Project Manager vs. Product Manager
Before we discuss the role of a Product Manager, we should establish that while they may work closely together on projects, a Product Manager role is different from a Project Manager role. The titles sound similar; however, a Product Manager and a Project Manager are different roles requiring different skill sets to fulfill their responsibilities.
You can find the definition of a Project Manager here. A Project Manager is responsible for coordinating, overseeing or leading a project; a short-term endeavour to achieve a specific goal (for example, upgrading aging infrastructure).
A Product Manager is responsible for product development and future releases. They start by understanding the customer’s needs, then set the vision for the product, and leverage technology to achieve business objectives. For example, executives of an organization have identified a need to reduce CRM infrastructure costs, so the product management team will work on developing a new cloud-based SaaS CRM.
The diagram below illustrates the unique role of a Product Manager: to expertly marry a deep understanding of user needs, knowledge of technology, and business acumen.
This kind of juggling requires:
A thorough understanding and representation of user needs, competition in the market, and business goals;
A deep understanding of the technology being used;
Decision-making skills to be able to prioritize and align with business objectives and a strong vision for the product; and
The soft skills to liaise with, and rally, cross-functional teams and stakeholders.
That’s a lot of responsibility, how exactly do Product Managers do this?
They achieve this balance by leveraging tools such as a product roadmap, PRD (Product Requirements Document), and backlog. These tools enable them to do 3 main things: motivate the product team, define the problem, and define success.
Understanding the Role of a Product Manager
To understand the role of a Product Manager, let’s work with an example. Let’s say that the executive leaders of a retail company have a new business objective: to launch a new eCommerce website for enhanced customer engagement and sales. The Product Manager begins an iterative process to meet this goal, with a primary focus on customer needs and user experience, that will enable an increase in sales.
The first step is to understand who the customer is and what their needs are. This customer discovery phase can be completed through surveys, focus groups or by analyzing market data to define demographics. Once there is a clear picture of who the customer is, the Product Manager must drill down to understand how the customer will use the product, the pain points the product will resolve, and the features the customer needs. This information will allow the Product Manager to develop User Stories, offering a general explanation of how a user interacts with the website.
After the discovery phase led by the Product Manager, the entire product team has a better understanding of the objective. Working with our example, the objective would be: to create an e-commerce experience in response to changing customer needs, with functionality such as in-store pick-up, easy returns, product images and recommendations, and so on. With this information, backed by research and data, the Product Manager will begin scoping, planning, and designing the e-commerce website, or the Product.
Working collaboratively, the Product Manager and their team can now develop a product roadmap, a document that will clarify general areas of focus for the short and long term. This document also helps manage and align the team’s expectations.
Thereafter, a PRD—or Product Requirements Document—is created. The PRD breaks down sections of the roadmap into smaller, more manageable chunks. This document focuses on a specific problem, it includes user stories, success metrics and what’s in and out of scope. Most notably, the product roadmap defines the MVP or Minimal Viable Product. To develop the MVP, the product team will carve out core features of the product; that is, anything required for the product to work on a fundamental level. The MVP enables the product team to get feedback during development—to accurately meet customer needs—prior to going to market.
From here, the team can create a backlog, a prioritized list of activities—such as bug fixes and feature creations—that is used to form sprints. A sprint is a two-week cycle of focused work on selected backlog items. According to best practices, a new sprint should begin every 2 weeks, any incomplete tasks will go back to the backlog for reprioritization and will move into a new sprint. Any backlog item estimated to require more than eight hours of work should be broken down into smaller tasks.
Product Management Timelines
Sprints are managed using a 3-step process: Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective. During the Spring Planning phase, a Product Manager and their team will select the tasks for the upcoming sprint from a ranked list of requirements and tasks. Following the sprint, the Product Manager will conduct a Sprint Review, leveraging input from the entire product team to achieve alignment on product development. This step focuses on the product itself, while the next phase, the Sprint Retrospective, focuses on the product team. During the Sprint Retrospective, the Product Manager and their team explore what works for the team, and what doesn’t, with the primary goal of becoming more efficient and effective. The results of these two steps are leveraged to conduct the Spring Planning for the next sprint.
Circling back to our example, in our roadmap, the Product Manager and their team may have identified search bar functionality as a key part of the new e-commerce website. A section of our PRD focuses on this functionality. The backlog might have 50 items to work on related to the search bar, but the product team will prioritize a few key items to get the search bar working, just enough to circle back to our customers and receive feedback. These items will be part of one or more sprints until enough development has been completed to provide an MVP. This can be released to customers for use and feedback.
The Bottom Line?
A Product Manager’s role varies greatly day-to-day. They might conduct market research today and prioritize technology activities tomorrow. They might engage with customers to understand their needs, add new items to the backlog, and rally the project team to continue development after a major bug fix threatens progress, all on the same day. They are passionate about meeting customer needs with their product and they’re constantly asking: who is my customer, what is the problem or opportunity, and how does this align with our greater objectives?
Should you rush out to hire a Product Manager?
Product Managers’ salaries can be prohibitive for expanding start-ups and small or mid-cap enterprises. Technology is fast-paced and, to remain competitive, your business needs a Product Manager.
At SolvedAF we offer fractional support solutions, including product management. Our experienced team will collaborate with you to carve out and analyze your business objectives, understand the problem, and ensure you can deliver a great product. Schedule a call with us today and let’s explore how our experienced Product Managers can make your next product launch a success!
About the Author
Ashiq Ahamed is the Founder & Managing Partner of SolvedAF Consulting Inc., a boutique consulting firm providing IT consulting, growth advisory, and digital transformation services. As a strategic, delivery-focused leader, he works with organizations to change their thinking when it comes to technology, implementing solutions that achieve organizational efficiencies and improve the end user experience. Known for his ability to see the big picture, Ashiq draws on his expertise to help organizations align their technology with their business goals. Ashiq was recently recognized as an Emerging Leader by The Peak.
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