Societies mature and in a competitive free market, job specialization results from those advances. Long ago, a family raised its own food and used the by-products for other uses (e.g., cattle delivered beef to eat, leather for shoes, and fat to make soap and candles). Today we have farmers and ranchers raising meat and produce that we purchase at the supermarket, and we buy our shoes at different stores depending on special needs (e.g., running shoes at a sporting goods store and dress shoes at department stores).
Specialization also trickles into our job functions. Previously, project managers juggled strategic and tactical objectives, balancing business needs with the day-to-day implementation of project tasks. Moreover, the project manager was also typically responsible for people and talent management, including development and learning plans for project team members.
Project managers, like the family of bygone days, also managed multiple tasks – negotiations for contracts (with help from purchasing and legal), quality planning, and risk management. In this way, project managers “owned” the project and understood benefits as well as costs. A highly skilled and experienced project manager zooms in and out from a macro-viewpoint to detailed tasks and activity implementations as needed throughout any given workday.
Recent Introduction of Product Management
In the last several years, a new role has surfaced in many businesses. That is the role of a product manager. Conceptually, a product manager handles a project’s strategic linkages between the business or customer needs and the technical development and design teams. Ideally, the project manager then can focus solely on execution of day-to-day tasks.
With continued job specialization, product management is sometimes further classified by in-bound and out-bound product marketing. To gather customer and business needs, product managers must analyze consumer behaviors, market trends, competitors, and so on. But product managers also work as brand or category managers, helping to determine product features and release roadmaps. The former represents in-bound marketing and the latter out-bound product management. In both cases, product managers remain attuned to customer needs above all else.
The Need for Product Management
How do you know if your organization needs a product manager? One organization with which I have worked recently had conducted R&D activities, product development, and customer interactions through individuals called “project managers”. As their business has evolved, they were purchasing and re-branding many different product solutions from outside vendors. The role of project manager changed to product manager.
In this situation, individuals originally spent the bulk of their day-to-day activity monitoring budgets and tasks to convert a new idea into a saleable product. They Interacted closely with their manufacturing facility to ensure quality and proper inventory levels. They established schedules and supervised technicians and specialists who gathered experimental data to continually improve product designs. Small teams often visited the factory (located in the same building as the project team) in order to ensure product development progressed at the right pace.
As the company transitioned to more off-the-shelf and out-of-the-box product solutions, the role of the project manager was not as crucial as that of a product manager. No longer were the factory development trials critical path items. Instead, they assessed quality by gathering samples from the outside vendors. Because the firm’s product cycle follows the school year, timetables and schedules for off-the-shelf products are set without negotiation. Coordination activities adjusted from day-to-day to year-long sales cycles.
Product managers learned forecasting and sales techniques to balance the technical expertise they had previously established as project managers. In this way, the product managers truly served both the business and their customer.
What is Your Role?
Learning to distinguish between the roles of project management and product management is important for today’s complex business challenges. Learn more at our free webinar on Project vs. Product Management 11 April at 1 pm EDT/12 pm CDT. Register here for our monthly product development lunch and learn.
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