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Are you a Product Manager? Or a Project Manager in disguise?

Are you a product manager? Or a project manager in disguise?

I worked as a project manager for many years, and on many occasions recently, I’ve been asked what the transition to product management has been like. Why did I make the move? Would I consider going back to project management? This is what this story is about.

What is a product manager?

Literature tells us that as product managers, we need to feel comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. We need to fill the gaps in our specialised teams and be obsessed with solving real customer problems to achieve positive outcomes for the product.

Although the literature doesn’t tend to focus on it, Project Management is an essential skill to master to be a successful product manager. I’ve not transitioned away from project management at all, half of my work relies heavily on the skills and tools I mastered during my previous career.

Because I have a background in project management and feel confident in delivery, I have the head space to focus on the bigger picture. The delivery details are time-consuming, but they’re not hard. The much more difficult and interesting challenge is understanding the problem space. Making bets, running experiments, monitoring outcomes and learning.

It is incredibly rewarding seeing something pan out the way you hoped, equally having your mind blown when the customer behaves unexpectedly, talking to them and then understanding how it makes sense. I love this experience of learning.

Maybe I was doing project management wrong?

I started as a project manager with no formal training. I didn’t do estimation, I didn’t know what a RAID log was, and I’d never heard of a Gantt chart. Yet, I successfully delivered projects. I did what came instinctively, and over time, with each new battle scar, I learnt the tools of the trade and in which situations they are useful. I found that as long as I over-communicated about everything, and the project was going well, no one cared for the Gantt chart or RAID log; they were helpful in initial conversations but later became a burden to maintain. I stopped using them unless they were demanded.

The little blue book

I first heard about product management from a colleague who attended a Mind the Product workshop in 2016. He returned with a little blue book packed with bullet-pointed lists and links to resources explaining the foundations of product management. At first, I dismissed it. I was too busy trying to figure out what a good project manager looked like.

My colleague left the company a year later, but the little blue book remained. I picked it up and leafed through its pages once more. By this time, I had fought quite a few of the same battles, accumulated quite a bit of experience and was looking for something new.

I started to ask our clients better questions. I began to understand their market and mission and empathise with their customers a lot more. It was like I had been living underwater and had just popped my head over the surface to see what was there. I actively pushed for the budget to include time to carry out user research and usability testing. I discussed and made sure tracking was in place and explored product KPIs.

It was wonderful. I was learning again, our clients appreciated the extra guidance and it was exciting to start closing the build-measure-learn loop. Even though I was not a product manager by title, I was acting like one.

Being agency side, I felt restricted. We weren’t always privy to the whole picture; decisions were made that went against our advice or the organisation had unclear or no strategy. Sometimes we delivered the app or website and the organisation didn’t have enough budget to continue to evolve it. I yearned to focus and take ownership of a product of my own. To be able to see the whole picture, to see what outcomes resulted from the work months, or even years down the line. To influence the organisation’s strategy. I decided to move client-side and finally get my dream position as an actual product manager.

Life as a product manager

I’ve been developing a product mindset since 2017 when I finally decided to pay attention to that little blue book. For a long time, I conflated what it meant to be a good project manager with product management. The skillsets do overlap, but there are key differences — my focus nowadays is much more on the success of the product rather than the project. In fact, sometimes it’s good for a project to fail.

As a product manager, you bring the most value in the discovery stages. Talking to and emphasising with customers, understanding the problem space and informing product strategy. As a former project manager, I’m constantly drawn to my comfort zone in delivery, running a cross-functional team to bring features to life. But that’s not where you should be spending most of your time and effort. If you find yourself constantly in the delivery stage, and hardly ever in discovery, then you’re spending too much time project managing and not enough product managing. The biggest red flag is if you are ‘product managing’ several products. As a project manager, I often managed 3-8 projects at once, it’s completely unsustainable to product manage more than one product at a time.

For over a year and a half now, I’ve had the level of authority and autonomy to allow me to put into practice all the things in that blue book. My mission is no longer to deliver projects; I deliver great products that people love.

What next?

It all became clear when I heard Thor Mitchell, Head of Product at Miro, talk on a product leadership panel about how he was convinced to step into a leadership role. I’m daring myself to lead in Product, just as I once did during my project management career. Signable is growing. I could continue to be an amazing individual contributor or I can lead.

Why dabble in leadership when I’m enjoying my role as an individual contributor? If my mission is to achieve our product vision, leading a team of strong product managers will be a force multiplier. I can help make ten times more impact, plus mentor those who have decided to go on the same incredible journey I have. It feels like the responsible way to go.

That’s where I am now. Staring up at the product leadership mountain, equipping myself with the tools and knowledge to climb it. I’ll have falls and miss-steps for sure, but that’s ok; I have an outstanding Head of Product who will support me along the way and a product community that is second to none.