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I recently wrote a blog on the important roles in project teams. What I didn’t discuss in that blog is the way that product managers and project managers work together on projects. This blog discusses those two functions and offers four suggestions for smaller teams where one person has to wear both of those hats.

Let’s begin by distinguishing between the product that is being created and the project to create the product. Products have life cycles, while projects have phases. Different people and organizations might use different terminologies.

Products begin in the introductory stage, or cycle, progress through the growth cycle, peak in the maturity stage, and finally enter the decline stage. Most companies will not invest project money in a product that has entered the decline cycle, but will choose to invest in newer products.

Product managers often remain with their products, in a management role, for years – through many projects. In smaller companies, one person may wear both hats at the same time, but to be successful, it requires role clarity. In a product manager role, the questions might include:

  • Is the product meeting or exceeding the ultimate customer’s expectations?
  • Does the product give us a key competitive advantage?
  • What product improvements would improve the company’s bottom line?

The project manager is focused on a different set of questions, such as:

  • How can the team accomplish the project objectives most effectively?
  • Which project activities will bring the most value now?
  • What risks and issues need consideration?
  • Do I have the right resources deployed at the right time?
  • Is project execution moving according to plan?

The product manager will be heavily involved in decisions about whether to do a project and what the scope should be. The project manager will be more involved in the logistics of project planning, execution, and management.

So how can one person wear both hats? Here are four tips:

Do the right thing for your client.

It doesn’t matter whether you are doing ongoing work for an outside client or working on a product in your own company. Know what is best for that “client” and do the right thing. For example, if you are managing the ongoing development of a piece of software that has become obsolete and at substantial risk of hacking due to obsolete technologies, you owe it to your client to recommend some substantial changes. If you are running a project for a product that, for whatever reason, has lost its business value, you should cancel the project unless there are other factors that warrant continuing the project.

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Understand the competition.

Knowing the competitive environment and specifically what products are competing in your space is valuable from both a product management and a project management perspective. For example, some awareness of competitive forces may:

  • Inform your project risk assessments;
  • Help you build a better product;
  • Reorder you priorities.

Listen twice as much as you talk.

Recognizing that you are wearing two hats, one might think that the product manager/project manager might need to talk more – to cover all of the necessary topics. Actually, empowering your team to think about what is best for the client and listening to what they tell you can be more valuable. You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Focus on clear documentation.

It is always tempting to skip documentation. It takes time and money. The same is true when we are writing emails. When you are creating documentation, view it with multiple “hats” and ask yourself if it is clear.

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