Many people get confused around the distinction between operations manager and project manager. What’s the difference between an operations manager and a project manager? First off, let’s start with the definitions of both terms.

In general, the operations manager is in charge of the way in which a business operates on a daily basis and also responsible for new employees – their training, work schedule, annual raises, performance evaluations, etc. Project managers, on the other hand, are more involved in the company’s projects – they are responsible for establishing and setting their objectives and goals, as well, for managing and supervising all project’s phases and overall progress.

In project management, it is likely to work side by side with both a project manager and an operations manager A good description of the differences between the two job positions consists in Karen R. J. White’s book, "Practical Project Management for Agile Nonprofits".

In fact, she describes 4 areas of responsibilities that operations managers and project managers both have, and how they differ. The 4 areas are the following:

Let’s look at each of those in a bit more detail.

Budget planning

The operations manager is responsible particularly for the departmentental budget and the overheads related to running a certain department. Being in charge for this kind of budget means handling different things such as analyzing the costs and expenses related to that department.

Operations managers are responsible for taking care of staff salaries and other benefits, costs of running their office building and services that they have to purchase in order to ensure the department is effective. This might also include money coming into the department, for example if staff are charged out to other departments who pay for the internally-provided services.

The project manager, on the other hand, when it comes to budgeting, is responsible only for the budget relating to a particular project that he or she is working on at the time. The project budget mainly contains costs, such as labor costs, material procurement costs, and operating costs.

Other than costs, the project budget can also include revenue, if there is any money to be made while the project is running. If this is the case it will normally be accounted for as a project benefit.

Schedule planning

When it comes to schedule planning, the operations manager has day-to-day management responsibilities and many of those tasks will take place on a business as usual schedule. It is the operations manager responsibility to plan, manage and implement employees’ schedules and to review them to make sure deadlines are not missed.

In case there are multiple projects and initiatives happening, operations managers can be responsible for the overall departmental portfolio, all employees’ tasks and everything that comes with their schedules. There will probably be some operational reporting to enable the operations manager to see what’s going on and make decisions at a departmental level.

What’s the difference between an operations manager and a project manager?

The project manager is mostly responsible for the project schedule, i.e. he must ensure that the project is following the predefined timeframe and that is completed on designated time. Being responsible for the project schedule, means planning out the delivery dates, scheduling milestones and then tracking progress, usually with practical project management tools, such as Seavus Project Viewer, against forecast to ensure that all the tasks stay on track.

Staff management

The operations manager has a much larger role to play in staff management than the project manager. Operations managers are responsible for the growth and success of the overall company’s team.

They are typically responsible for recruitment into the department, onboarding new staff, assigning people to projects (which requires understanding their skill profiles and development needs), and coordinating their activities.

If needed they could assist the HR department when needed, in terms of approving or disapproving vacation leave or holiday requests and also dealing with sickness absence as well as other HR responsibilities. They also have a responsibility to oversee the performance on everything that isn’t to do with projects – all those business as usual activities and the day-to-day activities that keep the department running. Moreover, operations managers should encourage and support an effective communication between workers and the management team.

In contrast with the operations manager, the project manager is not likely to be involved in activities related to the HR department, such as vacation leave, or onboarding new employees. Instead, project managers oversee project team’s performance on particular projects.

In some cases, they may not even have the authority to be able to do anything about poor performance except report it to the team member’s manager. It will then be up to the operations manager of that team member to deal with the performance issue.

Skills development

Skills development is also one of the operations managers’ responsibilities. They should provide skill and career development for the staff in the company. Operations managers usually organize skills development activities for the employees, such as training, mentoring, coaching, and approve them time off to study for professional qualifications or other means related to the job position.

Typically the annual goals are set for the departmental staff some time at the beginning of the year, and then they work towards their development plan during the year.

Project managers, on the other hand, don’t often have line management responsibility for their project team members so they are only responsible for providing training if someone needs some extra help in order to be able to complete their project tasks effectively.

To conclude, operations managers and project managers have very different sets of responsibilities, although they are complementary. The operations manager takes a lot of the burden of the ‘management responsibilities’ away from the project manager, thus giving them the space to focus completely on the successful delivery of the project.

What is clear, though, is that you can’t do a project without the input from the operations managers in your company. You’ll need their help to allocate resources (both people and money) in the most effective way. Operational and departmental management can be a good career experience for project managers as well, so it is something one should consider for career and skills development if it haven’t already spent time as an operations manager.