Product Manager vs Program Manager vs Project Manager

In spite of being very different roles, it is astonishing how people everywhere seem to confuse between a Product Manager, Project Manager and Program Manager. These are familiar roles to people yet few seem to know what sets them apart from each other, even in the industry.

Yes, I get it that they sound similar. But so do flower and flour or genes and jeans.

Let us first understand the terms that these roles have to manage.

Project: A project is a temporary task or a group of tasks that are performed to create a unique product or service.

Product: A product is anything that satisfies an existing demand in the market. It has a life-cycle – it is ideated, developed, introduced, marketed and even retired. There can be multiple projects within the life-cycle of a product.

Program: A program is a group of projects that are aligned with a company goal.

Most organizations have separate positions for each. Understanding the distinctions between these roles can help you decide what you want to be. While these terms are mostly found in the world of technology, you can find them in diverse fields such as marketing and manufacturing as well.

Let’s find out what the differences between them are.

Product Manager

Product Managers define strategic business objectives which lead to different projects. They are responsible for the entire product, from its design to its development to its production. Product Managers have to evaluate the customer needs and develop a solution that addresses these needs, with the help of various teams in the organization.

Product Managers are responsible for the product life-cycle, right from gathering and prioritising the requirements and defining the product vision to the final sales of the product. They own the product strategy, its ideation, its features, its releases and even its profit-and-loss. The Product Manager has to ensure that his product delivers more value than the competition and is able to build a sustainable competitive advantage. He has to also ensure that the marketing efforts are in sync with the company’s vision and goals.

Project Manager

A Project Manager is responsible for a project and creates the project plan, allocates assignments, keeps track of the progress and challenges faced and reports them to the concerned stakeholders. He has to coordinate time, budget and resources effectively to complete the project on time. The Project Manager has to focus more on the operational elements of the project he is handling. Generally, Project Managers are people who have moved to a managerial role over time after gaining significant expertise as an individual contributor in the field.

Project Management consists of risk management, resource management and scope management. Project Managers have to manage all the risks in the project and mitigate them. They also have to ensure that the team has everything it needs when it needs it, be it the resources or infrastructure. The toughest part is to manage the scope of the project. Project Management is all about time, cost and quality and the constant trade-offs that have to be decided to keep the project going.

Project managers own the budget, delivery, resources, capacity and collaboration in a project.

Program Manager

The position of a Program Manager differs from company to company and from industry to industry. Generally, a program consists of many interrelated projects and hence Project Managers report to Program Managers. So while the role is less tactical or administrative than that of a Project Manager, the stakes are higher as the success of the program as a whole lies on the shoulders of the Program Manager.

A Program Manager needs to be a visionary and should know how the various initiatives will impact the business. They define the various projects that need to be completed to reach the final goal. Their focus is on the strategy and implementation of the entire program and thus the responsibilities go far beyond the completion of individual projects, so as to focus on the long-term implications of the program.

The role of a Program Manager is slightly different in technology companies. Such companies view this role as a Technical Product Manager and thus expect familiarity with the underlying technologies used.

Having the same person perform all the roles does justice to neither role, as the focus of Project Management is internal and tactical and the focus of Product Management is customer centricity. Every business needs all three i.e. Product, Project and Program Manager for its long-term business. But that also depends a lot on the size of the business. In startups, Product Managers are expected to handle Project Management as well sometimes.

To summarise,

Product Managers focus on What and Why of a product.

Project Managers focus on When of a product.

Program Managers focus on How of a product.

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