Two years ago, I wrote about the importance of product management to companies and how becoming a product manager can often lead to a C-level position. Since then, the importance of product management skills has expanded in organizations to where it is in every IT project manager’s interest to adopt a product management outlook toward projects.

Most project management courses and certifications don’t yet recognize this. But here’s why conducting an IT project like it’s a product management and rollout task is important:

You are not only responsible for completing a project on time, within budget and to spec–you’re also responsible for assuring that the business adopts the tech project you deliver, whether you want that responsibility or not.

For project acceptance and adoption to occur, the user, who is your internal customer, has to be pleased with what your team has produced. Your internal user-customers must also see the business value that your project delivers, as well as any pain point relief your project brings.

If your user-customers don’t see these benefits, your project will be in trouble, no matter how beautifully it is coded, how within budget it is, or how on-time it is.

SEE: IT Hiring Kit: Project Manager (Tech Pro Research)

Making the distinction

So what are the differences between a project manager and a product manager?

  • The project manager focuses on projects being defined and completed on time and within budget.
  • The product manager does all these things, too, but then adds the elements needed to “sell” endorsement and adoption of the project by users. Among these elements are continuously tire-kicking and road-testing the project with user-customers as it is being built. This ensures that users remain engaged with the project and that the project remains in alignment with the business needs and value it’s supposed to deliver. Equally important is the usability of a new system. If using the system is intuitive and fits neatly into users’ existing business operations, it will be easier for them to adopt it.

How do project-turned-product managers go this extra mile?

They do it by continuously engaging end users in the project, whether it is kicking the tires of a new app to see how it feels and works or actually road testing the app to ensure that it does what it is supposed to do for the business. If the project /product manager detects divergence between user expectations and project direction, they take immediate action to correct course so the project stays aligned with user and business needs.

The project manager often considers the project at an end once it is implemented. Not so with the product manager, who continues to follow the project after users begin using the new system or app. At this stage, the product manager wants to ensure that users have the training they need, that IT is supporting them–and that the app is being successfully inserted into the business and yielding the results it’s supposed to yield.

A product manager also works with end users to see what future enhancements might be beneficial for the project.

SEE: Project failure: 10 excuses your boss doesn’t want to hear (free TechRepublic PDF)

What skills are required?

Being a product instead of a project manager requires a hybrid set of skills that range from technical knowledge of the nuts and bolts of an IT project so they can communicate with IT programmers on a detailed level to business savvy and strong communications with end users, so they can empathize with their pain points and understand the business value that the user-customers expect from the project.

For IT’ers who often come into project management from a technical background, the challenge is to develop communications and people-facing skills. These skills include active listening, strong verbal, written, and nonverbal communications, the ability to negotiate, and the ability to subtract feelings and emotions about an issue so they can objectively meet with user-customers and members of their team to solve problems in the most effective way.

SEE: How to become a project manager: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

I once was a tech member on a major project whose motto was “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” This mantra was great for getting IT staff motivated to finish work on time, but it did little to address user needs and questions that would invariably come up and that might require a short “sidetrack”–or at least a hashing-out of concerns so the project (and the user-IT team) could get back on track.

The project completed on time, but it ultimately failed because the users didn’t have a say.

This is exactly the type of situation that a strong product manager, who is as sensitive to the user “market” for the app being developed as they are to the technical quality of the app, will identify and resolve.

At a time when up to 80% of projects fail because of “people problems,” not paying attention to a project’s end user market is something no IT project manager can afford to do.

Your thoughts

Have you cultivated a product manager attitude toward your projects? Has it made a difference in user acceptance and project success? Share your experiences and advice with fellow TechRepublic members.