Product Manager Vs Program Manager: What’s The Diff?

product manager vs program manager
product manager vs program manager

Just when you thought the lexical madness came to an end after the project manager vs product manager and product designer vs product manager match ups, we pit product manager vs program manager to figure out who does what inside your organization.

As with our prior deep dives, a lot of the division between program manager and product manager depends on the size of the company.  I suspect if you work as a product manager at a smaller company, you may see the description of a program manager and think to yourself:

 Hey, I do a bunch of those things.   I should get paid for 2 jobs!

In response, I would suggest you go try working at a larger company so you see first hand the trade offs you make for a “more well defined” job description.  My gut is you’ll be happier doing more work at a smaller company.

You’ll start to see companies add program managers when the workload overwhelms the product manager capacity to build multiple products and launch them.   Program managers are used when there are multiple projects to coordinated across different development teams, sites, departments, partners or companies. They coordinate the projects that need to be tracked and completed as teams work toward accomplishing their final goal.

As always, due to the overlapping nature of the roles, expect some strife and conflict.

If you are too lazy to read this entire article, give the chart below a quick glance if you want to reduce your ignorance a smidgen.
 Program ManagerProduct Manager
Focus– Strategic overlook of company efforts– Tactical plan for product development
Areas Responsibilities– Identifying and mitigating risks
– Acquiring and allocating resources across the organization.
– Cross organization alignment
– Deadlines
– Will work only on product-related projects
– Product vision
– Feature prioritization
– Customer discovery
– Cross-team alignment (product, engineering, and design)

Owns– Timeline
– Budget
– Product roadmap
Success Metrics– Revenue
– Return on investment (ROI)
– Staying under budget
– Customer satisfaction
– Retention rate
– Product related metrics.

Why Is It So Confusing?

Why do people have trouble keeping the roles of product manager and program managers straight?

Product manager vs program manager confusion
A dismayed product manager wondering why everyone confuses them with a program manager.

Well, let’s be honest, there is a bit of overlap in both the names and domains associated with these positions. 

Nomenclature trifecta of confusion: First off, the titles sound quite similar due to the whole “pro” thing and it only gets worse when you use “PM as an abbreviation for either title.   You then top it off with the fact that “project managers” are part of this ball of naming confusion.

Hold the deliverables!  Double the Oversight!!:” Product managers and program managers do not produce tangible deliverable variants don’t have any deliverables in a traditional sense, but rather keep the trains running on time, so you often only notice their value when things aren’t working as they should.

product managers vs program managers - we keep the trains running on time

Program managers and product managers manage, cajole and align internal stakeholders to get progress happening. They facilitate communication via different channels,  manage schedules, and run meetings to make sure requirements are met and deadlines are hit.

Defining Things: What Is What

Let’s bring some clarity to matter by stepping though some textbook type definitions of the various, yet similarly sounding terms

Product Vs Program

In order to draw some lines when comparing what it is a product manager or program manages does, it would be logical to make sure we can all reasonably agree on the product vs program distinction:

Definition of product: A product/service has a combination of features and functions that provide a user with various benefits from either one-time or recurring use. 

Definition of a program: A group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner

Product Management Vs Program Management

So now that we have a basic agreement on the distinctions between programs and products, let’s build on that and see if we can figure out what it means to manage them:

Product Management: Product management is strategically driving the development, market launch, continual support and improvement of products.  The are not responsible for a specific project or team. They are responsible for one or more of a company’s products. 

Program Management: Program management involves identifying and coordinating the interdependencies among projects, products, and other important strategic initiatives across an organization.

Product Manager Vs Program Manager: Textbook Definitions

Building on the above definitions of products and programs, its reason able to assume that product and program manages are associated with the execution of products and programs

Product manager:  Responsibilities that encompass the entire product lifecycle—from discovery with customers to product delivery and involves:

  • Defining the vision and strategy for the product or product line, researching the market, and capturing feedback from customers.
  • Delivering value by planning/delivering an offering that serves company goals and meets customer needs.
  • Understanding customer needs, the product, and the overall market.
  • Prioritizing what to build next, and guiding the team to reach their desired outcome.
  • Discovering what users need and uncovering critical insights through user research
  • Aligning the team around a cohesive product roadmap
  • Collaborating with the product and engineering teams, partners, and external stakeholders to ensure alignment around overall strategy and direction of the product.

Now that we’ve got a better idea of what product managers do, let’s take a look at program managers in contrast.

Program manager: Ensures that large themes of work are tracking against company goals by:

  • Focusing on successful outcomes and long-term implications  for a collection of projects within a given program.
  • Identifies interdependencies across various departments and project. Then they work with the relevant stakeholders in each of these departments.
  • Identifies, manages and mitigates program/product risks.
  • Building out  schedules and keeping everyone accountable for sticking to them.
  • Manages and distributes human and financial resources.
  • Progress reporting

Program Manager. What's Dat?

In comparison to product managers who go “deep”, as in a highly concentrated area focus (the “product”), program managers go “wide”, taking a view across the organization in order to identify and manage interdependencies among several products, projects, and strategic initiatives.

While a product manager works with product, engineering, and design teams to build a product and launch it, a program manager manages all the ways this new product impacts the organization, for example:

  • The collateral and support needs of  marketing and sales so they can sell the product.
  • Training customer success and sales teams to support customer adoption.
  • Browbeating HR and Finance to secure budget and resources that different teams need to hit milestones in the desired timeline

Much like a doting parent, the program manager’s job is identify all the ways different departments depend on each other, king stakeholders aligned so the product launch is on track.

The Why Vs The How

Another way to look at the difference between product and program management is by looking at the why and the how of any given product

Product management answers the question of “Why?”:

  • Why build the product this way,
  • Why target this user persona,
  • Why prioritize this functionality over that,

Program management takes organization-wide view of strategic initiatives answer the question of “How?”:

  • How do we conduct pre-launch product training?
  • How is this product going to be marketed?
  • How much budget do we have for the product?
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