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Operations Management vs. Project Management

If you’re considering a business leadership role, it’s likely you’ve entertained the idea of operations management or project management. Although both professions focus on oversight in pursuit of a business objective, operations management and project management are two distinct roles. Here, we examine the difference between operations management and project management, the common ground between the two positions, and some considerations for these professions.

What is Project Management?

According to the PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition, project management professionals oversee organizational projects, determining the scope and objectives, planning the project stages, managing the execution, and closing the project. Resources are typically allocated to the project for a fixed duration, and the project manager is responsible for coordinating those resources to ensure the project is executed correctly, on time and in budget.

What is Operations Management?

Operations management ensures the business’ overall operations continuously run efficiently, delivering for customers in the most efficient manner possible. Operations managers oversee the core business process that transforms an input into an output. For example, an operations manager in an automobile factory would supervise the production of the vehicle; an operations manager in a business services organization would oversee account management practices. Unlike projects, these processes generally do not have an end date, as they are core to the business and therefore, continuous.

Project vs. Operation

The key difference between a project and business operations is the focus. A project is a temporary undertaking, with a fixed start and end date to innovate a new outcome, whereas an operation is outside the scope of a project, according to the PMBOK® Guide, fixed and focused on efficiency. The desired results for project management will be unique to each project; however, an operations manager’s focus does not change.

What Operations Management and Project Management Have in Common

Operations management and project management can align and intersect. According to a 2018 research paper published by the IEOM Society, half of the respondents agreed that there is a “strong” or “very strong” alliance between project management and operations management. Some potential overlap includes:

  • When a business develops, improves or expands a product
  • When operations or product development processes are improved
  • When a product life cycle ends
  • During project closeout, as the project manager will need to work with the operations manager to integrate any new processes into operations

In these instances, project managers and operations managers must collaborate to share deliverables and knowledge to ensure positive outcomes for the business.

More broadly, these roles are also similar in that they have one individual at the helm, they requiring extensive planning and oversight, and they are often combatting limited resources.

The Difference Between Operations and Project Management

Operations management strives to deliver the same product but to continuously improve the process that provides or creates that product or output. Features of operations management include:

  • Generates a static output
  • Must be profitable
  • Does not produce new outcomes
  • Produce the same product or outcome repeatedly
  • Earn a profit and maintain the system seamlessly

Project management strives to cultivate change in the organization, whether that is meeting customer demands or innovating a new offering. Features of project management include:

  • Creates a unique output
  • Operates on a fixed budget
  • Produces new outcomes to achieve business objectives
  • Once the new product or service is completed, the project ends

Operations Manager or Project Manager: Which is Right For You?

These two roles do share some common traits; however, it is essential for aspiring professionals to consider the skills and expectations for each.

Operations managers should seek routine and stability, and possess specialized skills to help refine a repeatable work cycle. Your planning cycle will typically be established annually, determined by departmental budgets and scheduled events.

Project managers should seek a more dynamic environment that starts and stops with each new project. Your team members may ebb and flow, and your work can pioneer new processes and deliverables without organizational precedent. Project managers should possess generalist skills to support cross-functional teams, and will work on shorter, project-based planning cycles under constraints from cost, time and scope, as well as estimated budgets as opposed to pre-planned, fixed budgets.

Both professions require several core skills, including:

  • Time management skills to ensure the project or operations adhere to timing expectations
  • Problem solving to address unexpected roadblocks
  • Leadership skills to manage and develop team members
  • Strong communication skills to lead meetings, coach team members, and update stakeholders

Roles and Responsibilities
Operations managers are responsible for:

  • Overseeing day-to-day operations processes
  • Isolating issues and identify opportunities for improvement
  • Overseeing budget, planning, reporting, and auditing
  • Ensuring compliance
  • Establishing policies and procedures for operations

Project managers are responsible for:

  • Determining the plan and scope projects
  • Managing project teams, schedule and budget
  • Overseeing project execution
  • Assessing and reporting on project progress

Education Requirements
To enter either field, professionals should obtain a bachelor’s degree in business administration, management or a similar discipline.

Many project managers distinguish themselves from the competition by earning additional credentials, such as the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification, which signals to potential employers that you are knowledgeable about project management as a discipline. Advanced degrees, such as an MBA in Project Management, along with hands-on experience can also help you stand out to potential employers.

Operations managers often distinguish themselves with graduate degrees, such as a Master’s in Business Administration, along with real-world experience.

Job Growth and Salary
National averages for the two professionals are generally comparable. Project managers in the U.S. earned a median salary of $112,000, according to the Project Management Institute’s Salary Survey 10th Edition.* The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that operations managers earned a median salary of $100,930 in May 2018.**

Businesses are looking to increase their bottom line through innovation and efficiency, and as a result, both project management and operations management jobs are expected to grow. With ample opportunities in both fields, the determining factor is your own interests.


PMBOK and PMP are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

*Project Management Institute, Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey 10th Edition, on the internet at https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/salary-survey-10th-edition.pdf?la=en (visited June 5, 2019).

**Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2018, 11-1021 General and Operations Managers, on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes111021.htm (visited June 5, 2019).

National long-term projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth. Information provided is not intended to represent a complete list of hiring companies or job titles, and program options do not guarantee career or salary outcomes. Students should conduct independent research for specific employment information.

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