Why Product Management Should not be Responsible for Project Management

BY TREMIS SKEETE ON NOVEMBER 13, 2017

Jordan Bergtraum is a management consultant with over ten years of experience in the B2B SaaS industry, mostly as a head of product for various organizations in the legal, education, facilities management, and pharmaceutical spaces. He has been responsible for product strategy, UX, and teams consisting of product and project managers. In his ProductTank NYC presentation, he discusses the challenges of having one person in charge of both product and project management.

Tesla vs Software Companies

In his presentation, Jordan uses the Tesla automobile as a relatable example. He asks if anybody, assuming they were working at Tesla, would hire one person to be in charge of the car’s design and aesthetics, as well as setting up and managing the supply chain, manufacturing and assembly. Not one person in the audience raises their hand.

Jordan’s next question is: “So, why is this acceptable in software companies?” At other companies, people do not hire one person to do two completely separate and different functions. Why is it ok at  software companies to hire one person to own both product and project management? Jordan emphasizes that these are two drastically different functions that require very different talents and interests to succeed.

Recognise the Different Functions

In fact, most people do not excel at both. Jordan refers to those that do excel at both as “product unicorns” because of how rare they are. Most “unicorns”, when they realize that they excel at both vision and tactics, either decide to start their own business, or very quickly get promoted out of the dualist role they’re currently occuplying.

Another downfall of this situation is that even when you do have someone who can excel at both roles, more often than not, the project management takes priority over the product management. Product strategy often lacks “urgency” and gets pushed back to make room for urgent tactical matters like on-time product delivery. Jordan even did a study within his own company, and found that when one person handles product and project management, they spent around 80 percent of their time on project management tactics, leaving only 20 percent for product management market research activities that drive vision / ideation / prioritization.

Why Does This Happen So Often

There is a reasonable genesis for this situation. When companies are young, and can only afford a limited payroll, people are asked to wear multiple hats. Bobby runs payroll, talent acquisition, benefits, and organizational development. Sarah manages implementations, client success, and the help desk. The CEO is responsible for strategy, sales, and fundraising. Similarly, the Product Manager is asked to take on some/all of the project management. This is normal.

However, Jordan points out that as you scale and grow, instead of continuing to hire “jacks of all trades”, it is critical to transition to a “right tool for the job” talent acquisition mentality. Hire dedicated Product Management specialists and dedicated Project Management gurus. As a rough guideline of when to start thinking about this transition, when you are considering your ~5th product management hire, ask yourself: “Is there enough project management work to warrant a full-time project management expert?” There likely is. If so, might be time for a full-time Project Manager to take on all of the organization’s project management.

Pulled in Every Direction

Jordan points out that when one person  is responsible for both these important functions, they frequently get put in near-impossible situations and expected to navigate them correctly. Should you  discuss a pressing design issue with engineering or sit down with a thought leader? Should you learning about your competition, or making sure your terms and conditions are updated with legal ? Should you be talking to sales about recent losses, or making sure that quality assurance is going well?

Summary

In any business it’s not uncommon for short-term tactics to take priority over the long-term strategic work because no one wants to see a project fail right before their eyes. Dealing with perceived immediate challenges will put any reasonable professional into a crisis mode. In light of this reality, most people do not excel at both product and project management, and when they try to, product management suffers.

If a company wants to be successful and have revenue-building products, both product and project management need dedicated talent afforded 100% of their time to their discipline.

Tremis Skeete

About TREMIS SKEETE

Tremis is a Technical Product Manager at NexTier Innovations, a management consultancy specializing in Multi-Dimensional Analytics, Project Portfolio Intelligence, and Enterprise Cyber and Infrastructure Security. He comes from a Computer Science background and has 15+ years of experience working with design teams building web sites, applications, intranets, and graphic communications across multiple platforms. Tremis is also a co-organizer and microsite manager for ProductTank NYC. To find out more, visit http://producttank.nyc.

  • Hi, Tremis. Thanks for the article!

    I agree with these being two separate and different disciplines. I was curious to hear your thoughts on how would this play out for Digital Agencies. More often than not, agencies are in a time crunch, and Product Managers are limited in their discipline so that they can stay within budget and on schedule. So, usually, they end up being the ones responsible for the project management.

    Would clients be penalized as Product Managers would not necessarily have “the time” to work on the best product strategy for them?

    • Tremis Skeete

      Hi Philipe!

      If the product managers as you say are “limited in their discipline so that they can stay within budget and on schedule” then making them responsible for the project management seems counterintuitive. It would be smarter to have a project manager join the product team and assist with the budget/resource management and mitigate risks to meeting deadlines. Keep in mind – to make this happen requires trust between the product manager and project manager, so brush up on those soft skills and keep an open mind. However, if you are dealing with very aggressive deadlines, then sometimes sacrifices have to be made and one should communicate these realities with client(s) accordingly (soft skills).

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