project manager vs product owner

Project Manager vs Product Owner: What’s the Difference?

Project Manager vs Product Owner – differences

At first, these two roles – Project Manager vs Product Owner – may appear to be the same. They both manage projects. But when you take a closer look, you see that they are quite different.

Product owners are often seen as the godfather or godmother of the product. Product owners are responsible for maximizing customer value and meeting stakeholder expectations. Project managers, on the other hand, tend to focus on ensuring that work is completed according to plan and within budget constraints.

Here are some ways in which these two roles differ:

  • Project managers use time as their primary constraint whereas product owners use scope
  • Project managers provide an overview of how work will be done whereas product owners provide an overview of what work needs to be done
  • Product owners make decisions about what gets built whereas project managers make decisions about how things get built

Project vs. product

A project is an endeavor that aims to deliver an outcome – could be anything! Example – completion of a bridge, a building, a software or a website. It is a time-bound and an one-time effort. According to PMBOK, the project goes through multiple stages:

  • Initiation – when the high-level details of the project is identified
  • Planning – when the outcome is broken down into specific, smaller tasks
  • Execution – when the specific tasks are executed
  • Monitoring/Control – when the quality – or the ability of the outcome of the task to adhere to the expectation – is checked and monitored
  • Closure – the project is closed and has the official sign off

A product can be a service too – that goes through a lifecycle and is usually a longer endeavor as the output is constantly updated/revised based on consumer feedback.

Project Manager vs. Product Owner: areas of expertise

Project managers and product owners may be similar in the sense that they both try to reach the same goals. But they go about it in different ways.

Here’s a look at Project Manager vs Product Owner in terms of the skills they need to possess.

A project manager is someone who ensures work is completed on time and within budget constraints. The job of a project manager is to make sure the project will succeed by providing an overview of how work will be done, not what work needs to be done. Here’s detailed look at the top skills of a project manager.

A product owner, on the other hand, is responsible for maximizing customer value and meeting stakeholder expectations. It’s up to the product owner to make decisions about what gets built and providing an overview of what needs to get built. A product owner also decides how work gets done; whereas a project manager does not have this responsibility.

Product managers, according Martin Eriksson, are at the intersection between technology, business and user experience – they combine the hard technical skills needed to develop & maintain the product, understand the bigger business objective and are able to provide a seamless user experience.

Project Manager vs. Product Owner
Venn Diagram based on Martin Eriksson’s theory of Product Management

Project Manager vs. Product Owner: Differences in time and scope

A product manager tends to focus on delivering an outcome that meets both the business and consumer objectives , whereas project managers are generally concerned with planning, executing, and reviewing work to meet deadlines.

Time management

As outlined, a product lifecycle is a lot longer compared to a project lifecycle – which generally is finite and temporary in nature.

It is for this reason that project managers use time as their primary constraint whereas product owners use scope.

If you are a project manager, your main concern would to make sure that work is completed according to plan and within budget constraints. You may monitor the progress of each task by its duration or by some other measure of work.

Scope management

Product owners are responsible for maximizing customer value and meeting stakeholder expectations. Product owners must think about what gets built more than how it gets built or when it gets done. They have to balance these priorities in order to maximize customer value.

If you are a project manager, you outline how things will be accomplished and your team will execute your plan accordingly. A project manager must think about certain aspects like timeline, resources, 2nd 2nd 3rd party collaboration requirements etc., but they don’t need to know all the details about what has been executed successfully or not yet planned out yet since they are not typically doing any producing themselves.

Product owners take on more responsibility with this role because they have to think through all stages of development including planning, creation, execution and delivery. That means they need to know everything about what has been done so far and what is left to do.

Difference in decision making

Project managers often make decisions about how the work will be executed. For example, project managers might decide on which tools to use to complete a task or look for additional resources to get the project done on time.

Product owners make decisions about what gets built. They make the final call on whether or not something should be built. They may also prioritize features, which is another type of decision they can make.

Conclusion

The difference between Project Manager vs Product Owner is not always clear. One might be more naturally suited to your situation than the other.

If you’re the one in charge of a product or service, you’ll need to be a product owner. If you’re in charge of managing the project, you’ll need to be a project manager.

The time horizon for a project manager is typically about 6 months to 2 years. A product owner has a time horizon of typically 1-4 years.

A project manager is more focused on project delivery. A product owner is more focused on customer success.

Product owners are typically decision makers, while project managers are typically decision makers when faced with tradeoffs about how long it will take to complete the project.

Project managers tend to focus on making sure work is completed according to plan, within budget constraints, and on time. Product owners make decisions about what gets built and provide an overview of what needs to get done.

Product owners also focus on maximizing customer value and meeting stakeholder expectations; project managers don’t worry about that as much.

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