Project, Program and Product Managers – What’s the difference?

While many in the industry assume that the definitions for project, program and product managers are mutually exclusive and well understood, the reality is, these titles often become confused with one another.

Individuals will often use the abbreviation ‘PM’ to signify all three. And in truth, there is some overlap between the roles. You will often periodically find situations where a person is filling more than one role, spanning both product and project management (the man of many hats).

But on a fundamental level, what exactly IS the difference between those titles? What distinguishes them from one another and how do they often fill their own particular niches within an organization?

To answer this most effectively, it’s best to simply define them on an individual level and explain their particular role.

Project Manager

This is a professional that has the responsibility of planning, executing and closing any project. Typically, these individuals will reside in a variety of industries, such as construction, architecture, software and hardware development or telecommunications. (Along with many more) In general, this individual will be responsible for accomplishing the stated project objectives. Some key project management responsibilities include creating clear and attainable project objectives, drafting the project requirements, and managing the constraints, which are scope, time, and cost. In general, a project manager is usually only responsible for one project at any given time.

Program Manager

Like their counterpart, the project manager, program managers are also responsible for the planning, execution and closure of various company programs. The primary difference between the two is that a program is a group of inter-related projects and the program manager must deal with a larger set of complex dependencies. The Program Manager has oversight of the status of all projects in a program and can use this oversight to support project-level activity. In order to ensure that the overall program goals are met, the program manager will be providing the high level decision-making pertaining to all projects within the scope of the program. Generally speaking, a program manager is someone that had several years of tenure in managing individual projects before moving up and taking on the larger responsibility of more complex programs.

Product Manager

Based on standard definitions, a product manager investigates, selects, and develops products for an organization. They will often be responsible for performing tasks such as demographic analysis of users, competition analysis, feasibility studies and portfolio analysis as well as pricing and implementation strategies. For the most part, product managers will not be monitoring or controlling the projects themselves, but will often be contributing to their overall feature-set. Product Managers are almost always key stakeholders for specific projects and programs within an organization and will often assist in driving the primary requirements that make up the deliverables for a project.

In addition to the aforementioned roles, there are a few other key positions within an organization that also periodically overlap (or are confused) with project and program managers:

Product Marketing Manager

These individuals are usually responsible for what are considered the seven ‘P’s of marketing, those being: Product, Pricing, Place, Promotion, Packaging, Positioning & People. Product marketing, as opposed to product management, will generally deal with outbound marketing tasks. So while product management will deal with the fundamentals of the product development within an organization, product marketing deals with marketing the product to potential customers. In essence, these are the individuals that make sure that the branding and general advertisements relating to a product are handled adequately and target the correct demographics.

Business Analyst

These types of individuals are the ones that perform the analysis pertaining to the organization and design of businesses, government departments, and non-profit organizations. In addition, they also assess the business models and their integration with technology utilized by the firm. Generally speaking, business analysts handle the following four tiers: strategic planning, operating/business model analysis, process definition and design, and IT/Technical business analysis. Once again, similar to product managers, they will often be part of a project as stakeholders or advisors. Because business analysts often dictate internal process and have more fundamental knowledge of technical internals, they are an excellent resource that the project or program manager can utilize during the life-cycle of any given project.