Today as I was taking a little mental break and playing with the ball of blue rubber bands on my desk, I thought a bit about where project conflict comes from. I was thinking about a larger development project a few years ago, where we seemed to systematically come against some major project conflict consistently throughout the project. And as I thought about it, I realized that many of the issues inside those conflicts were a result of the distinction (or lack there of) between product management vs project management. Now I am talking about more than just the difference in definition between product management vs project management, I’m talking about the fundamental distinction between product and project. So many times these get collapsed or intersected and really one has little to do with the other. Most project conflicts arise when internal and external forces begin collapsing the notion of product management vs project management.
Here are some defining differences between Product Managers vs Project Managers in various contexts within a company:
- If you were thinking about product and project within an organizational structure, a product would be a revenue center and a project would be a cost center.
- If you were thinking about product and project within rolls, the Product Manager is managing quality functionality and feature quality. And a Project Manager is trying to minimize and manage resources and risks; they are managing project budget and project schedule.
- From a time perspective, product and projects are different as well. The fundamental distinction between a project and a product is that a project has the defining criteria that it has an end date. That is very different than a product.
Any client would agree that a successful product would have a life of its own and would continue on forever. Just this difference alone creates conflict within the project structure. Coupled with the polarizing performance indices of budget and time for a Project Manager vs quality and functionality for a Product Manager, make for a messy brew if not managed correctly. There’s only one criteria that make a project a project — it’s that it has an end date. IF you’re lucky products, don’t have end dates.
Now, just thinking about roles of a Product Manager vs Project Manager:
- Leading a team tasked with a product line life-cycle, from strategic planning to tactical positioning.
- Determining key revenue opportunities with new products and making improvements on existing products based on customer and prospect feedback.
- Serving as an internal and external evangelist for a product, communicating the key benefits and target customers of a product to Marketing and Sales Teams.
- Working with engineers and technical teams to explicitly communicate requirements and functionality.
- Overseeing the planning, implementation, and tracking of a specific project with a start and end, and specific deliverables.
- Procuring the required resources to complete the project. Resources may include: personnel, hours for services, funds, equipment, tools, etc.
- Developing a project plan including scheduling of resources and key targets to successfully complete the project with the allocated resources (especially time and resources)
- Determining the objectives to measure the successful completion of the project, and managed resources effectively to meet those targets.
So, in the context of an engagement, let us look a bit closer at Product Management vs. Project Management. Many people think of them as being similar. But by looking at their function within an organization and their distinct roles we can see they are actually opposing forces:
- Quality vs. Constraining Resources
- One has and end date, one hopefully has a life of its own and hopefully for-ever
- Conflicts that arise from these fundamental differences
Now going back to the project that started this entire train of thought…this particular project had some interesting variables. In this case we had a client that had three products and three Product Managers and each of them had their own interests inside the product. Then we had our Project Manager and respective resources counterbalancing each of the three clients, but only on our side was there anyone representing the project. This caused an in-balance of forces and as a consequence, several conflicts ensued within the engagement. Hindsight being 50/50, this was a direct result of the scales weighing too heavily on the product side and not enough on the project side. Let me go through a couple examples where such in-balance can result in conflict:
Clients wearing too many of the hats
One issue arises when a client has multiple roles; being responsible for both the product and project. For example in our project we had a Product Manager in charge of the feature set along with a Director of Technology responsible for the technical platform. All of our requirements and estimating came from the Product Manager on the client’s side. Although re-factoring is a part of the process this internal project risk greatly hampered the engagement and increased conflict.
In-balance of representation for product and project
Another issue in this particular case is that we had three client stakeholders responsible for product and no client stakeholders really responsible for the project. This means no one on the client side was responsible for constraining budget and schedule. In a good engagement there are checks and balances between product management and project management. This allows for appropriate levels of restraint and consideration when each request is made from the product team. And without those checks and balances, project expansion can creep into the engagement. In our case it did… we had scope creep and we had a tough time being able to help our client manage the project to completion.
Conflicts that can arise from Product Management vs Project Management in an engagement:
- Fixed-fee pitfalls
In any of our fixed fee engagements, we make sure to have the discussion of the distinction between product vs project with our clients. This collapsed idea can get unpacked and we can create realistic goals and expectations for the project for the engagement.
- When to release – Dates push
Many times when the client stakeholder is really the product champion (more than a project champion), dates and budgets can get pushed. Without a client’s thoughtful consideration of the constraints and consciousness of the project, engagement risk can ensue. That’s why it’s important for our Project Managers to always raise awareness of the effect of any management decision or client decision. And we want to capture all of those decisions inside a report of some form. Status reports aren’t just CYA… This is helping aline clients’ requests and needs.
- What is an minimum-viable product (MVP)
We have a lot of clients who are interested in building MVPs. And so what does that mean? What is required inside an MVP? It’s very important to look at the absolute minimum feature set for release. What is the minimum feature set that will still create value for a market or niche? Based on that, an iterative release schedule can be created for post production release. Version 1.0 is not the final version of a product. And, inside an MVP project, we want to create an appropriate budget and schedule to get out a product to market as fast as we can.
So we’ve talked about product management and project management within different contexts and we talked about roles of Product Manager vs Project Manager. We’ve also discussed some of the conflicts that arise from both product and project. Within running a consulting project, here are some ways to resolve and addressed those fundamental conflicts.
The Software Quality Triangle– QUALITY | TIME | COST . Pick two but most importantly prioritize those three. Every time a management decision comes up, base all decisions on this priority.
So for example, perhaps when thinking about building a mobile application. Do you want to build a responsive design app or a native mobile app? A responsive design mobile app will allow you to address multiple devices with one application and that certainly helps where budget is concerned. However, the richest user experiences typically come from building native Android and iOS mobile apps. Which is more important to you at this point in time — quality or budget? These are the types of decisions we help our clients make.
Anytime a conflict arises it’s important that the entire management team writes down the conflict, fleshes it out a bit, and communicates with all roles contributing to the issue resolution. Many times a conflict is occurring because ideas are collapsed, packed, or un-communicated.
- Quantity versus quality
Now what do I mean by that? What I mean is that the management team should quantify every aspect of their product in the scope of the project and be able to quantify and measure various sections. Doing this may over-quantify certain aspects of the projects, but having subjective judgments will drastically improve your conflict resolution efforts as well as laying out a level playing field for the team. This gives the team members a chance to look at what we’re measuring, and everyone has the opportunity to confirm that what we’re measuring is correct and accurate. This also allows for Project Managers to reflect and adjust to stay inside our goals and objectives.
Being able to unpack the different between project management and product management will allow you to distinguish, mitigate and resolve most engagement conflict.
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