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23 Feb 2023

Program Manager vs Project Manager vs Product Manager - What's the Difference?

Product Management

One way to (jokingly) offend a product manager is by referring to them as a project manager. And one way to flatter them is to refer to them as a program manager.

While these are 3 different job titles, there are similarities among them. Similarities which sometimes lead to misunderstandings of each role and its responsibilities, hence why they are at times used interchangeably.

In this article we’re going to clarify what each of these roles is, their key responsibilities, and why it’s beneficial in today’s changing landscape to consider a new approach to defining, building, and supporting digital solutions.


All You Need To Know About Product Management

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What is a product manager?

Product managers regularly speak with customers to understand their problems, define solutions, and prioritize what problems to solve based on the value provided (to customers and their business) and the effort involved.

All of the activities that product managers perform boil down to one of the following 3 key tasks:

  1. Being customer focused

  2. Making data-driven decisions

  3. Managing stakeholders

It’s definitely not an easy role with the strategic chops, communication skills, and project management skills required. However, it is rated among the best jobs to have with an average annual salary of $127,965 USD.

product manager near board

What is a project manager?

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), “project managers initiate, execute, and complete projects across various industries using their project management expertise. From mobile apps to the grandiose architecture of international cities, they are the innovators behind some of the most brilliant products, services, and processes that exist today.”

Project managers manage projects that have a defined scope, timeline for completion, involved stakeholders, and managed resources.

The product manager is the one that defines the scope (what will be built and why) while the project manager works with their team to bring this scope to life (execution).

These two roles do have overlapping responsibilities, especially surrounding execution and stakeholder management; product managers regularly wear the hat of a project manager while working with their teams.

The average annual salary of a project manager is $84,992 USD.

What is a program manager?

A program is a group of projects, or a group of projects and programs.

Normally these programs have a strategic importance for a business hence they require more attention, oversight, and guidance.

A program manager is a skilled project manager who manages a number of projects while working towards improving operational effectiveness, communicating cross-functionally, and providing guidance to project managers.

The PMI has a specific designation for this role known as a Program Management Professional (PgMp)®. Check out this article to learn more about their responsibilities that are critical to the strategic success of a business.

The average annual salary for a program manager is $99,548 USD.

Blurred lines between responsibilities of PMs, project managers, and program managers

With globalization, availability of new technology, and the constant need for businesses to be fast and agile, the lines have started to blur between these roles and their responsibilities.

And this is no surprise given the responsibilities of these roles. Many product managers carry project management responsibilities, especially when considering product managers who also act as product owners and scrum masters. And there are project managers who carry product management responsibilities at times.

There are even tools out there that though they were initially built for one focus area can also be used to support others. JIRA for example is built for project management but can be used for product strategy (though not the best tool to use for this purpose).

When businesses have goals to accomplish, responsibilities to fulfill, and a limited budget to work with, they lean on individuals with the right skill sets to get things done.

Also, as product management knowledge continues to spread, managers are expecting that their team members are skilled enough to manage some key project management tasks (especially those around leading a team, budget, documentation, and stakeholders, in order to meet deadlines).

When working in a business, especially a startup, it’s important for everyone to roll up their sleeves and support business goals in any way they can.

Historically, when working on initiatives, managers would simply find the individuals with the right titles and responsibilities to complete the initiatives as needed. However given the changing business landscape there can be a new way to accomplish this.


Tools that adapt with you

Being flexible when it comes to your management approach is a lot easier with a modular tool.

airfocus was built for the new way of doing product management however it has project management capabilities as well.

While other tools force you to work a certain way, airfocus is modular; you can build it to fit your teams’ best practices and scales as your product(s), projects, and team grows.

Product managers and delivery teams can work together to craft and ship digital solutions, monitor progress, find areas of improvement, while communicating with key stakeholders throughout.

For teams that rely on project management software and software delivery tools, airfocus integrates with multiple tools which include: Jira, Trello, ASANA, Microsoft Planner, Intercom, Slack, and more.

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A new approach is developing

We outlined 3 critical roles for designing, building, launching, and supporting digital solutions. While these specific titles with their specific responsibilities may have worked in the past, perhaps it's time for a new approach.

This is not to say that these roles and definitions are not important. Similar to how companies adapt their agile practices to get software out the door (Scrumban anyone?, the same can be done for these roles as well.

You will find in many job descriptions for product managers that include project management responsibilities. Likewise, skilled product managers are equipped with the skills to be program managers as well.

Businesses should not simply stick to the outlined definition of these roles, especially those that require specific skill sets to accomplish their goals but lack the budget to do so. Rather, take a more flexible approach to management, and consider individuals who can adapt to fulfill these responsibilities when needed.

It may not be easy, however, do keep in mind that product managers already have the core skills needed to be great project managers.

And for project managers, it is easier to transition into product management because they have delivery and stakeholder management experience. What remains is to gain the strategy piece (and some others), which can be learned of course.

Can you completely combine both roles into one? This may not be best as it can be difficult to perform both well. However, parts of the responsibilities should be blended when needed.

As the market landscape, customer demands, and technology continue to change, business leaders should be open to a blended approach for these outlined roles. Especially for businesses that require such an approach to accomplish business goals but lack the resources to do so.

Understand what needs to be accomplished, the key skills required, and hire the individuals that can fulfill the responsibilities. Those who can work with and lead cross-functional teams to define, manage, and communicate effectively to see initiatives though from beginning to end.


All You Need To Know About Product Management

Read now
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airfocus eBook All You Need To Know About Product Management

Quadri Oshibotu

Quadri Oshibotu

Founder, Instructor, and Mentor @ Product Hall
Quadri is an experienced product manager with multiple years of experience building world-class products. He is passionate about building products that have a positive impact on people’s lives and helping people grow through training and mentorship....more
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airfocus eBook All You Need To Know About Product Management
All You Need To Know About Product Management
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