The Real Difference Between Product Managers and Product Management Consultants

Thinking of climbing the rungs of the product ladder to management or switching gears to consulting? Here’s what to consider.

Published on Nov. 08, 2023
The Real Difference Between Product Managers and Product Management Consultants
Image: Shutterstock / Built In

In the universe of product development, the roles of product managers and product management consultants are two stars orbiting closely, radiating similar yet distinct lights to their respective solar systems.

The product universe continues to expand; in fact, during my research for this article, I found 16 product management roles, from product owner to associate PM to group to principal to product coordinator (which seems like a mask for project manager, nice try). The expansion of roles shows that the growth of the product career isn’t slowing down any time soon.

But what’s the difference between all of these seemingly interchangeable titles? Our analysis delves into the nuances distinguishing a product management consultant from a product manager.

Becoming a product management consultant or product manager

Tips to be a product management consultant: Explore internal consulting opportunities. Alternatively, small consulting firms can provide a low-pressure environment to hone your skills, or you can immerse yourself in larger firms’ ecosystems by seeking out entry-level roles.

Tips to be a product manager: Implement a consultant's approach in-house, being engaged with your colleagues and offering actionable solutions. By doing so, you not only dazzle stakeholders but also catalyze your organization’s forward momentum.

Read more about consultingWhy Tech Workers Make Great Business Consultants

 

What Do PMs and PM Consultants Have in Common?

Let’s start with what the roles have in common. In both instances, you will dive in and get your hands on the keyboard. 

  • User Stories: Craft exceptional user stories with comprehensive acceptance criteria, ensuring even junior engineers easily understand them. Write acceptance criteria that would make Kent Beck proud.
  • Backlog and ceremonies: Prioritize tasks to highlight essential features, coordinate with stakeholders and champion agile best practices.
  • Tools: Master tools like JIRA, Sketch, Tableau and Google Analytics.
  • Vision and teamwork: Shape the product’s vision and articulate its value. Lead diverse teams and offer mentorship.
  • Research and pricing: Conduct market research and set strategic pricing.
  • Product development: Dive into prototyping, testing and overseeing the product’s evolution.
  • Communication: Champion the product’s significance and your value.
  • Tech and launch: Use AI for efficiency. Spearhead impactful go-to-market launches — but we rarely see anyone in the industry doing this!

 

What Does a Product Management Consultant Do?

Building a stellar product management consulting career requires an intersection of technical knowledge and sharp business acumen. When training or coaching product management consultants, we stress a key point: Being a product manager is not the same as being a product management consultant. Too often, companies bring in consultants to fill gaps in their teams, losing the value of their unique skills and outside perspectives when slotting them into the existing framework of the team.

A good consultant doesn’t just help out with the workload; they bring fresh eyes, a knack for asking the right questions, and a toolbox complete with strategies that can shake things up and get a company moving forward. Exceptional product management consultants must master more than the fundamental mechanics of their role. They must position themselves as strategic catalysts, driving transformative change within the organizations they serve, spurring them to find solutions tailored to their unique context.

One of the best things about working in consulting is that you’re not just hiring one of us but the collective intelligence of the firm.

A product management consultant should work with the client, ensuring buy-in by co-creating solutions rather than simply prescribing them. Assess competencies across the product team and identify opportunities for leveling up skills. Empower clients with frameworks, best practices and methodologies they can sustain long-term. This coaching approach avoids over-reliance on an outside expert swooping in to do the work.

Once adopting this approach, develop authentic relationships with your clients that go wide across the organization and deep within each department. Build connections vertically up the management chain and horizontally with peers across different functions like engineering, sales, marketing and customer support. At the same time, dive deep into understanding each group’s unique challenges and nuances. Take the time to learn the on-the-ground realities different teams face day-to-day.

Always remain adaptive and agnostic. The world of product management is dynamic, with shifting user expectations, market trends and technological advancements. One of the best things about working in consulting is that we have thousands of other consultants to pull information and experiences from — you’re not just hiring one of us but the collective intelligence of the firm. Use this breadth of experience to grow yourself and others continually.

Read more perspectives on consultingStartups Should Think Twice About Hiring Consultants

 

What Does a Product Manager Do?

Navigating the role of a product manager in the industry presents a distinct set of challenges and responsibilities that a consultant might not engage with. One of the tasks is managing the profit and loss for a product or a range of products. This responsibility entails a deep understanding of the product’s value proposition, financial viability, performance metrics and cost structures.

An industry product manager must invest in carving out an internal career path. Unlike consultants, who often have the flexibility to pivot between varied projects or industries, product managers in a specific industry become deeply entrenched in that sector. This immersion positions them as experts, deriving insights and nuances exclusive to that domain. However, this specialization is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, their expertise becomes invaluable within that industry; on the other, it ties their job security to the health and fluctuations of that sector.

A product manager in the industry usually focuses on a single product or portfolio. This concentrated focus demands a deep dive into the product’s intricacies, user base and market position. It also means, however, that the breadth of experience is limited to that product or portfolio’s ecosystem.

Beyond the strategic and financial components, there’s a cultural aspect to consider. Being part of an organization means participating in its cultural fabric, team building events, internal training or the occasional office celebration. While fostering camaraderie and enhancing team dynamics, these events also require time and effort, further distinguishing the role from that of a consultant who might be exempt from such internal cultural commitments. While both roles center around product management, the context and the breadth of responsibilities can vary significantly.

 

Where Should You Begin Your Product Journey?

Embracing the role of a product management consultant can not only enrich your career by adding varied layers of expertise but also provides a ticket into diverse industries — from tech to healthcare, from consumer goods to financial services. This journey grants exposure to many product types, be it cutting-edge digital platforms, tangible consumer goods or intricate enterprise solutions.

Are you embarking on a consulting journey? Consider beginning within the familiar terrains of your current organization by exploring internal consulting opportunities. Alternatively, small consulting firms can provide a nurturing environment to hone your skills, or you can immerse yourself in larger firms’ vibrant ecosystems by seeking out entry-level roles.

For those aspiring to ascend the product management hierarchy within their organizations, borrow the strategies and methodologies of a consultant. Implementing a consultant's approach in-house can be transformative. By doing so, you not only dazzle stakeholders but also catalyze your organization’s forward momentum. Adopting this mindset can be the key to unlocking your full potential as a PM leader.

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