📅 Product managers should project manage. Why?

It's the secret weapon of product managers.

This issue was originally published on Mind the Product.

It’s a truism that product managers should not be project managers. They are different disciplines requiring different skill sets. But practically, as a product manager, you probably do at least some minimum amount of project management in your daily work, perhaps even to your frustration and dissatisfaction!  In this article, I address this apparent dissonance, and give a framework for project managing, as a product manager.

When should you project manage?

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) from the Project Management Institute (PMI) lists 10 knowledge areas in project management:

  • Project Integration Management

  • Project Scope Management

  • Project Schedule Management

  • Project Cost Management

  • Project Quality Management

  • Project Resource Management

  • Project Communications Management

  • Project Risk Management

  • Project Procurement Management

  • Project Stakeholder Management

As a product manager, you’re already doing project management from a PMI perspective! You’re managing scope when planning new product changes. You’re facilitating collaboration between engineers and designers through meetings and async communications. You’re informing internal stakeholders of product roadmaps. You’re showing new features to customers and getting feedback. You’re working on product strategy to mitigate risks. In sum, you’re doing Scope, Communications, Risk, and Stakeholder Management.

And so it’s really the other PMI knowledge areas that are often contentious. As a product manager, should you be assigning work to engineers? Should you be managing deadlines for individual tasks? Should you be coordinating task dependencies? Should a product manager be doing what we conventionally define as project management, i.e. Schedule, Cost, Quality, and Resource Management? The answer is a conditional and scaled “yes”. You should be doing more of these other PMI knowledge areas if you’re working in a small to medium-sized company, and especially where there isn’t yet a very mature engineering management organization. But why?

Why project manage at all?

Humans are very diverse and complex creatures with many varied motivations. Even in a small company full of extremely talented people, as a whole they are not optimized to cohesively further company goals, by default. There needs to be some basic structure to align folks and help them perform at their best, together. You don’t need to create efficient processes and scale in a small company. Instead, you need to identify strategic projects and execute on them, one by one, to move the company forward. Basic project management facilitates this.

Startup founders and initial hires in companies often don’t have these basic project management skills. Especially in the innovation economy, early folks in a company are typically domain experts in a particular field. It’s rare that they are also people or project managers or otherwise have strong management skills. And so consequently, small to medium-sized companies are often filled with very talented individual contributors, but don’t have the expertise to coordinate and execute on big projects effectively. Company leaders of course realize this, but often don’t value project management early enough in a company lifecycle. This is how you as a product manager can really capture a unique opportunity. You were likely hired to manage a product backlog, get feedback from customers and track relative priorities. The existing engineers actually build the product. You figure out what to build. Or so that’s what the folks hiring you originally planned. But as a product manager, you should use basic project management skills to supercharge the efficacy of the implementation team. This is a secret weapon of product managers. You are already trained to think and work at higher levels of abstraction in terms of product and company growth. You practice communications and stakeholder management with business folks internally and customers externally on a daily basis. And it turns out these skills are immediately applicable to coordinating teams of engineers and designers to ship product updates quickly, which is a critical ability itself for a small company to survive and even thrive in the marketplace.


In the next issue, I’ll talk about how to project manage as a product manager. Sneak peak: You shouldn’t be like a traditional project manager.

🤔 What should I write about in the next issue of Product Management 101?

Reply to this email and let me know!