Product vs. Program vs. Project Management
March 26, 2020

Product vs. Program vs. Project Management

by Brian de Haaff

What does “discipline” mean to you? I bet a few words come to mind — self-control, punishment, or a system of rules. You might also conjure a field of study or branch of knowledge. This is how I most often think of it. Especially in the context of how our team at Aha! serves customers working in the disciplines of product, program, and project management.

Building breakthrough products, delivering successful initiatives, and overseeing cross-functional efforts requires deep knowledge and experience.

It will be helpful to start with some basic definitions. Product management is responsible for building products or new experiences. Program management involves ensuring that large themes of work are tracking against company goals. And project management refers to overseeing the timely delivery of a specific effort within an overall initiative.

But these definitions are deceptively simple. Anyone who actually does this work knows that product, program, and project management roles are often blurred. In some organizations, responsibilities overlap or are not clearly defined. Typically, this happens in smaller organizations where fewer people do more. For example, a product manager might do the work of a project manager, or a program manager might take on tasks typically reserved for a project manager. But the confusion extends to larger companies as well.

Understanding the nuances of each discipline allows you to collaborate effectively with teammates and contribute meaningfully to your organization.

Our Customer Success team at Aha! sees the importance of this collaboration firsthand every day. We speak with product, program, and project folks at companies of all sizes and types — technology, IT, service, healthcare, and manufacturing organizations to name a few. Based on our own experience and our interactions with customers, here are the key differences we see:

Purpose
Product management delivers value by planning and delivering an offering that serves company goals and meets customer needs. To accomplish this, the product manager oversees the entire product lifecycle from conception to launch (and beyond). This requires defining the vision and strategy for the product or product line, researching the market, and capturing feedback from customers.

Program management focuses on successful outcomes for a collection of projects within a given program. This requires the program manager understands both the long-term business goals and assess how well the organization operates towards those goals. Thinking strategically, defining best practices, and improving processes are all important goals of program management.

Project management aims to deliver a specific effort on time and within budget. The project manager coordinates all the cross-functional work required. This entails building work-back timelines, keeping teammates on schedule, monitoring dependencies, and identifying any bottlenecks that may threaten timely delivery.

Leadership
Product managers create the product roadmap and lead the cross-functional team responsible for improving the product. Experts in the market and competitive landscape, product managers know how to differentiate an offering and provide what customers need. They also communicate the strategic plan internally to teammates and externally to other stakeholders.

Program managers create the program roadmap that includes multiple products or projects within a broader company initiative. They typically set the schedule and budget for the program, supervise one or more project managers, and help to steer business transformations. From resource utilization to measuring ROI, program managers are always looking for ways to improve operational performance.

Project managers create the project plan and manage the cross-functional work needed to deliver on time and within budget. Like program managers, they track the schedule, budget, resource utilization, risks, and issues. The difference is that the project manager focuses on one (or more likely a few) efforts that then roll up to the program level.

Work
Product management is about the “why” and “what.” (And of course, the “when” too.) It involves understanding the company vision, defining the product goals that will support that vision, and then communicating this to the rest of the team. The best product managers mix strategic and tactical thinking and advocate for the product and customers.

Program management is more about the “when” across a portfolio. It involves thinking broadly about how the interconnected efforts within an initiative are contributing to the success of the business. Effective program managers are always looking for ways to improve the organization through better outcomes.

Project management is focused on the “when” for specific efforts. It involves setting schedules, analyzing capacity for different teams, and ensuring timely delivery. It is important to note that project management is not solely tactical — a strategic mindset is needed to make the best decisions and allocate resources wisely.

Product, program, and project management are essential and interrelated components of any healthy organization.

If you work in one of these disciplines, you know that your role requires hard work, strong communication skills, and a willingness to collaborate. You are also likely disciplined about your discipline and work hard to make a meaningful impact on the business.

How do you think about the differences between these three areas?

Help your team do great things — sign up for a free trial of Aha!

Brian de Haaff

About Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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