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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Product management is not project management

September 16, 2019 | By David DeWolf, Founder and CEO – 3Pillar Global @ddewolf

In today’s digital economy, all businesses are software businesses – especially content-focused businesses like digital publishing. With a wide range of apps and platforms all competing for consumer loyalty,  companies that would have never called themselves tech companies are now engaging with developers and innovators to maintain customer engagement. Understanding what drives successful product development is critical to achieving growth. 

One of these key realities is that product management is not the same thing as project management. 

Whenever 3Pillar advertises for a product manager, the majority of the resumes we receive will inevitably be from project managers. However, these are vastly different jobs. And hiring for them as if they are the same is one of the biggest mistakes a company can make. 

In product development, the product manager should be responsible for the “what,” the “why” and the high-level “when.” However, the project manager should be responsible for the “who,” the “how,” and a more detailed “when.” 

Building a railroad

Let’s use the analogy of a railroad: The product manager is the person responsible for deciding that a railroad is the right solution for the problem of getting people from point A to point B. The product manager also charts the course to navigate the terrain. He or she determines where the train will go and what stops it should make and the route taken including questions like whether it should go over or through the mountains. 

A product manager also prioritizes the sequencing of railways between stations. Perhaps he or she determines that New York to Boston is the most critical route. Only after that’s finished and operational should the railroad build a track to San Francisco.

Project managers, on the other hand, are responsible for laying the tracks and making the trains run on time. In product development, a project manager plays this role. They are responsible for the internal operations of the train: how fast the train goes down the track, what fuel it uses and what parts need to be replaced. 

Finding the best 

In the big picture, product managers are responsible for maintaining the long-term product roadmap and defining the product vision, while the project manager is responsible for managing the team’s day-to-day activities. 

The best product managers inherently have these four key areas of responsibility: 

  • Product strategy: Setting the vision and determining how to get there.
  • Product roadmap: Managing and prioritizing the backlog of features, defining them and making associated trade-off decisions. 
  • Product releases: Setting what features will be delivered to the customer and coordinating all aspects and interdepartmental dependencies.
  • Product ideation: Running the ideation process, collecting feedback and data, analyzing that data, thinking creatively, curating new ideas and promoting the most relevant ones into the backlog as features.

Product managers do each of these things (and many more) because they understand that they can’t build a product, pass it off to a project manager, and call it a day. That’s because product management – like product development – is never done.  

To give a real-world example of the difference between the two, imagine we’re talking about the team behind a fitness app like Fitbit. The product manager would be responsible for deciding that users would benefit from a series of video tutorials based on the type of workout a user wanted (Fitbit users might recognize this as Fitbit Coach). Once a decision had been made to go in that direction, the project manager would be responsible for working with the team to design, implement, and test those changes in the expected timeframe.

Common goals

Of course, in mature organizations with a product mentality, you won’t find a project manager on most teams. Instead, engineering managers typically take on the project management tasks that are actually applicable to the environment.

Product management and project management, working in concert, are essential. 

This starts with adopting a company-wide foundational mindset that doesn’t focus on antiquated IT thinking, which separates teams by function. Instead, this modern mindset focuses on common goals and making sure all members of the company understand the “big picture.” 

In today’s increasingly digital world, this means engineers, designers, marketers and finance working alongside product managers to build software that directly addresses the customer’s wants, stays ahead of the changing market, and ultimately drives revenue and profit back to the company. At 3Pillar, we call this the Product Mindset, and it drives how we approach every digital product we work on.

Great project managers are an indispensable part of a successful company. But you have to start with great product management. This is how you will be able to innovate and ultimately disrupt digital publishing markets and grow market share. Content is important — but product is king.


About the author

David DeWolf is CEO of 3Pillar Global and co-author of “The Product Mindset: Succeed in the Digital Economy by Changing the Way Your Organization Thinks.”

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