Program Management vs. Product Management

Defining the job responsibilities of these important leaders in your organization

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Program Management vs. 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 title 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 manager’s 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.   

The Role of Product Managers

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 the 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 and product owner’s input and oversight include every stage in the product development process, from listening to customer feedback to prioritizing features through post-launch modifications and derivatives, 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

To grasp the distinction between these two leaders, consider that a program manager is responsible for the How and the When, whereas a product manager focuses on the What and the Why.

Program managers, equipped with their project management skills and relevant certifications, dive deep into the realm of project management. They address the intricate interdependencies and ensure that their programs align with strategic goals. Their concerns also encompass the timing of deliverables, milestones, and the culmination of products.

In the context of program manager vs. product manager, the former is immersed in executing programs and projects. Their sphere revolves around project management schedules, resource allocation, project management budgets, and bridging cross-functional synergies.

Program Management

Product Management: The What and the Why

On the other hand, product managers delineate what products the project team should craft to offer the apt solution to end-users. Their purview also extends to discerning why a specific feature or item aligns with the customer’s needs, acknowledged or otherwise.

Product manager vs. program manager

When delving deeper into product manager vs. program manager, we find that product managers are pivotal in shaping the product strategy, aligning the company’s vision by conveying to internal stakeholders (like the project manager and marketing teams) the desires and requirements of external stakeholders (such as customers and partners). Their domain is enriched with customer interactions, market research data, product definitions, feature lists, product roadmaps, customer support, and crafting obsolescence plans. They are the linchpins in strategic planning and the profitability of fresh product launches.

Product Management Process

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, including their ability to collaborate with cross-functional teams such as the engineering team, illustrate 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, with a Scrum Master role as well) and other management tools are valuable for product managers and program managers.
  • 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 while also leveraging success metrics.
  • 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, 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, which 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 into the hands of customers, both pre-and post-launch.

In smaller startup 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, especially when it comes to managing project scope. 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 key differences between these two roles.

Program Management vs. Product Management at a Glance

TCGen Principal & Founder

John Carter

John Carter specializes in product development, from the strategy and innovation processes to product definition, execution, and launch. He has helped companies cut time to market, rapidly scale their product program, and improve innovation with customer-led insights. His work leads to greater profitability, reduced costs, and improved customer satisfaction.

John currently serves on the Board of Directors of Cirrus Logic (CRUS), a leading supplier of mixed-signal semiconductors. He is involved with company strategy and sits on the Compensation and Audit Committees.

Before starting the consulting firm TCGen, John was the Chief Engineer of BOSE Corporation. John is the inventor of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones and shares the original patent with Dr. Amar Bose. He was one of the initial contributors to BOSE’s entry into the automobile OEM business. He led the product and business development of BOSE’s patented noise reduction technology for the military market.

John Carter, TCGen Principal & Founder