Think Twice Before Turning Project Managers into Product Managers

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Practically every traditional IT organization is trying to become more externally focused to build products that improve the digital experience of their end customers or other external stakeholders. It doesn’t take long for most IT leaders to realize they have a big gap in a critical capability needed to accomplish this. That capability is Product Management.

The “Obvious” Solution

We are talking with a lot of large IT shops these days that are trying to develop Product Management capabilities within their organization. Many of them consider attacking this task by turning existing Project Managers into Product Managers (some also look at turning Business Relationship Managers into Product Managers, which is a different but related challenge). Project Managers have been the primary coordinator of the work that is getting done, so they seem like the most obvious breeding ground, right?

Why It Doesn’t Work

I just ran an internet search on “Product Management versus Project Management” to see what would pop up. Sure enough, the difference appears to be quite clear, perhaps even common knowledge. I’ll take a short description of the roles from one of the first blogs that popped up. It is written by the CEO of Aha!, a leading product management software company:

  • “What is a product manager? Product managers are often described as the CEOs of their products. They set the strategy, prioritize releases, talk to customers, and clearly define features. Their efforts are ongoing and involve managing the entire lifecycle of the product. A product manager’s goal is to deliver a lovable product.”
  • “What is a project manager? Project managers oversee a fixed project 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.

That seems right to me.

I have worked with some incredibly talented Project Managers over my years. The best ones can lay out a carefully detailed project plan and then systematically identify and resolve any issues and risks they encounter along the way as they take their team to the finish line. They are the glue that makes the team whole. They deliver. And the good ones are some of the most respected people in the entire company.

That said, I hold my breath when I hear organizations say they are going to re-title Project Managers to become Product Managers without a broader strategy for developing the talents they need. It is expecting a lot of them to be able to make that shift (and it would be expecting just as much, if not more, to do the reverse).

A More Thoughtful Approach

The first step is to place people into the Product Management role who have the capability to be successful. Those may be Project Managers, but they may be Business Analysts, Solution Architects, or even people from other areas of the business. The first one or two people are especially critical because they will be changing the way the organization operates within and outside of the company. They must be visionary, strategic, proactive, and effective. They must understand external customers and have a product-mindset. They need to wake up in the morning motivated to build a “lovable product”. Tools like Gallup’s Strength Finder can help assess potential in these areas if it isn’t apparent from their past work. Once the right people are in place, some combination of individual coaching and training for the Product Managers, paired with time as a broader team to work on vision and strategy together, will increase their odds of success.

If you can’t tell, I’m really passionate about this. Getting this capability right is incredibly critical for any IT organization’s success in the new digital world.

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