Why it’s better to manage Products than Projects

The different between project and product manager might sound semantic, but is actually quite significant. This post gives an overview of the differences, and explains why I think product management is the better approach.

Project management

At a high-level in the organisation, an end goal is decided. It’s also determined what work should be done to achieve this goal. Often this type of thinking and decision-making happens in an organisational or directorate strategy.

Project management is focused on delivering the specified output.

A project will usually be a discrete chunk of work, with some concrete deliverables, tied to a fixed pot of funding.

Product management

At a high-level in the organisation, leadership identifies a set of problems to solve, or goals to achieve.

In contrast to the project management approach, this is where senior direction stops. The product team – in particular the product manager – now has to figure out how to solve the problem or meet the goal. The task of figuring out how to reach the goal is devolved, and the product manager takes responsibility for maximising value within constraints. They vary the scope of what they build, and iterate their product over time, starting small and constantly testing hypotheses to test against risky assumptions, and to increase the value of what they’re delivering.

This approach places responsibility for the success or failure of the work on the product manager. Rather than following someone else’s idea, the product manager has to lead the process of working out how to accomplish the goal. They need to deeply understand the value they’re trying to bring, and act as the intersection point between users, analytics, technology and the organisation.

Funding is more usually ongoing.  This is because if you have a big problem it probably won’t get solved once-and-for all through a short burst of work. Or if you want to grow something valuable, you’ll get better returns if you invest over time.

Why product management is better

  • Understanding is emergent. People closest to a problem have the richest understanding of how best to solve it. We usually don’t know in advance which tactics will work and which won’t. This means that an approach that empowers the team on the ground – who will have far closer understanding of the problems than any senior manager – is better. The product manager, holds a strong understanding of the purpose of the work and of the different domains in their team, and can make very rapidly make holistic management decisions in response to new information.
  • Work involving human beings is risky. There are lots of unknowns when building things that interact with humans. Releasing working software regularly, testing assumptions, measuring impact against goals, and iterating to achieve better impact, is better than just delivering something that seemed like a good idea to a senior manager when they were writing a strategy.
  • It empowers and energises the team. You let the team own the problem and the solution. Organisational leaders are freed up to set overall vision and goals – a high-value task that better uses senior managers’ broad strategic view than micromanaging teams who have closer situational understanding than they ever will. It’s healthy to give staff interesting problems to solve, and demands more of them.
  • Ongoing investment is better than boom-and-bust creation and ending of projects. Once a project finishes, people spend less time thinking about it. Knowledge and context is lost, and money and people are devoted to other things. This makes it more costly to improve this area in the future. It’s more efficient and effective to invest seriously in a problem or an area where value can be added, and build a product that gets better over time, along with a persistent organisational understanding that gets more robust over time, as iteration after iteration builds knowledge.

So if you’re a leader, give people problems not projects. If a problem is worth solving, or you want to create new value in an area of your work, make that an ongoing investment. Make the overall purpose clear and give your product manager the space to work with their team to work out how to deliver the results you need.