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Project vs. Product

3 min

What are the key differences between products and projects?

Before getting into the product management space, I thought project management and product management were the same old thing.

I have realised that both are different and are equally important in steering things forward.

Let's get the definitions straight before getting into the nitty-gritty and the nuances of the differences between the two.

What is a project?

Any activity with a start and end state aiming to complete a certain objective could be defined as a project. A project can be 'completed' when the objective is realised within the timeline. A key mindset practised here is to 'just do it.'

When it comes to project management, there are multiple activities that involve pushing the needle further. The Project Manager manages the project, sets the deadlines, herds cats, and assigns bugs. This role involves constantly having the finger on the pulse overseeing the programming. Determining timelines, allocating resources according to the roadmap and all that.

The Project Manager has closer proximity to what's happening. It's a 50ft. view above the sea level.

What is a product?

Products don't have a defined beginning or an end. It's continuously evolving like an organism, adapting to the external environment.

Think of all the software you use in your daily life. Isn't it evolving?

You receive constant updates, not only for bugfixing but also to add new features, improve UX etc. Change and evolution are natural in products but not in projects.

Project == when will it be done? 
Product == what/why will it be done?

A product manager typically involves defining the strategy, creating a roadmap, defining priorities, understanding the competition, and engaging with potential customers.

As the focus is continuously on the 'what/why will it be done', the outcome for the product manager are the decisions made behind the product. This is done by continuously gathering perspectives across the tech, business and design teams. Product managers constantly steer the ship forward by researching the market, analyzing the data, understanding business trends, consumer psychology, etc.

So, does that mean that Project Managers don't think of the 'why' questions and are only focussed on the 'how'? Not necessarily.

As shown in the comic below, there is a constant back-and-forth discussion between the product and the project teams. These dialogues become a bridge between strategy and execution. Through this process, the goals and requirements could adapt to fit the timelines. Or the timelines could adapt to fit the goals and requirements.

Illustration by Shreyas Prakash
Through this dialogue, the 'what' becomes the bridge between the 'why' and the 'how'.

What are the key differences?

Classification of 'product' and 'project' by @shreyas

Any activity could be considered a 'project' or 'product'.

Personally, this has led to a mindset shift.

Normally, when building something, we think of it as a project. Time-constrained efforts are defined upfront, with fixed scope, time and cost.

When we shift our mindset to look at it as a product, we see it as a living, breathing creature constantly evolving according to market needs. And to feed this creature, we would have to constantly talk to the customers, define the requirements and continuously improve the product over time.

Product management here is not just about managing sophisticated spreadsheets and algorithms for prioritizing a long laundry list of features. It's more about the mindset.

A role which expects you to constantly ask — 'How can we constantly evolve and adapt our product based on the user's needs?'


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