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Why successful Project Managers struggle at being successful Product Managers




Both Product Management and Project Management act as a form of communication glue between the various departments in a company, including executive, engineering, sales, marketing, user experience, operations, back-office etc.


As companies grow, CEOs and company owners delegate strategic & communication functions towards Product Managers to deal with the various aspects of planning, communication, scope, budget, risks, issues, quality, research etc.


Product Managers come from various backgrounds (technical, sales, marketing, technical support, IT administration etc.). In job interviews and applicants, I came across the whole variety, but one group produced more application sources than others: Project Managers.


Interesting!, however when coupled with execution results, I also noticed that this group struggled more than others in keeping up or adapting towards expectations, deliverables and other growth factors when dealing with technical teams (operations, development etc.). They all, however, remained impressively efficient in dealing with sales and marketing teams. Why was it so tough to get engagement from the technical teams? This made no sense to me, as, after all, they needed the technical teams to deliver the products they needed to be successful product managers.


Even worse, there was a sense of denial………a sense of……incredulous, when communicated that more value was needed and that they were not enjoying the support of the technical teams. This was so strange to me; how can this be…….lets dissect a bit the roles:


Product Manager (The one who will tell you what should be built and why):

The product manager oversees the development of a service/product, from idea to development, to launch, towards maintenance, towards the end of life, or upgrade. Product managers are responsible for achieving success as measured against the cost of support, customer quality acceptance levels, growth and profit. In short, the Product Managers focus on getting things done, or even better, influencing the external teams to get things done on time. In essence, they are the ones who carry the responsibility of smelling out opportunities and defining the product which users want to buy, not be sold to.


The important point is that product managers retain the overall and continued product success (v1 > v2 > v3 etc.). Product managers remain leading and managing the various teams throughout the entire life cycle of the product or service through continued interactions with the teams hence helping the business accomplish the objectives which have been defined. That includes product development and marketing activities such as customer data collection, competitor product analytics, launching processes, etc.


My favourite of all, a product manager must communicate and influence a common vision across the company on how a product or service will deliver value or growth over an upcoming reasonable period. Without this, the value of the work done will easily not be constructed as a foundation to support future capabilities adequately. Just this line of embraceable vision is the crux of the product managers role. People need to buy into your vision, be they executive, development, user experience, support etc. No buy-in = no delivery = “You suck” moments!.


Project Manager (The one who focuses on how, when and schedule):

The project manager leverages their visibility into the processes, history and industry norms to identify the specific set of resources needed to deliver the targeted outcome as defined by the product manager.


In their role, they focus largely on the execution details, ensuring that these same details and objectives are delivered on time, to budget and against agreed processes. Project managers align resources, manage issues and risks, and are entrusted with breaking through limiting walls (e.g. resource requirements), limiting the success of the projects. Once a project is complete, project managers will usually move to another project, which may have nothing to do with the latter project.


What does this mean?

Project managers may at times appear to be in conflict with the Product Managers objectives; however, they really are acting as the company's conscience, ensuring that Product Managers are promising to deliver what can really be achieved.


A Product Manager may want to add many features to a product. In contrast, through historical analysis, a project manager can read through those requirements and see that those very same requirements are not achievable.


So how can one who knows the other so well not be able to switch on to the role on the other side so naturally? They are bright and brilliant. Know numerical analysis principles and can execute. How can they fail?


Project Managers are essentially the Product Managers best ally, especially as they back the Product Manager by ensuring that things are being done as agreed to, on time, to dates established and act as an essential sounding board on whether a project is viable or not. This does not mean that they carry the same ability to have a business viable vision that can drive and influence others external to their teams to execute and deliver the components needed to build out that vision.


A Product Manager needs to be able to sell the vision to their peers sideways, downwards and upwards and, most importantly, maintain that credibility and vision continuously fresh, updated and exciting.


Should successful Project Managers give up in trying to become successful Product Managers?

Absolutely not!!, however as they try, herein lies the trick. Focus on ensuring that there is a viable, tangible and deliverable set of business growth contributing projects which contribute towards your longer-term vision, which others agree, contribute to and help you grow it to something even better from what you originally started to achieve. Integrate external views into your vision (partners, teams, support, executive etc.).


Sell your views. Know the markets, know the numbers, execute, and when others are missing out or stuck, make sure you are the first person they go to for help, direction and support. After all, “How hard can it be?”


But most importantly, listen to the people on the ground. Act on their fears, listen to their concerns, do not do only what executives want! Protect executives from executives (we all know we did it). It is the role of the product manager to respect, get buy-in and even more get results from the teams in a way that can deliver growth. Integrate their feedback to let them know they are being listened to. If you cannot do it all, make sure a part makes it through. Let them know through tangible action that their opinion, direction and feedback matter.


In the end, dream and make a dream but break it down into deliverables that can be achieved and, most importantly, wanted to be achieved!


NOTE: Do these guidelines only apply to Project Managers? Absolutely not!! People from technical backgrounds can equally suck at engaging the business teams. Based on our observations, it is more likely that people with project management backgrounds are more likely to be engaged in trying out as product managers and want themselves to try out for product management roles.....and as a result end up in such situations.



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