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Turning Your Project Managers Into Product Teams: Should You Do It?

June 10, 2020   By Brent Swanson

To Project or Product Manage? That Is the Question.

It’s highly likely that as you’ve worked through your transformation to an Agile-based product practice, you’ve been faced with this question: “what do we do with our project managers?” You likely have an experienced and talented group of people in your PMO, and given how much it costs — emotionally and financially — to recruit and retain top talent, the last thing you want to do is alienate them. Any good employee wants to know their skills are valued in an organization, and telegraphing Project Management is on the way out may lead to the kind of resistance to change that scuttles transformation. By proactively addressing the people side of change management in your transformation, you have the opportunity to reduce pushback and engage your top performers on the next step in their career.

Before we go any further, we should probably address whether a good Project Manager makes a good Product Manager. The answer is “yes” and also “no.” Don’t make the assumption the roles are interchangable, or even that they’ll be interested in making the move. While a Project Manager can successfully transition into product management (and many do), the qualities that made them a star in your PMO do not guarantee success in a developing product organization.

It’s also important to note that project to product isn’t the only organic career transition available to a good project manager. I’ve seen Project Managers grow into excellent Scrum Masters, as they share some common skills — even though accountability and daily contributions are different. Similarly, many Business Analysts naturally mature into Product Owner and Manager roles.

Ultimately, a successful role change from project to product management has more to do with the individual’s interest, drive, and mindset than any specific role they’ve held in the past. Looking to your project managers who have taken progressively complex and mission-critical projects across the finish line, and those with a keen eye for strategy and supported integrating the voice of the customer into the project — these are the people you want to reach out to and evaluate their appetite for moving into a product role.

So What Exactly Is the Difference Between Project and Product Managers?

While they might sound similar, Project Management and Product Management are fundamentally different roles with drastically different philosophies and requirements for success. There are deliverables Project Managers have been trained to pursue that conflicts with what the Product Manager is accountable to deliver. 

Hallmarks of a Great Project Manager

  • Focuses more on how and when to build new features and enhancements.
  • Establishes achievable timelines with defined delivery milestones.
  • Breaks down and sequences the approved scope of work into tasks.
  • Excels at mitigating risks to ensuring the work is executed on time.
  • Plans resources to reduce wasted effort and eliminate bottlenecks.
  • Accountable for the KPIs around delivering the scoped work within the allotted time.

Footprints of a Great Product Manager

  • Focuses on identifying what should be built and articulating why it is important.
  • Operates as the product CEO, clearly communicating their vision to stakeholders.
  • Leverages human-centered design and audience research insights to uncover needs. 
  • Able to plan strategically and prioritize the work which will provide maximum value. 
  • Leads by effectively delegating and trusting their team to handle the logistical tasks.
  • Ultimately accountable for the ROI and success (or failure) of the product.

As you might have noticed, the roles are quite different and without much overlap. I’d like to acknowledge here that, yes, some exceptional folks are able to successfully operate in the middle ground — stretching to wear both project and product management hats. For the average human, stretching so far in so many directions often leads to burnout. Due to the complex demands of each role, this is usually untenable in larger organizations with larger products. Do your people a favor and commit to taking one path or the other.

As the nature of project management roles fades in popularity, switching to Product Management offers career growth opportunities for your team. It also offers an exciting ability to increase their influence and help set the direction of the company. Being viewed as a leader is also one of the most rewarding aspects of product management, and it can help to motivate the right kind of Project Manager looking to spread their wings.

Don’t forget to address the human-side of change management. Look for the qualities in project managers that might indicate they will make good product managers (as noted above). Approach them with an offer to both support them with training and incentivize them to commit to the switch. Then be prepared to equip them for the change as soon as they say “yes.”

Being thoughtful about who has the right desire — in addition to their potential — to be successful in the role, will set everyone up for success. Whatever you do, don’t just flip a switch and make all of your project managers into product people overnight without putting in place the kinds of change management, training, and support described here. While I’ve heard arguments that this approach may work better for some organizations in the end it’s antithetical to embracing an Agile approach and human-centered product practice where the objective is to empower the individuals closer to the product to be decisive. In my experience, forcing a role change and dictating people’s career path is a recipe for resistance and will short circuit your transformation in the end. However, not everyone will make the cut as a potential product leader and not everyone will say “yes!” Anticipate there will be attrition (voluntarily and involuntarily) and have a backup plan by providing a healthy exit package for those not interested (or able) to make the leap to product management.

You’re Committed to the Switch. What Now?

To start the process, define exactly what the Product Management role is for the organization and develop a standard & consistent role description (including levels if appropriate.) This will help you safeguard your business and enable new product managers to create a community of practice that is learning and growing together. Setting clear expectations for the work product expected in your organization sets them up for success — but also be open to evolving those expectations as the community of practice evolves. No one will know the role better than the people you recruit to fill the role, and they’ll be powerful advocates for developing the right skills across the team.

Next, get the team an education. If you have existing product frameworks internally, then by all means start there, but don’t let that be the end of it. Provide them with professional training and access to industry-accepted certification (CPM, CSPO, or similar). As they begin to manage their own products, provide continued access to an experienced product coach, encourage them to find a mentor, or engage a group of product management peers to support each other. This not only sets them up for success, but it also builds goodwill and support for your digital transformation as a whole.

Even once you’ve helped people make the transition when the going gets tough it’s human nature for your former project managers to backslide into familiar roles. During this sensitive period, keep an eye out for those who are at risk and offer additional support, coaching, and training. If not managed carefully, having the wrong people on your team can negatively impact your culture and may impede your transformation progress. As with any significant organizational change, one of the keys to a successful transformation is to ensure you have the right people in the right seats.

Contributing Editor

Brent Swanson works at the intersection of people, process, and technology, empowering businesses to quickly mature from operating in chaos to running highly effective and innovative product management practices. He has both created new and grown established brands and products for a diverse range of industries like Be the Match, CaringBridge, Brandpoint, 3M, HealthPartners, Land O’ Lakes, Medtronic, Northwest Airlines, and Target.

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