Product manager vs. project manager

George Molina
Product Manager
Read Time
21 min read
Published On
June 21, 2019
George Molina in Office

My proudest moments in the kitchen include learning how to navigate a rice cooker and spending far too many years attempting to crack an egg with one hand. Clearly, I am not a chef.

With that said, I do watch a lot of Chef’s Table on Netflix. Maybe too much Chef’s Table. Enough to discern that at the top of a restaurant’s hierarchy sit two key positions: the head chef and kitchen coordinator. Both roles are crucial to the success of a restaurant and overall satisfaction of its customers much like a product and project manager are valuable players in their own right.

To better understand the differences between project and product managers, let’s imagine a hypothetical restaurant called PM Cafe. In this cafe, the head chef’s role is akin to the product manager while the kitchen coordinator would serve as the project manager. It’s three months to the opening day of our brand new, Nikkei (Peruvian/Japanese Fusion) style locale. Like the beginning of any project/product, the managers involved have a lot of prep work to ensure everything runs smoothly from day one with a sustainable plan for the weeks and months ahead. Starting with the head chef, the outline ahead follows this process along with the responsibilities entailed in each step.

Head Chef (Product Manager)

1. Ideation + Idea Validation

Before opening the doors to a new restaurant, the head chef needs to go through the process of ideation to understand why people would want to eat there in the first place. Similarly, product managers spend a lot of time getting from ‘0 to 1’ using trends, competitors, and early customer feedback as points of reference to help fine tune the idea at hand.

Once a more concrete idea is formed, product managers begin the idea validation phase. With the restaurant, this could mean pitching and prototyping meals to fellow chefs and paying close attention to their likes and more importantly, dislikes, to see how the idea holds up with any previously held assumptions. They would then keep the good dishes and discard the not so good ones.

2. Business Value/PnL/ROI

Say your friends and colleagues love the idea for this new restaurant! They agree that there is a market opportunity for Nikkei cuisine as it is becoming more well known, and New Yorkers would line up in droves to try it. Assuming Nikkei is a for-profit venture, the features it offers also need to make business sense to the stakeholders involved, one key group being the investors.

Product managers must ensure that in addition to creating user value, the product is creating business value and is designed for long-term profitability. While the opinions and direction of stakeholders may align with the product manager’s own views, discrepancies may also arise as a result of requirements like revenue and profit value of a new feature that may become highlighted as important for the business’ ultimate success.

Extensive vegetarian options, for example, may not be a mainstay of Nikkei cuisine, but a tradeoff needs to be made to cater to this audience and grow the addressable revenue pie. The chef will have to account for this while preparing the menu and understand how that may affect the other dishes – or features – in the months ahead.

3. Prioritization

With the initial menu confirmed, the steps ahead must be prioritized to ensure the most valuable milestones are being completed first. Much like a chef can’t begin cooking without ingredients, appliances, and a functional kitchen, a product manager on a new project needs to sift out the most important user stories to be completed.

In this phase of the products’ lifecycle, takeaways from prior market research, initial feedback, and the overall strategy must be synthesized. This allows a product manager to lead the initial approach towards a common goal.

This step also benefits from the wealth of opinions that team members can bring to the table. One software engineer’s estimate could be longer than expected while a UX designer may need more direction before getting started. Considering estimations prior to final prioritization is an important added step.

An ideal outcome of this phase is a backlog of features that are planned to be built and sorted in order of importance. The imminent features would be more well defined, with detailed definition for the lower priority features deferred for when their time eventually arrives.

4. Product Definition

Once the kitchen is setup and ready to go, the head chef can begin working with their chefs to begin creating the first set of dishes. If the prioritized items include coming up with the appetizers before moving on to the main course, the ideas for each appetizer should be conveyed as clearly as possible to each chef involved. To this end, the chef may prepare a definition in the form of a cookbook, which has a set of ingredients and cooking procedures.

Equally important is specifying the expected outcome: Just like a customer would expect some variety of raw fish at a Nikkei restaurant, a head chef would understand this expectation and explain what type of fish and how to cut it correctly so that the dish will be prepared in a way that satisfies the customer.

In the case of product management, the PM will start by writing detailed user stories that flesh out and describe the user’s intentions and expected outcomes from their interaction with a certain feature. By defining features in this way, the product manager takes ownership over the delivered items.

5. Product Execution

Here, new dishes are created and put together according to requirements while ensuring the path is clear for ongoing progress. Creation of future dishes, say, the main courses, is the next step in this active phase of the product’s journey. Like head chefs, product managers should always be ready to address blockers as they come up and be able to provide a clear solution to keep things going in a timely manner.

​6. Product Acceptance

Once items are ready for review it is up to the product manager to sign off on completed work. This means ensuring the acceptance criteria laid out during the product definition phase have been met and tested across environments.

In the kitchen, this would entail a head chef tasting the finalized version of all the menu items before the launch of the restaurant. As changes and updates are to be expected for all menu items, the product acceptance step is ongoing, just as a head chef will be taste testing meals well after the opening week of the restaurant.

7. Product Delivery

Now, the product has been tested thoroughly and is ready to ‘go to market’. A product manager in this stage would be supporting sales and marketing once the product has been launched in order to answer any questions and provide input where necessary. In essence, the product manager is expected to be the user’s advocate and would be able to speak to marketing about what it is the everyday person wants out of this product and how it could improve the lives of those who engage with it.

The head chef would act similarly. Working with the sales and marketing team in the weeks leading up to the restaurant launch to help ‘convince’ diners that Nikkei is a cuisine they need to try. With the most thorough understanding of the stories and elements behind each dish, the head chef has a huge part to play in the successful branding of the new restaurant and its food.

8. Product Validation

In the first post-launch phase, product managers are tracking an array of metrics to evaluate whether or not the launched product is succeeding in the intended market. Moreover, these observations could result in valuable insights for future prioritization and ideation phases.

For the restaurant, this could mean asking things like:

  • How full is the restaurant on any given night?
  • How many reservations have been made?
  • What type of food are people ordering?
  • What food items are being praised or criticized?

For example, serving gluten-free bread may have been a priority early on in the restaurant’s launch phase but the team has observed that not many diners ask for gluten-free options and as such, time would be better spent looking for ways to improve the quality of the appetizers before coming back to that point.

Consolidating and analyzing the answers to these questions brings about a more holistic idea of how real users and customers are receiving and interacting with the new restaurant.

9. Roadmap Planning

After the initial launch, the head chef should be focused on refining and improving the restaurant as well as the produced dishes at various stages in the future.

To help see the big picture and plan upcoming priorities and work streams, the key is to maintain a roadmap that allows both the product manager and involved team members to use it as a reference to plan bigger themes and priorities in the upcoming weeks, months and years.

With both restaurant and product management in general, these decisions should always consider the larger, big-picture goals that were identified at the beginning of the undertaking.

With all this in mind, the role of the kitchen coordinator is equally important for the restaurant.

Kitchen Coordinator (Project Manager)

1.Resource Management

Taking it back to the 3 months before opening day, while the head chef is focused on the food and creating a larger vision for the restaurant, the kitchen coordinator must begin by laying down the foundation. Likewise, a project manager would kick off the important step of resource management by realizing the main goals to get the project up and running - people, tools, facilities, and utilities.

In a restaurant, the kitchen coordinator would need to understand what kinds of people and what specific skillsets would be most appropriate for the work ahead. Just like a Nikkei restaurant wouldn’t hire a French pastry chef, a project manager would evaluate the work that needs to be done and decide which roles are needed to accomplish certain goals. The quantity of staff would also need to be ascertained based on the anticipated workload, to avoid too many cooks in the kitchen.

Furthermore, a restaurant can’t begin making good food if it lacks the tools necessary for success. With PM Cafe for example, a kitchen coordinator wouldn’t spend the restaurant’s money on a fryer if a majority of the food being served was raw fish. A project manager makes these decisions at the onset of a new undertaking by understanding the goals and anticipating which tools and materials team members would need to succeed.

With people and tools sorted, PM Cafe staff need a place to call their own. The kitchen coordinator, if this was in their purview, would assess various facilities that could meet the needs of the team and restaurant. Additionally, they would need to account for utilities such as gas, water, and electricity for the kitchen to be in full working condition, at all times.

2. Timeline/Schedule Management

While head chefs and product managers at this stage would be focused on solidifying each detail of the product at a consistently good level, kitchen coordinators and project managers would begin setting key milestones for the duration of the project. This would include such markers as the project start date, project demo dates, time estimations, stakeholder presentations, and industry events.  

For PM Cafe, the kitchen coordinator could decide that a soft opening would be held on July 1st. From there, friends and family tastings could occur in the couple of weeks after the soft opening to gain valuable insight from early opinions and feedback that the head chef would need to continue improving the food.

Ongoing reviews of the menu and overall state of the establishment would play a large part in informing the all-important stakeholder meetings. After all, the key players investing in the venture would want to feel confident that things are going in the right direction.

A critical part of this process is time estimation on project tasks. For instance, if a certain dish takes two hours to make, preparations will need to be made in advance so that if ordered, customers wouldn’t need to wait the entire two hours for the dish. On a broader level, the staff in place should be able to deliver enough throughput of dishes to serve customers in a timely manner.

Finally, ensuring the head chef and team attend and are aware of industry events such as Michelin award season would round out the important dates over the years that the restaurant should take note of.

3. Dependencies

While the head chef should always be at hand to help manage the kitchen workflow to get food from point a to point b, the kitchen coordinator should always be on the lookout to resolve dependencies ahead of time so that delays may be avoided where possible.

On opening night, the entire dining service is now the kitchen coordinators ‘project’ and it is their job to be sure that internal and external dependencies are under control at all times.

Internally, there are personnel dependencies to make sure the job that needs to be completed that night has the right person handling it. If the plating specialist calls in sick, the kitchen coordinator needs to either step in or find someone just as qualified to pick up the slack. Having the correct equipment for this plating specialist is just as important and verifying that the aforementioned utilities are up and running at all times is vital to a well-run service.

External dependencies are just as important and these would include making sure your truffle vendor has exactly what was asked, utility bills are paid in full, and the new version of the printed menus have been delivered, all in time for the night’s service.

4. Risk Management

As the restaurant begins to grow in reputation and has been running successfully for a few months, the final responsibility of a kitchen coordinator and project manager involves looking ahead and maintaining the sustainability of the restaurant and project.

Blockers on future progress should always be highlighted and there should be a direct plan to deal with them as effectively as possible. Plans to add a new section to the kitchen blocked by a dispute between chefs over who gets relocated? The kitchen coordinator should step in and resolve the matter to make sure the space is open for the impending arrival of the new equipment.

The kitchen coordinator should also understand that resources are finite and keeping track of every detail from the status of every ingredient to the mints given to customers with their bill is of utmost importance.

They should do everything possible to avoid any risks, but if problems do arise, then they should have a plan to mitigate them e.g., having a back-up truffle vendor, what to do when a glass breaks, all the way through to the worst-case scenario ensuring fire emergency procedures are in place.

Product vs. Project

​While it is clear that there are differences between the product managers and project managers, it is also important to understand that these roles can also work in tandem. In terms of PM Cafe, the hard work of the kitchen coordinator allows the head chef to continue making forward progress with the food and culinary innovation side of things while the kitchen and restaurant stay in good shape to keep the team going full steam ahead.

In the event that the head chef moves on to another restaurant, customers would likely not notice a massive change in the quality of the restaurant until a month or so goes by as there would still be items and ideas to produce that had been discussed over the past few months with said head chef. Once these ideas run out however, it is up to the staff to take up the mantle and begin thinking of new ways to keep people coming. This is where the restaurant quality and role of the departed head chef who no longer has a say in the overall vision of the restaurant, could begin to diminish.

With that said, this is our hypothetical restaurant and hypothetically, the employment status of both the head chef and kitchen coordinator are in a safe place. Whether in the kitchen or in the world of product and project management, when both roles are performed diligently and effectively, the result will be a high performing team and an operation set up for sustainable success. Just don’t forget to give PM Cafe a five-star rating on Yelp.