What’s the difference between a product and a project?

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

Project and product sound similar and the two concepts are often confused with each other. However in practice they are very different and require different skills, governance and mindsets.

What is a project?

A project is a temporary endeavor, with a clear definition of what needs to be delivered and by when.

A project has a beginning and end date. The delivery team is disbanded when complete until the next project initiates, which could be years afterwards. Most projects make plans at the beginning where the least is known about what could go wrong and what the needs are.

Customers don’t care about projects, customers care about the value your service offers them. That is why the notion of products were born.

What is a product?

A product is designed to continually create value for customers by solving their problems.

Products have more permanence, are living entities which we deliver quickly, iterate constantly, and are not something that we just walk away from.

Products have no end date. It’s simply a life cycle of iteration and evolution over time. There is also no exhaustive definition upfront of what needs to be delivered, instead a product continually evolves to solve a customer need.

Typical characteristics of a product and project

Typical characteristics of a product and project

How do the roles of product managers and project managers differ?

Project manager

Project managers oversee a fixed scope of requirements from beginning to end. It can be a single project or a group of projects. Their job is to execute the strategy set by the product manager or leadership team. A project manager’s goal is to work with a broader team with a diverse set of skills and to complete a project on time and under budget.

Project managers are responsible for the successful delivery of a project within a fixed scope, deadline and budget. The project manager plans the work, and works the plan.

The difficulty is managing the scope of the project. They must walk a delicate line between balance time, cost, and quality. For example if the deadline is shortened, they must either increase costs or reduce scope in order to maintain quality.

Project managers ask:

  • “What resources are needed?”
  • “When will the project get delivered?”
  • “Who is going to do what?”

Project managers then present their team with detailed instructions for the solution they will build. Common across all types of projects is that these instructions cover the timelines, order of all tasks, complete with dependencies and resource (i.e. people) allocations for all tasks.

Project managers’ aim to maximise quality and minimise risk by ensuring that their original brief is fulfilled. Project managers’ aim is to fulfil their original brief by ensuring to deliver on time, on scope, on budget, and to minimise risk and tightly control change.

Product manager

A product manager can be thought of as a mini-CEO of their product.

They set vision, roadmap, talk to customers, and decide what gets prioritised. Their efforts are ongoing and involve managing the entire life cycle of the product.

A product manager’s goal is to build a product that customers love.

Their role includes:

  • setting the vision and owning roadmap
  • managing the budget and owning profit and loss responsibility
  • drive a test & learn approach to turn assumptions into learning
  • foster simplicity and maximise the value of work not done
  • being accountable for delivery of product benefits
  • deciding what gets prioritised
  • determining when to release new features
  • keeping the product in line with customer expectations
  • talking to customers
  • managing stakeholders
  • driving product adoption

Product managers ask:

  • “What user need/ user problem does this product solve?”
  • “What is the best way to maximise user value?”
  • “What will the benefits to customers be?”

Product managers then present their multidisciplinary product development team with clear problems and empower them to create solutions. They collaborate daily with the team to deliver value early and often.

Product managers aim to maximise the value of the investment by delivering the minimum set of features necessary to solve their users’ problems.

Hiring a product manager

If you want to hire a product manager, it might be useful to know the characteristics we look for when recruiting:

  1. User-focused – Make evidence-based decisions based on user need
  2. Challenge assumptions – Defend your vision against ‘highest paid person’s opinion’
  3. Collaborate with your team – Presenting clear user problems and empowering your team to solve them
  4. Think ‘Lean’ – Start with the minimum viable product needed to complete a build-test-learn feedback loop and then move iteratively towards your vision
  5. ‘Service design thinking’ – ‘A product is not a service’. Understand that a product/value proposition is only a small part of an overall service
  6. Cultural fit – Fit with the culture and values of your team


For me the main distinction between a project manager and product manager is:

a project manager is usually focused on delivering the pre-defined scope;

  • success = delivering the scope on time and on budget


a product manager is focused on continually identifying the next most valuable thing;

  • success = continuously delivering value/benefits (e.g. more profit, more engaged users, reduced costs etc.), ie make sure the money invested is worth it.

Are both product and projects needed? – please leave me a comment with your opinion on this

What’s the difference between a product and a project?
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