools like Loopin to plan their project and product delivery, have synchronous and asynchronous meetings, and monitor their progress. We would be glad to know how you and your PMs use workplace tools to maximize your productivity. Write to us in the comments below.