Program Management vs. Product Management

Defining the job responsibilities of these important leaders in your organization

Program Management and Product Management

The titles of program manager and product manager sound similar but they serve quite different functions in an organization. The skills and job descriptions of these two professionals are distinct.

  • Product managers, as the name implies, have a product mindset. They are responsible for answering the questions “What?” and “Why?”  They are the champions of the product definition and a stream of follow on products, throughout the product life cycle. 

Program managers are about execution. They are responsible for answering the questions “When?” and “How?”.  They manage people, resources, and schedules to ensure that programs are delivered on time, on budget, and at the correct price point.

What’s the Difference Between a Program Manager and a Product Manager?

A program managers’ focus is internal. They are looking laterally across projects and initiatives to manage the interdependencies between functions, cross-functional teams, and resources. Program managers are concerned with the tactical direction of programs and their smooth execution. 

In a new product development program, the program manager’s job is to shepherd a product to market, on time, and on budget. Once the product is released to the market, the program manager’s work is done. 

In some organizations, programs consist of many individual projects. In such organizations, the project manager’s role is to oversee the project plan of the individual project, while the program manager oversees a number of projects within a given program. Think, for instance, of a product family. Each product may be the result of a separate product development project; it may be a program manager’s role to oversee the entire program, i.e., the family of products as a whole.   

Product managers, on the other hand, bridge the external and the internal. Their role is to create a product vision and a product strategy to achieve it. Product managers capture the voice of the customer, research the market, prioritize product features, engage in ideation to conceive new product ideas, and ensure that the product team delivers the right offering. 

Product management is not complete at product launch. The product manager’s role begins at the product’s initial conception and ends only with the product’s retirement from the marketplace. The product manager’s input and oversight includes every stage in the product development process, from listening to customer feedback, to prioritizing features through post-launch modifications and derivatives, through obsolescence and replacement with a new generation offering. 

At each step in the product lifecycle, the product manager communicates inputs from external users and stakeholders to the core team members.

Program Management: The How and the When

Another way to understand the difference between these two leaders is that one is responsible for the How and the When, while the other is responsible for the What and the Why.

Program managers are concerned with how to manage the complex interdependencies such that their programs will achieve their strategic targets. They are also concerned with when deliverables, milestones, and finished products will be delivered. 

Program managers are about the execution of programs and projects. Their world is about schedules, resource allocation, project budgets, and cross functional synergies.

Product Management: The What and the Why

Product managers are about what products the project team needs to develop to provide the right solution for end customers. They are also about accounting for why a certain feature or product is what customers need, whether they know it or not.

Product managers are about meeting the strategic needs of the company by informing internal stakeholders (the development team, the marketing function) of what external stakeholders (like customers and partners) need and want. Their world is about customer visits, market research data, product definitions, feature lists, product roadmaps, customer support, and obsolescence plans. They are responsible for the strategic planning and profitability of new products.

The Skills of Program Managers vs. Product Managers

The career path of a product manager often runs through Marketing, but can start from an engineering role; program managers often have a more process oriented background, growing responsibility by managing bigger and more complex programs. The differing skill sets of program and product managers illustrates the contrast between these two types of leaders. 

Program Management Skills

  • Ability to map and leverage complex dependencies between projects.
  • Competency in resource allocation and budgeting.
  • In a waterfall methodology, the ability to make realistic schedules with clear deadlines – and the leadership and authority to make sure they are met. 
  • Knowledge of project management methodology (including Agile/Scrum in a software development context), and other management tools.
  • Detail-oriented thinkers with knowledge of their company’s products, procedures and processes; excellent problem-solving ability.

Product Manager Skills

  • Ability to analyze customer data and turn feedback into features. 
  • Superb communication skills with the ability to motivate a team to produce a product that fits the target market.
  • A feel for markets and market changes.
  • An ability to develop detailed product roadmaps.
  • Great product managers are also big picture thinkers with the foresight to imagine new solutions and achieve business goals.
  • Executive presence and excellent communication skills.

Do You Need Both Product and Program Managers?

In larger companies, the answer is yes. Having product managers as dedicated resources that cultivate a product mindset, who champion individual offerings, and maintain communications with external stakeholders, is essential. 

Larger companies also tend to have more teams, more resources invested, and more external stakeholders from suppliers to shareholders. This means many more complex interdependencies, and that makes the program manager role extremely important. Thus, in larger companies it makes sense to separate the product and program manager roles and to define them carefully.

Larger and more mature companies may also make a distinction between product management and product marketing. In this case, product management may have sole responsibility for inbound marketing, that means, capturing the voice of the customer, and ensuring that the development team has a prioritized list of features, and delivers an offering that meets customer needs. 

On the other hand, product marketing oversees outbound marketing. Typically product marketers work with sales and promotion to make sure that existing offerings are positioned to sell. They’re concerned with pricing, creating marketing collateral, distribution channels and other aspects of getting products in the hands of customers, both pre- and post-launch.

In smaller companies, where everyone tends to do a bit of everything, these roles tend to be less clear and defined. The externally-focused product manager and the internally-focused program manager may overlap. Smaller organizations may have a limited number of projects, perhaps only a couple, which erodes the distinction between programs and projects. Sometimes, programs contain multiple projects so a company with a limited number of projects will collapse the distinction between program and project, at least in part.

Program management vs. product management at a glance

Still don’t get it? Too long didn’t read? Here’s a handy table to make sense of the differences between these two roles.

Program ManagerProduct Manager
Focused on execution of programs and strategic initiatives.Focused on the end-to-end product life cycle.
About the How and WhenAbout the What and Why
Ability to map and leverage complex dependencies between projects.Ability to analyze customer data and turn feedback into features. 
Look laterally, across projects and initiatives.Dives deeply into individual products.
About milestones, deliverables, resource allocation.About customer voice, product definition, user support, and the product life cycle.