Project management and product management: different approach to solving known and unknown problems

What’s the difference between project management and product management? Both are approaches to solving problems and are often complimentary rather than opposite, but on one dimension project and product management differ greatly.

Project management approaches excel in situations of certainty. Product management approaches are more effective in environments of uncertainty.

Let’s imagine we want to get from one side of a river to the other.

If we know we want to build a bridge to get us across the river, know where on the river bank the bridge should be, how much traffic it’ll have to handle, then a project management approach will get the bridge built. That’s because lots of the situation is known and well-defined. Building a bridge to get across the river is a situation of certainty.

If we know we want to get across the river, but we don’t know how we should get across, or where to cross, or even why we want to cross the river, then a product management approach allows us to ask those questions and figure out the answers. In this uncertain situation, we might start with a small boat as a hypothesis about how to get across the river only to find that the current is too strong, and so making the situation slightly less uncertain.

This is why product management methods and techniques are often about identifying and reducing uncertainty, whether that is ‘continuous discovery’, ‘thinking in bets’ or ‘iterative development’. And underlying these techniques is the scientific method, the ultimate technique for going from unknown to known.

Maybe certainty to uncertainty is a spectrum with some overlap in the middle, but as approaches to solving problems, using project management in situations of uncertainty or product management in situations of certainty isn’t going to reach the best solution.