The Product Manager Owns the Project Manager
September 21, 2015

The Product Manager Owns the Project Manager

by Brian de Haaff

Have you ever worked with an awesome product manager? If so, you know that she set the vision for the product and managed the day-to-day activities of the team. She was at the epicenter of every decision and knew all the cross-functional team members like they were family. She managed the “whole” product.

So, why would you want to break her role in two, forcing her to choose between leading the product vision or working with the team and completing the work that needs done to make it all a reality?

Ron Yang recently wrote a compelling blog post that discussed the overlap between product managers and project managers. Kudos to him for focusing on an organizational intersection point that often causes confusion in companies. And while I agree with almost everything he wrote, I must disagree with his premise that organizations benefit from breaking the product manager in two.

There is a reason why there is so much confusion and lack of ownership when both a product manager and project manager are trying to lead a product and team. You may think that splitting up the two roles will make it easier to get things done. Two heads are better than one, right?

The problem is that the roles overlap considerably — and overlap is generally a sign that an organizational structure is inefficient. Ron even points out:

“[The confusion] is understandable — the words are separated by only two letters. And in most organizations, the responsibilities overlap in more ways than any other roles.”

This can cause an unnecessary duplication of efforts, and a communication breakdown at all levels.

The best product managers own all of their product — the whole thing, from beginning to end. This is why they own product management and project management. They work both high and low, setting the strategy for the product and working closely with their team to achieve their goals. I know that you are going to tell me that it’s just too much work for one person, but I disagree. It actually streamlines the work.

Here are the benefits of having a unified product and project manager:

Do you want the vision or details? Both, please. The product manager only stands to benefit when she is responsible for both the vision and the details. Sure, it will mean more effort on her part. But having the ability to see both the big picture and focus on the minutiae makes the product manager stronger at each. It also makes her a more effective leader of the team and champion of the product.

What does she do exactly? The split between the two roles creates the very organizational confusion to which Ron was responding. You can chalk up the confusion to the similar-sounding names, but the blurred lines between the two roles is the bigger culprit. Why spend time and energy addressing this confusion when you can just eliminate it entirely? It simply works better when there is only one person making it clear to the rest of the organization who to turn to for what.

Who’s in charge here? Divvying up the role — and responsibilities — to two people seems reasonable in theory but it has the opposite intended effect. It simply dilutes the sense of overall responsibility for the product, with neither party really confident of their role. Because the product manager is no longer talking to engineering or marketing regularly, she is no longer sure of what is being built or communicated. The end result can be duplication of efforts, a frustrating disconnect, and an overall weakening of the team.

The best way to solve the product manager versus project manager conundrum — and confusion — is to simply have one person doing both jobs.

Being a product manager is a tough job, no doubt about it, and not everyone has the diverse set of skills or stamina necessary to succeed in the role. But it’s not clear that it becomes any easier when someone else is given the responsibility for managing critical aspects of the job.

With hard work, teamwork, and a ton of transparency, product managers can truly lead their entire product. They are happier when they do, and everyone, including the customer, winds up winning.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

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

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