product manager vs program manager vs product manager

Product Manager vs project manager vs program manager vs : What’s the difference?


The “PM” is a slightly confusing abbreviation. It can mean at least three different roles- first is the product manager, second is the project manager, and the third one is a program manager. All these roles differ from each other in their histories and responsibilities.

So, in spite of dissimilarities between the roles, it is surprising to know how people tend to confuse between these three roles.

Let’s first get some brief overview on the terms that these roles needs to manage:

Project

A project is a task or set of tasks required to develop a unique service or product.

Program

A program is a collection of projects that is aligned with a company goal.

Product

A product is something that satisfies the current demand in the market.

project vs program vs product

To know the differences among the roles: product manager, program manager and project manager, let us first know about their functions in detail.

Product management

It is a process to strategically drive the development, market launch and ongoing support for the improvement of products at a workplace or company. Put simply; product managers do not hold any responsibility towards a team or a specific project. But, they rather focus on one or more products in a company from the time the product conception or ideation is perceived.

Program management

It involves the identification and coordination of interdependencies among products, projects or other important initiatives in an organization. The role of the project manager is to break down the required work into smaller pieces of tasks.

For example, consider a product manager working on a product development process. Here is a need to have a marketing team that will create collaterals and other deliverables to help in launch or promotional campaign. And there is a need for a web development team to build the code for web pages to test a trial download. While the customer support department should be enough proficient in handling the product so as to start resolving user queries once the product goes live.

This is where the role of program manager comes into play. The program manager identifies all these interdependencies involved across different departments. They work with relevant stakeholders associated with these departments while working in coordination with them. Program manager takes care of everything that is necessary to do for supporting the program.

Project management:

The project management focus is on actions to ensure the tasks are done on time. The delivery of projects is not confined. It can deliver a complete product, or a part of a product, or just one aspect of a complex product. The project management team works collaboratively with operations, engineering marketing, legal, IT and finance team to finish the product.

So now you know the basics behind the three roles, it’s a time to discuss the differences among them.

Product Manager VS Project Manager Vs
Program Manager

Product Manager

The title of project manager comes from the role of a brand manager. The responsibility of the success of a product line was on brand managers. They saw good success in this context.

It was to the fact that when the software market expansion was evident in the 80s, the technical firms, especially hired brand managers to manage and oversee their company products. Their deep expertise, ownership and product knowledge could easily deal with everything- from consumer to technology, and that’s exactly what happened.

So, the product managers today carry a similar kind of universal focus. From design/development to production of a product, the product managers are responsible for the entire product lifecycle. Product managers are responsible for managing customer interactions.

They know the pain points of customer and how to plan the features of a product. While working with various departments, product managers ensure the product is finally delivered as per the expectations of the stakeholders. Product managers have to make sure that their product delivers greater value than the competitor.

He knows the user needs and what development team can do to combine everything into successful implementation.

Product managers own the entire product strategy- the ideation, features and releases, and even the profit and loss. Through product roadmaps, use cases, and developer stories, they provide assistance for development efforts.  

As ultimately, the product success relies on the product management, the role of a product manager is here to resolve the questions such as why there is a need to build a product in a specific way. Which user personas should be their target? Why fix our rates at this level.  

As a result, product manager comes in whenever there is a need to improve the probability of success.

Program Manager

The title “project manager” is most common in Seattle. The title came into use after an Excel team member- Jabe Blumenthal took it on in the early days of Microsoft.

The programmers at that time were wasting their lot of time in writing code and still they were not balancing the marketing requests. He realized the issue and decided to fill that gap with the title project manager.

He began writing functional specifications by viewing himself as the customer’s voice. This is why the program manager role is somewhat technical and related to programming.  

The job of a program manager is to articulate the program strategy and objectives to see its impact on a business. The program manager goes beyond the individual projects completion to the whole program realization for long-term implications.

It is the responsibility of a program manager to realign the projects to function as per new goals when there is a change in the organization’s goals. They ensure that the efforts put into project work remain feasible and helpful from a business point of view.

The project managers manage the schedule, scope and risk while coordinating teams working on specific projects. For example, in a system software suite, the product manager illustrates what should go into each suite product.

While the program manager even coordinates with project managers and handles their project work, focused on the delivery of individual projects. So, the success of the whole program is dependent on the program manager. Thus, they need to be visionary and must have knowledge of the initiatives that will benefit business.

The specifications of the program manager are often more detailed than the product manager. Their role is slightly different in technology companies. You can often realize their role as a technical manager in such companies.

Program managers take a closer look at the implementation of things. They are a core element of the engineering team, and their focus is less on other financial and services aspects of the company.

Being a central point of communication, their relation with other manager roles is less frequent. The evaluation of a program manager success depends on the fact if the software delivered is useful and reliable.

Project Manager

In contrast to the focus on “what to build?” question of product managers, the project managers have their focus on “how to build it?” The project managers have their own world of schedules and budgets. The Project manager is known as ScrumMaster in case they are dealing with the agile development processes.  

The project manager is responsible for breaking down the project processes. They create the project plan, track progress status, allocate assignments, deal with the challenges and reporting them to the relevant stakeholders. Their prime focus is on operational components of the project they are handling.

Project management is associated with resource management, risk management and scope management. Thus, the project managers need to manage all the project risks and mitigate them effectively.

They ensure everything is going on track and the team has everything in terms of infrastructure and resources. Managing the scope of the project is one of the hardest tasks. Project managers take care of the quality, cost and time, along with the delivery and capacity in a project.

Project Manager VS. Program Manager

The job of a project manager is more tactical than the program manager. Here is a recap of some differences between them-

  • While project managers handle individual projects, the program managers oversee a group of projects.
  • The project managers focus on short-term and real deliverables in contrast to the role of program managers’ deals with long-term objectives of the business.

The project managers play a pivotal role in large organizations. In some small organizations, one may not usually find a project manager. In such cases, program manager, product manager, or technical lead take the initiative to fill the gap. The success of a project manager is evaluated on the basis of how timely and on a budget the project was completed.  

How all the three roles (Product Manager, Program Manager and Project Manager) work collaboratively?

Project manager and Product Manager

Under the project manager, each of the involved team members has information about the current scenario of the work with project terms and required resources. The project manager works hand in hand with the product manager.

He works on the personification of the project to make it more realistic. Both the project manager and product manager lead the project towards successful completion. They also suggest the ideal technical solutions for the project.

Their collaboration is to bring down the development costs and stay in constant touch with the customer. They together assure a good final outcome for the project as well as the product future.

Product Manager VS. Program Manager and Project Manager

As discussed earlier, the project and product manager works as unison during the whole process of project development. Thus, it is not wrong to take both in comparison with the role of a program manager.

At times, an organization is working on a lot of projects wherein some of the projects may be of similar type. That’s the right time to call in a program manager in work performed. In fact, program manager and product manager work as one unit to decide the best technical and financial variants for the present project.  Thereby, such a triple association makes the entire development process reasonably moderate.

Some Important Workplace Tools for Managers

The world today makes us utilize digital tools for any sort of work. And hence the professions like program project and product managers are also not the exception. But, every manager role has its own preferences. In spite of responsibilities, all kind of managers look after many things and must possess extreme efficiency and organizational capabilities.

Product managers highly appreciate task operating systems and comfort boards. Hygger is one of such tools that consist of many useful features like prioritization matrices, roadmaps and other beneficial features.

Like for example, Jira is a favourite tool for ordinary project managers. This tool acts as an important system, which let team members track all their project development activities as per the current trends.  It allows checking the tasks in the backlog page and stays prepared for a product release or other project stages.

While for program managers the tools like Asana, the cross-functional platform is of great help. It helps to manage their project programs in a precise manner. Also, Asana helps in monitoring the current activities with timely send and receive feedbacks, including the exchange of corporate messages.

Here are some common tools that help every role:

Templates to duplicate past success:

There are some programs that may include similar projects. As an ad campaign is usually there in every marketing project.  So, it is best for managers to make a template of their whole work and save themselves from reinventing the wheel. This will not only support you to duplicate past success but eradicate the need to create new initiatives from scratch as well.

Dashboards for a bird’s eye view:

It is important to have a clear picture of task status and progress when many people are involved in the project success at a single glance. Thus, a dashboard is must for every manager to know who is working on which thing at a quick glance. The dashboard will give both a bird’s eye view and the power to look into details if required.

Flexible views to work in a comfortable way:

As everybody has their own style of working. The role of managers becomes much simpler when they give other freedom to work the way they want. The tools like tables, Kanban boards, timelines and lists allow viewing a project or single program from different angles. This offers everyone flexibility to remain synchronized and work as per their comfort.

Combine everything in a single thread:

It is difficult to keep track of very asset, request an update. It is wastage of time for managers to scour through spreadsheets and emails for every single detail. So, it is very beneficial to keep all project communications and programs in a single thread for easy reference.

So, the roles may be different, but they share the same challenges.

Final note

  • The product manager job includes the final outcome of the product or the perception of the end user.
  • The project manager takes note of the status of the development process and the actual state of the project.
  • A program manager has the complete control to manage the entire group of projects.

However, all of these roles rely on each other for project success. But at the end of the day, it is teamwork that makes a project or product successful.

Additional Resources :

Product Manager vs project manager vs program manager



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