Question 1: I’ve been told I need a Product Manager, will a Project Manager suffice?  The adjectives suggest that they are an entirely different kind of ‘Manager’.

Answer 1: The paradox is that the very same manager can most probably perform each either job function as there is an overlapping set of underlying skills required for both roles, and what is missing from either role can easily be picked up.  There is a difference in the way the skills are executed, but fundamentally the same person can be successful in either of these conceptually different job functions.

Question 2:  Is the guy in the picture a Product Manager or a Project Manager?

Answer 2:  He is illustrating some level of knowledge website design (albeit ‘outmoded’ design) that could be aligned against any number of job titles, including the two in question.

Expanding on 2: Last time I checked, it would be useful (in either roles) to know how to design and build digital solutions.  It is very useful for a Product Manager to have a passion for combing aesthetic with function into a great design, especially when wearing the ‘customer persona’s’ hat and briefing the design team.  Similarly, the more you know about technology, architecture, solution design, development, integration …..  all the techie stuff  ….. the more informed you will be as a Project Manager or a Product Manager, in particular when managing teams of architects and developers to build a customer centre’d product in a particular way.

Consideration 1: Product Lifecycle

The ideal Digital Product Manager will have the right blend of business and technical skills and experience to be both a strategic thinker and successful innovator.  Digital Project Management covers the entire lifecycle of a digital product, from ideation to retirement.

The ideal Digital Project Manager will (also) have the right blend of business and technical skills and experience to be both a strategic thinker and successful innovator. Digital Project Management covers parts of  the entire lifecycle of a digital product, from ideation to retirement.

Expanding on C1: Ok, there is a difference. Usually the Digital Project Manager will be retained to manage a particular part  of the lifecycle. THis will often be the ‘delivery part’,  from ideation to launch for example. Some times the Digital PM may manage the other end of the lifecycle, i.e. the decommissioning and replacement of said product.  This gap in between the two roles can (of course) be bridged by any decent Project Manager who has the right back-ground and experience and (crucially) an appetite to play the long game.

Consideration 2: Monetisation (for commercial product management)

The ideal Digital Product Manager will understand how to make money out of the product.

The ideal Digital Project Manager will understand how to build the product within the budget provided..

Expanding on C2: This smaller difference (may be irrelevant if the product is not commercial and) is surmountable by the Digital Project Manager who has the right commercial outlook and an appetite to undertake a slightly different level of arithmetic.

Consideration 3: Centre of focus

The ideal Digital Product Manager has the customer at the centre of their attention and is seeking to deliver the best possible experience, within the business constraints imposed.

The ideal Digital Project Manager has a natural centre of gravity located somewhere in the middle of a three dimensional triangle of opposing forces;  (1) cost to deliver,  (2) time (to deliver) and (3) quality of the deliverable. The quality of the deliverable can be regarded as the proximity to perfection, measured by testing the features and functionality against the statements of requirements.

Expanding on C3: While this may be regarded as the biggest difference between the two roles, it is by no means insurmountable.  Many Digital Project Managers have already embraced agile methodologies and are familiar with the concept and practice of delivering ‘show and tells ‘and MVPs at the end of a sprint cycle in order to test out the hypothesis early and deliver a customer centric solution sooner rather than later (sorry, big sentence).  Plus Digital Project Managers are able to survive in the middle of the three dimensional triangle of opposing forces, i.e. they tend to be quite skilful negotiators (when dealing with tricky stakeholders).

Experience required for a Product Manager

In the ideal world our Product Manager will have (at least) all of the following:

  • Expert at UXD: User centred design (or UXD) methods are considered best practice and at the core of digital design process, ensuring that customer’s needs are kept front and centre.
  • Technically experienced across all channels:   The world is shifting from multi-channel to omni-channel. As a result, there is a need for digital product design and management to encompass both technology (app, solutions architecture, integration via APIs web services etc) and operational processes  (new target operating models) to support intuitive omni-channel customer-journeys.  There may be other new innovations that our Product Manager may need have some level of experience in so that they can make informed product development decisions, such as;  artificial intelligence,  customer insight / next best action,  BlockChain, 5G, robotics  …. and so on.
  • Proven commercial results with product launches:  When digital products are to be commercialised there is a delicate trade-off between the ideal customer experience and  the commercial objectives. The latter will involve monetisation (of the product) and demonstrable ROI.
  • Track record in balancing delivering immediate ROI while supporting the strategic roadmap: In a commercial world the ideal Digital Product Manager will have a track record in successfully balancing strategic vision with short-term tactical  delivery, working agile so that a ‘test and learn’ approach can be applied and desired business outcomes can be recognised and proven early.
  • The Project Management bit:  An innate and proven ability to manage a team of diverse subject matter experts with varying degrees of skill and expertise to get stuff built and tested, whiles sticking to the budget and keeping all stakeholder happy.

Conclusion

In the real world, these kind of super-heroes are in short supply, but they do exist.   Most likely to have had a previous life as a developer or a technical analyst, possibly migrated across to business functions and project/programme management, ideally run a business / been responsible for P&L.

Writing this out has been useful (for me) to crystallise a really key point, that we must not be fixated on ‘Job Titles’ on the CV, or on how many years experience as a ‘Product Manager’ a candidate may have.

Our capabilities are influenced by skills and experience and also by our appetite and ability to learn and acquire new skills.  For this kind of role, I’ve observed that people skills are probably as important (if not more important) than any of the other attributes I’ve addressed above.

So having given the matter due consideration, my answer to Question 1 holds.

In short it’s a ‘yes’.