Product Manager, Program Manager, or Project Manager: Aren’t They All the Same?

Product Manager, Program Manager, or Project Manager; aren’t they all the same? It can be confusing to understand the differences between these roles and what skills are required for each. In this article, I break down the main responsibilities and skills for each role.


As a Product Manager, typically the main focus is on defining and building the right product for the target market. How is this done?  This requires a combination of business strategy, market analysis, and technical expertise, along with the ability to communicate the problem and value the solution will provide. A Product Manager must be able to identify customer needs, define product requirements, and work with cross-functional teams to bring the product to market.  They are responsible for determining the priority of what gets worked on.  Often this person will be the key liaison with the customer and executive stakeholders.  A key strength of a Product Manager is the ability to analyze data and make data-driven decisions to continually improve the product. Some key skills for a Product Manager include problem-solving, decision-making, communication, and strategic thinking.  You can find this position in both Waterfall and Agile projects but is typically called a Product Owner in agile.

WomanGivingPresentationA Program Manager is responsible for coordinating multiple projects within a larger program. They work to ensure that all the projects are aligned with the overall goals of the program and are completed on time and within budget. A Program Manager must be able to manage resources, risks, and stakeholders across the various projects. This person usually works directly with senior leadership to understand the health of related projects and how they roll up into the program as well as escalating risk, issues, and changes to scope, schedule or cost.  They must also have strong communication and leadership skills to effectively coordinate the work of the different project teams.  This position is primarily found in a project utilizing a waterfall delivery methodology but can also exist in an agile delivery model with the same or different job title.

A Project Manager is responsible for the overall planning, execution, and delivery of a specific project. This includes understanding and aligning on the project scope, developing a project plan, and managing resources and stakeholders. A Project Manager must be able to effectively manage risks and issues that arise during the project and ensure that the project stays on track and is completed on time and within budget.Presenting They often work with other groups to help remove blockers and monitor dependencies both up and downstream of the project.  Key skills for a Project Manager include project planning, risk management, and stakeholder management. This position is primarily found in a project utilizing a waterfall delivery methodology but sometimes you will see scrum masters with this title.  Despite being different in some cases they are used interchangeably.

So, what sets these roles apart? While there is some overlap in responsibilities, the main difference is in the scope of the work. A Product Manager focuses on a specific product, while a Program Manager coordinates multiple projects within a larger program, and a Project Manager is responsible for the delivery of a specific project.  In agile I have started seeing more and more of a combination of product owner and scrum master.  This can severely dimmish the value being delivered or the time it takes to deliver and usually the person trying to do both leans towards one discipline or the other neglecting the duties of one.

Whether you are looking to hire a Product Manager, Program Manager, or Project Manager, it is important to understand the specific skills and responsibilities required for each role. If you are interested in hiring a qualified and experienced professional for your organization to help navigate through this important decision, consider reaching out, we’d be happy to help.

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