Project, program, and product management – what is the difference?

At various times in my career, I’ve held the titles of Project Manager, Program Manager and Product Manager.  Although these titles sound quite similar, the roles represented by them are actually quite different — in spite of the fact that even those within the industry sometimes use them interchangeably, which I attribute to a combination of innocent ignorance and actual industry-wide confusion.

So, what’s the difference between a Project Manager, a Program Manager and a Product Manager, especially in the development of educational media?

In my experience, a Project Manager has chronological A-to-Z responsibilities, shepherding a specific product from initial concept through final delivery.  The Project Manager usually has cross-departmental responsibilities, interfacing with, say, marketing, graphic design, engineering, and QA to effectively and efficiently see the project to completion, maintaining a consistent voice, look & feel, and user experience.  It is usually the Project Manager’s responsibility to devise a budget and a timelines for the project (although sometimes they inherit those from other departments), and then to stay within those guidelines throughout the life of the project.   The Project Manager assures consistency and cohesiveness across all departments, which ideally results in a strong, cohesive product.

A Program Manager is responsible for a ongoing (as opposed to finite) projects which combine to address one or more business goals.  These programs tend to be on-going, evolving and changing (hopefully strengthening!) over time and they tend to be less chronological in nature.  As opposed to “getting a product out,” a Program Manager focuses on creating and maintaining ongoing programs that become part of the company business and culture.

A Product Manager tends to be the most confusing of the three titles (in this arena, anyway) it has come to mean just about anything having to do with the creating and or marketing of a product!  I have held the title of Product Manager for  positions both solidly in product development and solidly in marketing!  But I think that a person with the title of Product Manager should ideally be focused on the marketing message of a product and on outreach to potential customers (as opposed to on the creation and development of the product).  One way to think of it is that the Product Manager works with the Project Manager (and others) once the product is ready to be marketed.

I’m curious to know what you’ve encountered in your career regarding the use of the titles Project Manager, Program Manager, and Product Manager. Leave me a comment and let me know!

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