Every product manager should know how to be a project manager.
They should be able to understand the fundamental ingredients and cooking time of their products and be capable of making an initial assessment of opportunities and costs without relying on engineers before considering new features.
They should know how to tell people what they should do, the order they should do it in, be able to motivate people to finish things, and visualize and communicate how this all fits into the big picture.
They should be able to “play Solomon” and make the hard decisions as deadlines approach about what to drop, what to skip, and what to spend time on.
But at their core, product management is a strategic role while project management is a tactical one.
So, while every product manager COULD be a project manager, the real question is, SHOULD they be a project manager?
Like all good questions, the correct answer to this inquiry is, “It depends.”
Team No: You Should NOT Project Manage
The following are four good reasons why a product manager shouldn’t be spending their time on project management:
1. You’re not in the office
A good product manager spends a lot of time out of the office, meeting with customers and prospects, tagging along for sales meetings and service calls, maybe even attending industry events. Your engineering teams, QA staff, and DevOps folks aren’t coming with you, which means it’s awfully hard to stay on top of them if you’re being a “good” product manager and getting out of the building.
“While there are certain role / skill overlaps, it can be very important to have both a product and project manager,” says Kevin Lee of AltSchool. “For example, if a product manager is focusing on external needs like understanding customer needs, then there isn’t time to go chase down people to complete certain tasks or manage all the deadlines to make sure a product gets shipped in time.”
While there are plenty of technology and tools to make it easier to manage projects from afar, if you are the acting project manager then you are now spending your valuable out-of-the-office time worrying about what’s happening back there and not wherever you actually are.
2. You’re not technical enough
Unless you are a former engineer, chances are your technical teams know way more than you, which is a good thing. It also means that you are not able to fully assess the legitimacy of their claims of how long something is going to take or gauge the true difficulty of unexpected situations that arise during the development cycle.
A good and trustworthy VP of Engineering or CTO might help mitigate this, but it is an unnecessary challenge when you’ve got the option of using a project manager to worry about these things for you.
3. You’ve got too many other things to do
Even though you are perfectly capable of managing projects, your role as a product manager is far broader than ensuring the Gantt charts are up to date. You’re way too busy conducting market research, attending usability tests and tracking business metrics to monitor whether someone has checked in the latest module or run a regression test.
“The fact that PRODUCT Managers often have a PROJECT background doesn’t mean we should take on both roles at the same time,” says Daniel Elizalde of TechProductManagement.com. “The more we can offload those responsibilities to a dedicated project manager, the more risk we mitigate and the more time we’ll have to focus on key product needs. If you find yourself doing more PROJECT than PRODUCT management, then you are probably not adding all the value you could be.”
Delegation and division of labor is what separates us from the animals. Being a product manager is a broad enough role that you shouldn’t have to pile on micromanagement.
4. You need someone else to blame
As the product manager, you’re the face of the product to the business and potentially to the market as well. You’ve been mapping out the future and setting a course for success assuming that the technical team will deliver the great stuff you’ve come up with.
When they’re late, it’s because THEY are late. If YOU are the project manager, then the blame and complaining is all aimed at you, despite the fact that you have no authority to actually make developers or testers do anything since they aren’t accountable to you.
Despite everything we just covered, there are some really good reasons for a product manager to act as a project manager.
Team Yes: You SHOULD Act as a Project Manager
In order to stay fair and balanced, four reasons you should go for it:
1. You are accountable for the success of your products
We all know that product managers are held accountable for how things turn out, despite the fact that they usually don’t have any authority over others in the organization. While adding the project management hat to the many others you’re already wearing doesn’t magically make you everyone’s boss, it does give you a lot more say into what happens.
2. You don’t like being surprised
Instead of waiting until a status meeting to find out that things aren’t going according to plan, you’ll be the first (or maybe the second) to know that something is amiss. You’ll also be involved in the triage and mitigation of issues from the get-go instead of having to argue against a decision that others made without you.
3. You can set the priorities and ensure people stick with them
By managing the project, you’re able to avoid unnecessary detours and ratholes by maintaining constant communication with development team members. There’s no danger of things being lost in translation.
4. You’re the only one that grasps the full scope of the project
Shipping a product isn’t just about writing some code and testing it, or designing a widget and getting it manufactured. A new product launch or update affects every aspect of your company, from marketing to accounting to sales to customer service, not to mention the larger ecosystem of distributors, suppliers and channel partners. It’s your responsibility to make sure every box gets checked to ensure a smooth launch that doesn’t leave someone scrambling or unhappy.
Verdict: It Depends. But On What?
Let’s look at some specific moments when it makes sense for the project manager to step into the role of project manager:
When it is all boiled down, the product manager is the CEO – they are focused on the WHAT and the WHY, and probably have some strong feelings about the WHEN – while the project manager is concentrating on the WHO and HOW and WHEN.
“Product managers are responsible for the overall product vision, directing the people (including all the touchy-feely stuff) and the roadmap (the strategy) for getting there,” says Richard Benfield of Fresh Tilled Soil. “Project managers are responsible for getting the logistics, scheduling, planning and task allocations done.”
And just like many small companies can’t afford a separate COO and the CEO needs to handle those responsibilities as well, there are occasions where product managers need to handle both roles, even if it’s not ideal.
Based on the previously laid out pros and cons of product managers taking on project management, when is the right time to step into that role while maintaining your other product management duties? Sticking with the theme of “it depends,” the time for a product manager to be a project manager is when you’re dealing with something small or something big.
Why should you manage a small project?
When you’re tackling something small, adding a dedicated project manager is unnecessary overhead and is far more likely to slow things down than take things off your plate. Plus, you’ll remain close enough to the project to ensure it gets done right and quickly so you can start reaping the rewards and seeing the results.
Why should you manage a big project?
Large projects usually have too much at stake to leave them in the hands of a project manager. When it comes to the executive-level items, you should be the one who is monitoring and reporting status updates and staying on top of deadlines. However, this doesn’t mean there’s not a role for project managers; assign them sub-tasks/projects while you run the show at a high level.
A lot of good can come from working closely with technical teams, and serving the project management role creates those opportunities.
“(Your) job is to push the engineers to get things done, but not just by urging them,” says Barron Ernst of Naspers. “It’s by working alongside them to help them make the best tradeoffs, to prevent them from getting caught up in an engineering challenge that isn’t important, and by focusing them on the customer.”
Of course, in those situations where you do utilize a project manager, you shouldn’t be thinking of it as a “set-it-and-forget-it” situation. Instead, you should view the project manager as your window into the inner workings of the development team and as your lever for affecting change when necessary.
And for those projects where a project manager is running things on your behalf, the best way to make things efficient is to ensure your requirements are extremely clear and thorough. This way, project managers aren’t having to shuttle inquiries back-and-forth between the dev team and you.
So if I’m not the project manager, who is?
Depending on the size, culture and complexity of your organization, there may be one or more dedicated project managers, or it may fall on the shoulders of someone sporting a different title.
One tactic employed by the notoriously “flat” organization 37 Signals is to use a rotating system of project leaders.
“It frees us from the often toxic labor-versus-management dynamic, in which neither party truly understands what it’s like to be on the other side,” says 37 Signals president Jason Fried. “This is where you’ll find a lot of conflict in companies. But because we rotate management duties weekly, everyone is more empathetic toward one another. When you’ll be management soon, you respect management more.”
Familiarity with the project team’s individual members and their respective strengths and weaknesses is essential to effective project management.
“A vital part of the project manager’s role is the delegation of tasks to the right individuals. This involves getting to know a team of people to the point where you fully recognize their personal strengths and abilities and understand what they do best,” says Felix Marsh of Agil8. “Being able to hand over a task to someone and walk away knowing that you can trust them to carry it out to the best of their ability frees up a project leader’s time to focus on the other areas requiring their attention.”
Ultimately, a product manager can’t truly embrace their primary role of “CEO” of a product without knowing that the day-to-day tasks are being completed competently and correctly, which is why a skilled project manager is such an essential member of the delivery team.