The Difference between Product Management, Program Management, and Project Management

January 15, 2022
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Morgan Martin
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The abbreviation “PM” is often used interchangeably. This causes confusion when talking about the difference between Product Management, Program Management, and Project Management. Those in the industry don’t always know what sets them apart. There are many similarities in the skills necessary in these roles such as working with cross-function teams, organization skills, flexibility, and a strategic approach. It is critical to understand the difference between these roles so that you can determine which aligns best with the goals of your organization. 

Product Management

A product can be a physical product, service, or software that seeks to solve a problem or fill a need that’s offered in the marketplace. Roles in product management oversee the product development with responsibilities including searching, planning, forecasting, and production. Every product has a life-cycle; From when it is ideated, developed, introduced, marketed, and retired. Multiple projects will occur during the product life-cycle. 

Product managers are the in-between of design, technology, and business. They figure out what to build based on the needs of the customer. They create product specifications that technology or engineering use to ultimately create the solution. 

In some smaller organizations product managers will also take on a Project Manager’s responsibility. It’s not an ideal scenario, but will often occur when the products or programs are not very complex. 

Key Differences of Product Managers

  • Perpetual work because products are never “complete” or “final”
  • Continuous process that changes due to ever-changing user needs
  • Develop the product roadmap which is a combination of the product vision and strategy
  • Create and manages product documentation including product requirements documentation (PRD), user stores, and acceptance criteria
Program Management

Product managers typically focus on the aspects that strategically drive the product(s) that they oversee. Program managers look across the organization to take a lateral view.

Program management identifies and coordinates the interdependencies between products, projects, and other important strategic initiatives found in the organization. They are responsible for the program strategy, objectives, and evaluating the business impact. Since they have multiple projects within their program, it is common for project managers to report to them. They focus on the long-term implications of the program, which go far beyond individual projects and their completion. 

Key Differences of Program Managers

  • Work towards a strategic benefit, company goal, or new process within defined constraints
  • Manages projects that are grouped together in an interconnected way
  • Responsible for stakeholders, requirements, internal team, and the stakeholders who all interact within the program
Project Management

The Project Management Institute defines a project as “temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. Project management is the application of knowledge, skills tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.”

Projects span five phases — initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing. Project managers are responsible for ensuring that the scope, budget, and resources are in-line with expectations. They develop the timeline, create project milestones, organize the workflow, allocate resources, keep the project on-time, and within budget. 

Key Differences of Project Managers

  • Execute the strategy that was set by someone else such as a product manager or program manager
  • Take strategic plans and breaks them down into task-oriented initiatives
  • Work with a clear definition of what is to be delivered, without much room for changes

Still not sure which level is the right fit for your organization? Contact us to discuss your goals and meet PMs who can help you narrow down your search!

Author: Anjana Paul
Morgan Martin
Author: Morgan Martin

Morgan Martin guides the vision and connects the talented people contributing to the growth at CoApt Projects. Morgan’s project management background is diverse, ranging from translation/localization, marketing and communications, research and development, and non-profit operations. These varied experiences led her to found CoApt Projects, bringing diverse talents together to power progress for the future of work.

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