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Project management for product managers: What to know

Erika Carter

Project and product managers are two vital roles that are often confused with each other. Why is this the case? Is it because they both start with pro and end with ct, thus the only different letters being je and uc?

Or is it the whole management part? Perhaps when discussing project management and product management, people just stop listening after “pro–” thinking maybe hopefully whatever you’re saying doesn’t apply to them, or that maybe hopefully you’re talking to someone else, behind them. Or that maybe hopefully nothing is actually required of them, and you’re just rambling.

Or maybe it’s much more nuanced than that, because much like their spelling, these roles are connected and complementary to each other.

Product managers define the parameters and vision concerning a specific product a team is building. Often, this also includes gathering and prioritizing requirements needed before development can begin.

Conversely, project managers are responsible for executing this vision and building the product on time and within budget.

Let’s go on record here and differentiate between a project and a product:

  • A product may be software, a physical product, or a service that is intended for a certain group of users. A product has a lifecycle, which includes development, going to market, assimilating into the market, and retiring when it’s no longer relevant or necessary.

  • A project is a time-sensitive, one-time undertaking to successfully create a certain product. There’s a beginning and end date for a project and an expected outcome. It usually has five stages: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, control, and closure.

One of the main differences between the two is that a project is temporary, with a timeline, unlike a product.

Once introduced to the market, a product is expected to be updated and improved upon so that it can adapt to the needs of the market, until it outlives its usefulness.

Remember products like Walkmans, CD players, cassette players, or even your old iPod Shuffle? No? Well, during their heyday, they were constantly improved upon with better parts, new features, and new models until they retired themselves to your parents’ and grandparents’ basements. Then newer and easier ways to listen to music were introduced that didn’t require so much hardware or so many buttons, or so much spinning and shuffling.

What do project managers and product managers actually do?

Let’s take a deeper look at the roles of project manager and product manager. How do they differ in function? Where do they intersect? And is it at all possible for product managers to manage projects as well?!

Why, yes! Of course it is!

A product manager’s role is to prioritize the right problem for the team and business.

The end goal is solving that specific problem for the benefit of both the business and the product’s users.

Product managers are deeply involved in product strategy, making sure their team is focused on the highest-impact problems and collaboratively working together to solve them.

A product manager works like a company’s CEO, but for a specific product . That being said, product managers are responsible for setting overall product direction until the product is retired from the market.

They are responsible for understanding what the user needs, designing or developing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), not to be confused with Most Valuable Player (MVP), and leading the development team as they build the product according to users’ needs.

Some of the responsibilities of product managers in the early stages of a project are:

  • Gathering user requirements
  • Pinpointing problems and opportunities for product development
  • Determining the right problems to address
  • Coming up with product roadmaps and initial features
  • Deciding which development tickets to prioritize

Product managers also collaborate with various teams and stakeholders. These teams usually include sales, marketing, and customer support, as they are typically the ones involved in supporting a product’s goals once the product is launched.

A project manager, on the other hand, has a more tactical role. Project managers are focused on the delivery and execution of the product based on the product vision. Are you following?

The project manager is in charge of delegating the work to team members and ensuring everyone is doing their part on schedule. The project manager’s job spans the whole lifecycle of the development process until a successful product is built and ready to launch.

It is the project manager’s responsibility to ensure that a project is completed on time, within budget, and of good quality. Some of the usual tasks and responsibilities of a project manager are:

  • Developing project timelines for the project team to follow
  • Planning the development team’s workload depending on goals and deadlines
  • Oversee the entire process until the project is completed
  • Identifying and mitigating potential risks that might hinder project completion
  • Allocating and scheduling resources, including tasks, people, infrastructure, etc., to ensure that the team has everything it needs
  • Adjusting to changes in timeline or budget to ensure that the product is still delivered successfully

So, what do they have in common? Mainly, both roles work cross-functionally and have shared success in the goals and delivery of a project.

What is the biggest difference? To summarize:

  • Product management is more strategic, while project management is more tactical
  • Project managers are more focused on ensuring on-time project delivery, while product managers are more focused on ensuring that the right thing gets done in the first place
  • You could say that product managers care about the why and the how, while project managers care more about the when and facilitate the actual process 

How product managers project manage at Shortcut

At Shortcut, we don’t actually have project managers, per se. We’re all project managers, or a sort. This is mainly because our teams are autonomous, and we don’t usually need to add any extra level or hierarchy or responsibility.

Actually, at Shortcut, a lot of project management responsibility is on the engineering managers who are in charge of ensuring on-time delivery for their squad. They need to make sure things are done on time and work on cross-team dependencies. So in a sense, they’re also taking on some of the project management responsibilities that a traditional project manager would have.

Because our engineers also take on the role of project managers, workflows are smoother. This is because a lot of the back-and-forth between a traditional project manager and the engineers and developers is eliminated.

Note that some engineers and developers are also project managers, but not all project managers are engineers or are well-versed in code.

Because we truck in software development, we found that having engineering managers who can manage their teams’ own projects is the best structure for us.

While our product managers do need project management skills as well, the best use of their time is often setting a vision, working on the strategy, and prioritizing development tickets.

Product managers also need to make sure their cross-functional stakeholders are aware of the progress and the plan, which requires quite a bit of expectations management and planning, along with creating strategies or roadmaps.

Product managers need to be able to project manage their own work, even if they are not in charge of the actual delivery of each project.

At Shortcut, we trust all team members to manage their own work. The result is a merry mix of agile core teams, all working autonomously and effectively to complete their respective tasks.

What’s important in a project management tool from a product management perspective?

1. Collaborating with your whole team

The product development lifecycle is a very collaborative process where the product manager is usually more focused early on.

The process then moves on to product design and then software development, during which collaboration typically wanes.

Ideally, the process should be collaborative from start to finish and not just during the early stages.

Product management should be able to discuss every step of the way and iterate on it within the context of the tool.

Your project management tool should be a centralized place for all information and discussions to avoid confusion and data silos.

At Shortcut, we’re focused on creating good collaboration between teams. The tool is super easy and intuitive to use, even for your non-technical team members and stakeholders.

Shortcut also has great reporting features, which makes reporting on status easier for product and project managers.

2. Making sure everything is connected to your strategy or Roadmap

Each step of the product development process must be connected to the overall product strategy and product roadmap.

When working with large teams and multiple stakeholders, though, it’s easy to lose track of these things.

Hence, it’s crucial to have a tool that makes it easy to pull back in the process whenever needed and track your work throughout.

This ensures that each step stays on track and is consistent with your original strategy and Roadmap.

The key is to have all of your strategy and planning work laid out in a tool that accommodates such.

With Shortcut, for example, you and your team can always connect back to earlier stages and track progress as you go.

3. Bubbling up the status

It’s important that you can zoom in and out within the tool to be able to follow the high-level picture but also see the details when needed.

Most tools are restricted to either just a detailed view or an overview, not both. At Shortcut, for example, we want to make sure that higher-level pieces are clear.

In your Epics and Milestones, you can always connect back to the overall thing you’re working on, and individuals on your team are able to zoom out and see the entire roadmap at once and then zoom in to the lower-level items.

This works great in many ways. For a product manager, it’s especially important to see the higher level, whereas a project manager can follow the lower-level items with a tighter focus.

Meanwhile, team members can stay focused on their tasks while keeping track of overall goals and progress.

3 project management tips for product managers

1. Your project management tool should be more than a project management tool

Ultimately, project management is only one piece of the puzzle. There are many things besides actual work tracking that is essential for good project management.

At the heart of great project management is good collaboration, which a tool like Shortcut facilitates well.

Make it easy to manage your work with a customizable tool that fits the needs of more than one team or project.

Keep everyone on the same page, track dependencies, and notify relevant stakeholders whenever needed. Ideally, you should do all of this within the same tool.

2. Make it easy for your team and stakeholders to follow your project status

Collaborate with your team and stakeholders on all aspects of the development lifecycle.

Keep everyone in the loop concerning updates, changes, and milestones achieved, all in one place.

In Shortcut, you can easily keep everyone informed through Stories, Iterations, and quarterly Roadmaps that they can zoom in and out of.

It also helps to have a centralized tool that doesn’t create added confusion and data silos.

Hey, we all know a lot of teams are prone to having too many different tools for everything, so it helps to have a multi-tool like Shortcut that can keep things neat and organized, all in one place.

3. Focus on the work that actually needs you to do it

Use a proper tool to handle the manual project management tasks, so you can spend more time focusing on the strategy and planning, as well as prioritizing what problems to solve.

Plan the strategy and vision, facilitate the improvement of your team and processes, and let your team handle the project execution and delivery.

As with most agile teams, your team members are expected to be able to manage their own work and just update as needed. Remember — micromanaging is the enemy.

Your job is not to ‘build the bridge,’ so to speak. Your job is to determine which bridge you should build next and how you can make it happen successfully.

What’s Next?

Engineering, design, product, marketing, leadership... Whether a few people are wearing all of these hats, or you’re an organization of 25, 100, or 1,000 hat-wearing people across different departments, there’s a lot of moving parts, and hats, needed to ship great software.

In order to get valuable input from everyone in all headwear, and to ensure seamless work and timely delivery, teams must collaborate with clear and effective communication. Ensure that your responsibilities and deliverables are on track for every product and project. That’s product and project.

A great starting point is having a tool you can trust, from planning to execution and distribution. Here’s an amazing idea: why not try Shortcut? Get started with your free trial.

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