Product Manager vs Project Manager: The Composer and Conductor of Your Product Org

A few weeks ago I published a blog post on the differences between product managers and product owners. In the piece I referenced where project managers fit into this equation, but said it would ultimately need its own blog to fully unpack. And within 48 hours of publishing that blog I received a question about project management, and how it ties into the working relationship between product managers and product owners. So here I am, back again!

In my seven years at Atlassian I had the opportunity to partner closely with the project management team, and had dedicated project managers embedded on every team and project I worked on. Project managers are not only vital to the success of product organizations, but in my experience they’re the unsung heroes of most high-performing terms.

While product managers and project managers don’t sound nearly as similar as product managers and product owners, due to how closely they often work together, and the fact that both are managers, there’s often confusion on exactly who is responsible for what. Below I’ll break down the key differences between product managers and project managers, and unpack the how and why of their working relationship.


Jump to a specific section:

For anyone that’s hoping not to have to read past this first section, I’ll do my best to sum up the roles and responsibilities of both roles as succinctly as I can:

Product managers

The the most accurate and succinct definition of what a product manager does can be found on Atlassian’s agile coach:

A product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.

Project managers

In terms of the roles and responsibilities of a project manager, we can go directly to the source and consult the Association for Project Management (APM):

A project manager is responsible for day-to-day management of projects, and does so through six different lenses: scope, schedule, finance, risk, quality, and resources. Project managers work on projects that have definite outcomes, time limits, and must stay within a budget.

Additionally and importantly, as noted by the Project Management Institute (PMI): project managers are also individuals who understand what projects have in common, and are always improving their own and their teams' skills through lessons-learned reviews at project completion. In my experience this capability is especially vital for project managers who work across multiple teams/projects/parts of the org at once.

While this topic is covered fairly extensively in the differences between product managers and product owners, happy to provide another overview here:

Product managers are largely focused on the future, and what needs to be built next

The easiest way to think about product managers is that they’re the CEO of the product. From the beginning of the product development lifecycle–which usually begins with product discovery–to the end–which culminates on delivery of the product or feature–the product manager is in the driver’s seat. The product manager drives the product strategy by understanding customer needs, the product, and the overall market, and connecting the dots between these three things.

Much of a product manager’s job is to devise a compelling vision for their product and then, backed with data, champion their product plans throughout the organization. A product manager often finds him or herself working to persuade executives across the business to buy in and support their vision. Then, once buy-in is secured, the product manager is responsible for devising a plan and product roadmap to execute on the work. And it’s usually here that a project manager enters the picture.

However, before we go any further on project managers, here’s a list of common tasks you’re likely to find a product manager engaged in:

  • More deeply understanding the needs and wants of their users through user research, interviews, and market intelligence
  • Developing and sharing the long-term vision for the product, as well as a product strategy (or series of strategies) for achieving this vision
  • Rallying their team(s) around a product roadmap
  • Determining the most impactful feature or functionality to be built next
  • Defining and measuring success criteria for new features and functionality
  • Being the cross-functional champion for their product team(s) and roadmap(s)

But enough about product managers. Let’s explore the project manager role and unpack how these two roles partner and collaborate.

Project managers are focused on the present, and ensuring projects in flight are completed on time, scope, and budget.

If the product manager is responsible for the overall product strategy and vision, they partner with the project manager to ensure each of the necessary projects that support this vision and strategy are on track, going to be completed on time, and stay within an agreed upon budget. Project managers are especially impactful in helping to manage projects that have a multitude of stakeholders and related dependencies, which is one of the reasons you tend to see project management orgs pop up when companies scale and begin separating from a monolithic organization into distinct development teams, product lines, etc.

One analogy I’ve used over the years is that of a composer and conductor in an orchestra. A composer’s job is to determine what piece of music ultimately needs to be created, and works (often with others) to devise the best plan of attack. They’re responsible for tailoring the song to the correct audience, determining what the overall composition of instruments should be, and at the end of the day the buck ultimately stops with them to deliver a polished end product.

However, when it’s time for the song to be played, it’s the conductor’s job to ensure everything goes off without a hitch and the song sounds exactly as intended. The conductor ensures the right musicians are gathered, that each is performing their desired role, and that every orchestra member has their sound, timing, rhythm, and volume dialed in. A conductor is deeply involved in an orchestra’s day-to-day work through running regular rehearsals, and it’s their responsibility to ensure the performance of the song is a smashing success.

In this vein, the relationship between a product manager and project manager is quite similar. While the product manager is focused on what needs to be built, the project manager is ensuring that vision is realized and is in the trenches in execution mode. 

But what does that look like day to day? Here’s a list of tasks you’ll likely find project managers focused on:

  • Breaking down large initiatives into small, actionable tasks
  • Creating, updating, and sharing updated project timelines
  • Collecting and reporting on regular status updates to stakeholders and leadership
  • Devising mitigation strategies to ensure the project stays on track at all times
  • Working with the product manager to determine and define key milestones
  • Allocating and adjusting project resources as necessary
  • Keeping the team aligned and motivated to complete the project within the agreed upon timeframe

After reading that, if you’re thinking to yourself: “the project manager role seems really tough!”, you’re certainly not wrong. Project managers are the unsung heroes of much of the work that goes on in large organizations, and serve as the glue that holds it all together. While the project management role can be challenging, a great project manager can mean the difference between your project being completed on time and budget, and a project that goes wildly off track and/or is never completed at all.

Here’s a side-by-side of the these two roles, what they’re focused on, responsible for, and so on:

No, but it’s very helpful.

While a project manager is by no means required, it’s valuable for product managers to have someone helping them keep projects on time, scope, and budget. The product manager is usually one of the busiest and most extended roles in any organization, and the success of their vision and product strategy depends on relentless execution on a variety of work and projects. A project manager can fill this need and play a pivotal role in helping the PM achieve maximum output on each project. This is especially true for projects that involve a multitude of stakeholders and related dependencies. Realistically, a product manager simply won’t have the bandwidth to effectively manage all these moving pieces.

The short is yes.

However, the real question to ask yourself is if that’s the best use of a product manager’s time and resources. A mature organization hires and tasks product managers with some crucial responsibilities, the most important one being the strategic direction of and vision for the product. While it’s certainly possible for a product manager to oversee and successfully manage both the macro and the micro elements of product development, if the organization has enough resources to employ both roles the project manager will be a significant force multiplier for the overall health and success of the product development process.

The above is especially true if/when product managers oversee/manage multiple products or streams of work. At this point it not only becomes extremely difficult for the product manager to wear every necessary hat, keep the every train on time, and ensure all stakeholders are happy, but there also becomes massive value in having a project manager whose job it is to work cross functionally. Sharing best practices, operationalizing processes, keeping all teams and parties aligned, and so on.

Not usually.

While the role of a product owner and project manager aren’t the same, there’s quite a bit of overlap between their day-to-day responsibilities. Unless you have a particularly humongous project that involves lots of agile teams and countless stakeholders and related dependencies that must be navigated, having a project manager and a product owner supporting the same team(s) is likely overkill.

The project sponsor.

In the case of most traditional software companies and projects this sponsor is usually the product manager. However, project managers can manage any myriad of things, from the rollout of a new internal system to the execution and rollout of a new product. In each of these cases the sponsor could be a completely different stakeholder from IT, the executive team, or elsewhere.