Product Managers vs. Project Managers Part II: Situational Analysis

In Part II of our Product Managers vs. Project Managers series, Johnny Chao explores situations in which companies should seek a Product Manager, Project Manager, or hybrid of both.
7 min read

In the last article, we focused on the core skills and traits that successful Product and Project Managers should have. Specifically, we saw the ways in which Product Managers (PDMs) serve as the “CEO” of a given product, while Project Managers (PJMs) serve as the “COO.” Now, let’s discuss the situations in which an organization needs a PDM, PJM, or a hybrid of both.

This analysis also addresses several important trends we have seen driving the “Future of Work” at Toptal. Such trends include rising turnover rates at technology companies, the digitization of a range of traditionally analog industries, and employees on a given team working remotely.

Situations Requiring a Product Manager:

Product Ideation: A company needs a PDM in the early stages of designing a new product. The PDM leads the team to complete and validate product requirements so a minimum viable product (MVP) can be built. This type of work requires significant research and validation, and sometimes may even invalidate an idea. But if the team moves forward into the product development phase, the PDM who has validated the idea is usually the best candidate to lead execution.

Product Development: The requirements exist and have been validated, a demo has been built and the company is ready for the next step: developing the MVP. The PDM is responsible for leading execution. In these cases, companies should look for PDMs with strong skills in leading teams, influencing functional partners, and making hard decisions after evaluating cost / benefit tradeoffs.

Guardian for a Mature Product: In cases involving stewardship over a mature product, the goals are to maintain the product’s existing user base, cut operational costs, and avoid mistakes. The PDM does not need to spur high growth, but rather maintain consistency and, in some cases, help wind the product down. A PDM in this situation needs to have strong management skills, experience in sales support, and an understanding of how to maintain profitability.

Transitioning to Digital Products: This is relevant to traditionally analog industries, such as banking or insurance. These situations require companies to adapt to consumer demands and develop digital interfaces to find, engage and serve their customers. In these cases, the PDM leads the charge to translate existing analog products into digital contexts. The digital version of the product should not negatively impact the existing version, but rather complement and improve customer experience.

Situations Requiring a Project Manager:

New Product Development: These cases are most frequently digital projects in which the result is delivery of a software product. A PJM driving this type of initiative is responsible for leading a team to deliver the end-product on budget, on time and in scope.

New Product to Market: These projects differ from the above category in that they encompass a broader range of tasks beyond technical product delivery. For example, for a new product launch, the product delivery, distribution plan, marketing launch, vendor partnerships, and legal considerations are all in scope. A company needs a seasoned cross-functional PJM for this job.

Business Transformation: The company needs to redesign a core function. The solution is ambiguous and multifaceted, but generally includes transforming internal processes and reorganizing teams or other areas of the organization. Transitioning certain teams from in-office to remote, in order to increase efficiencies, save cost and attract the best talent available, would also fall within the PJM’s purview.

Post-M&A Integration: The merger of large companies kicks off a set of integration initiatives that vary in scope and duration. These initiatives can be both technical (merging two systems or software products) or highly non-technical (merging customer services processes and organizations). These processes require a PJM with both M&A and industry background.

Situations Requiring a Hybrid:

There are times when it makes sense to have one person serve as both PDM and PJM. These scenarios are quite specific, and top talent with both skill sets are both rare and expensive.

Small Team: When the team size is small – under six to eight people – then the administrative overhead, communication friction, conflicts and inefficiencies are also smaller. In these cases, a company may not need a full-time PJM to ensure communication and relay critical information. In this case, a PDM with project management skills, coupled with an experienced development lead, will likely suffice.

Well-defined Product: Some product concepts are well-defined, requiring only incremental iterations and a few upgrades. If the team has a seasoned business analyst, it can flourish without a PDM. A PJM with some product experience will suffice.

Custom Solution: Often companies are not building products per se, but rather custom solutions for one client – the company may not even own the relevant IP. In these cases, the company likely doesn’t need a full-time PDM. The company can instead hire a freelance PDM for the duration of the project, or hire a PJM who has product experience.

Budget Constraint: Despite wanting a PDM and a PJM for a given project, companies sometimes lack the budget to hire both. In these cases, the company should seek someone with both strong product and project experience, as well as willingness to work extended hours. Given the extra workload required, it may behoove a company to allow the employee to work remotely. Both remote work and flexible working hours are becoming more widespread and can enable companies to overcome difficult budget constraints.

The following checklist table can help a company quickly decide whether it needs a PDM, PJM or both:

Product Managers and Project Managers are both essential to software product development and delivery. The best PDM and PJM talent will not only do what they are mandated, but also find and fix unforeseen blind spots. The key is to find the right talent, equipped to solve the challenges your organization faces. This is especially true if you are open to new models of working and utilizing a combination of full-time, freelance, and remote employees. Successful leaders solve problems creatively, and increasingly do so by deploying PDMs and PJMs in new, flexible ways.

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