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Don’t Use Project Management Tools For Product Management

March 25, 2013

3 minute read

I’m seeing a troubling trend in product management. Too often, project management tools end up being the core tools used by product managers.

However, project management and product management are distinct practices and by using a project management tool you are very possibly distorting the product management process to fit within the confines of the project management tools.

Project Management vs Product Management

Projects, by their very definition, have a distinct beginning, middle and an end. Projects get assigned a set of resources with which to complete the project. Each project has a well defined goal to be achieved at the end of the project. This makes it very easy to work out whether a project was successful. Did the project achieve the goal within the given constraints? If yes, it was successful and if no, it wasn’t.

Product management isn’t the same. It’s a discovery process as much as anything, and is unique from Project Management in a number of ways:

  1. Product management doesn’t have any definite beginning, middle or end. Instead, product management is a cycle of continuous iteration, feedback and deployment. In fact, it isn’t really one cycle, but a series of cycles that orbit a vision and narrative of what the product is. These cycles cover aspects such as experimentation, usability testing, customer discovery, development and deployment of updates.
  2. Product management is not a linear process, and the iterative processes involved actually encourage you to change tack on a pretty regular basis. Haven’t we all prioritised something up one development cycle only to drop it down the next cycle because new information suddenly made it less important? Or found that after digging into a certain problem to be solved we found that “must have” item was no longer so “must have”.
  3. Product management doesn’t work within defined dates.  As much as our stakeholders would love us to agree to specific dates for those long-term roadmap items, it just doesn’t work that way – there’s too much to learn along the way, and therefore too much which can (and invariably will) change before we get there.Our approach at ProdPad was to build a roadmap tool that wasn’t constrained by dates.

This trend is worrying because shoehorning product management into a project management tool will only lead to poor practice. Product management is not just a set of tasks to be completed by various resources by certain dates. Things do not neatly move left to right in our world.

Any tool you use for product management should allow for non-linear processes and help with discovery.

This isn’t to say that a project management tool or a task manager cannot be used in some aspects of product management.  Once a product spec is ‘Go’, these tools can certainly help with development management, where you’ll have  defined resources, a goal and realistic timeline – this is why ProdPad integrates with these type of tools.   Where they fall short is in deciding which feature should be ‘Go’ in the first place!

Project management tools simply aren’t fit for purpose for managing the overall process of product management.

So to those of you product managers who are debating which tools to use for your day-to-day job, I say: Be a product manager, not a glorified Gantt chart jockey!

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3 thoughts on "Don’t Use Project Management Tools For Product Management"

  1. I definitely agree that Product and Project management are totally different things. And also “tools” used by booth camps are different.

    But I’m not fully with you saying that Product Management doesn’t work with defined days. It’s not about getting a list of things to do as in Project Management but, Product Managers need to negotiate with project managers about the scope that’s feasible to do within a given date – and this usually happens on weekly basis. And more than that, marketing & sales needs to know in advance what they will get so they may prepare right strategy of advertising and selling. And these dates are usually quite precise – we are talking about couple of days or one or two weeks.

    Based on how things go in project management, you, as the Product Manager, need to adjust your initial market & competitive strategy for a product release that you targeting. This is also something you need to do on regular basis.

    It would be nice if you can point more specifically to the tools you are talking about, because in some situations, there are tools that are used by project and product managers.

  2. I agree with Michal.

    Additionally, though two roles are quite different, there would be certain tools which are going to be common. I would agree that each product going through its life cycle needs a creative, iterative thinking to remain current and futuristic to maintain its mature stature and be still actively fighting in the market. However, each of these thoughts, their costs, schedule and quality will need tracking to make the product continuously viable. Thus product manager will have to have some tools shared with the project managers.

    Also, there is no product built without a time horizon in mind. Agreed that path breaking products are, at times, ahead of their times. But if you look at majority of products, time to market is important. If you cannot be on time to the market, you may not even build the product.

  3. Agreed. There are many things that change and far faster than one might expect and committing to long-term changes can be dangerous unless the customer is willing to keep an open mind along the way. This also holds true at the early stages. What may be a critical issue at a PoC may not be as critical in the end.

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