Program Manager vs Project Manager vs Product Manager

Running a business is no easy task, and consistently growing and improving one is even harder. However, one of the keys for any company to succeed is a robust organizational structure and well-trained personnel. With well-trained staff and competent management, your business can thrive.


Establishing a strong, capable organization requires understanding the roles of different types of managers so that you can put the most qualified people in the right positions. Understanding the differences between program managers vs. project managers vs. product managers will help you write suitable job descriptions and select the right candidates.


While there are similarities between these managerial roles, they’re far from interchangeable, and each demands unique skillsets. 


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Project vs. Program vs. Product

One way to clarify the differences between program managers vs. project managers vs. product managers is to identify their area of responsibility. Understanding the differences between projects, programs, and products underlines the differences in abilities that each of these roles requires.  



A project consists of a series of tasks that are supposed to create and bring forward something new when completed. A distinguishing characteristic of projects is that they have a specific starting and ending date, so they have considerable time constraints. Depending on the size and importance of the project, they can be managed by one person or multiple people. 



A program is the sum of numerous connected, related projects. While a project has a confined, relatively short-term goal, programs are responsible for all of their component projects. This results in programs having a long-term, strategic orientation that has a larger role in the wider organization. For example, a program might have such responsibilities as opening a new location or launching a new project. 



Products are the most tangible out of these three categories. A product is everything a business offers to its existing and potential customers, whether a physical product, service, or experience. Furthermore, rather than being in one of these three categories, a product might be a hybrid of two or more of them. Developing and launching a product entails conceptualization, development, marketing, and many more specific requirements that require a more local mindset than program management.


Program Manager vs. Project Manager vs. Product Manager

Finding a good hire for a role requires understanding that role and knowing what skills to look for in an employee. While each type of manager needs a good sense for leadership and organization, the differences in their responsibilities mean that you need to prioritize alternative skills. By understanding these differences, you’ll be able to develop effective training programs to further their ability to succeed in the role you’ve placed them. 


Project Manager

Project managers are professionals who are responsible for carrying out projects successfully. This includes devising a plan for accomplishing the project, gathering and forming a suitable team for the project’s needs, as well as monitoring, leading, and troubleshooting the working process. Project management can be particularly hands-on and intensive, so keep this in mind while assessing a candidate’s skill set. Compared to other types of managers, project managers may benefit the most from conducting routine employee evaluations


Projects often experience considerable time constraints, so strong time management is particularly key in this role. Therefore, some necessary skills involve knowledge of properly distributing, managing, and utilizing time. These skills empower project managers to craft successful plans and make the most of the resources available to them. 


Besides the importance of time management and an ability to beat deadlines, a project manager needs the knowledge and capability to implement project management techniques. Techniques such as agile development and scrum are powerful resources to maximize project efficiency. In addition, possessing expertise and experience surrounding modern project management methods gives a project manager more tools to ensure success. 


Program Manager 

Comparing a project vs. program manager, the program manager operates on a higher organizational level. Numerous project managers report to the program manager, who is responsible for coordinating all the projects within their own area of responsibility. 


A program manager’s responsibilities include:


  • planning and monitoring the program and how it is progressing 
  • controlling the program’s budget, comparing costs with realized profit and benefits
  • upholding a stable communication with all stakeholders
  • assessing the possible risks and threats to the program and its success

Since a program manager deals with a higher level of organization, their skills can often apply to numerous different fields and departments. Day-to-day responsibilities for this role are substantial, but the scope of a program is much larger than these duties. As such, managers need a greater sense of strategic vision beyond the details of individual projects. 


Product Manager 

A product manager is an expert who monitors the process of product development for your business. Some of their responsibilities include, but aren’t limited to: 


  • Influencing the strategy behind and creation of products 
  • Balance business’ capabilities and values with the wants and needs of the customer 
  • A product manager can influence the strategy and creation of a product 
  • Leadership and management skills 
  • An understanding of the product, its goals, and the need it fulfills

The role of a product manager involves vision and understanding of the market. As such, they need good skills for understanding and accommodating customer needs. In addition, research skills and the ability to convert raw market data into actionable insights are needed. Furthermore, the knowledge and confidence to make critical and influential decisions about the future of a product are indispensable. Creativity, attention to detail, flexibility, a willingness to change, and an internal sense of drive are all musts as well. 


Comparing Product vs. Project vs. Program Management

Comparing program managers vs. project managers vs. product managers reveals many similarities between the roles. A sense of leadership, organizational understanding, and an ability to manage time effectively are all key. In addition, anyone in a managerial position needs a suite of soft skills that can help them make the most of the people and resources they lead. Clear communication, interpersonal skills, and a desire to grow as a person and professional are just a few traits these managers all need. 


However, each of these positions has its own, unique responsibilities. This flows into the differing requirements of each role. For instance, a program manager needs to avoid micromanaging the projects beneath them. Instead, they need a strategic vision and a willingness to delegate and must maintain their focus on the big picture. Conversely, project managers benefit from taking an intense, hands-on approach to managing their responsibilities. Thus, the product manager position inherently involves risky, intuitive, and creative decisions as well as an analytical approach to developing market insights.


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