3 Tips for Optimizing the Product Manager and Product Owner Relationship [+Webinar]

Let’s Not Focus on the Eternal Question

For product professionals, perhaps the most frequently debated issue – the one we can’t ever seem to escape is: Product Manager or Product Owner? Or Both?

I don’t want to debate what the “textbook” responsibilities are for each role, or which of the roles is more important or more desirable. There must be hundreds of blogs on this topic (including this excellent one written by my colleague Roger Snyder, Product Owner vs. Product Manager Exploration, which you should read).

The good news is, in mid-2021, we have lots of both, and that is not likely to change any time soon. A quick search (thanks, LinkedIn!) reveals that there are more than 260,000 Product Managers, and more than 240,000 Product Owners – and that’s in the U.S. only! So, let’s not split hairs over which role is more important. Let’s instead talk about something far more practical: How to optimize an environment where both PMs and POs exist, so your products, PM practice, and people can thrive.

Two Roles, Lots to Do

Consider the following chart as the simplest expression of “who does what” you will likely find.

We spend a fair amount of time on this chart in several of our courses because the roles have become ill-defined or conflated over time in many companies. If both roles exist in your company – this should be the model you aspire to implement. Now, let’s talk about how to optimize the relationship.

Tip #1: Be Clear on Who Does What

In short, all these tasks need to get done, and you need clarity on who has responsibility for each of them. These items range from the strategic to the tactical and they must all be executed regularly and performed well. Not every item, every day – but regularly, and some fairly frequently (standups!).

So, when you have the roles separated, take the time to go over the chart above and make sure the PM and PO know who owns each responsibility, and how the other role can support the owner.

It’s beyond the scope of this short article to fully spec out how to size and staff these jobs, but in my experience, it’s far easier to set boundaries for the PO role. I’ll give you a trusty rule: No more than 2 sprint teams for the PO – Ever!

Are you doing the hybrid role?

If you are performing both these roles yourself (with their many responsibilities), you have my deepest sympathies. I’ve seen this job, and it’s not one I’m a fan of. I mean no offense, but you’re likely not doing all these things, well, or at all. Why? In most cases, it’s TOO BIG OF A JOB – one that very few people can do well. It’s rife with burnout. In my experience, people don’t last long in this hybrid role.

And yet, this is a pervasive practice. A ProductCamp audience (Portland in this case, but I’ll bet it’s the same in your town) reported that the hybrid role (PM + PO combined) still rules, and this hasn’t changed in years.

After enough people leave, the smarter executives ultimately realize it’s two jobs.

Tip #2: Build a Collaborative Relationship

As noted above, while the PO/PM role is sometimes combined, there are also many circumstances when the roles are separated, and there are encouraging signs this trend will continue. Interestingly, the roles tend to be combined in two cases:

  1. Very small and/or very young companies: where total headcount is naturally low
  2. Very large enterprises: where there’s department and organizational partitions abound, and the company is early in its transition to Agile

If the PM and PO positions are separate, they’d better be tightly linked to ensure effective communications and alignment. Moreover, sometimes PMs and POs are in separate organizations entirely; POs often live in the engineering organization, due to their direct embedding in development teams, while PMs often reside in Marketing. No matter – they must still be tightly coupled, as the intersecting-circles chart above indicates.

If both positions reside in the Product Organization, this arrangement is nominally easier, but no matter where the roles sit in the organization, you should setup practices to encourage tight collaboration. First, ensure that if they are not sitting near each other, they establish a regular meeting cadence to synch up regularly, discussing product strategy, customer needs, product roadmap, and upcoming key milestones. Second, be sure they collaborate using a common set of tools that allows them to share key documents, such as market strategy, research results, personas, product KPIs, and of course the product roadmap and backlog. With the right practices in place, the separated roles of PM and PO can collaborate and support each other.

Tip #3: Build a Career Path

Once these roles are tightly connected, something interesting often happens: It’s natural for many POs to become increasingly interested in product strategy and the other key responsibilities of the PM. Indeed, many POs explicitly aspire to become PMs, and I’ve found it helpful to build a career bridge from PO to PM. These roles can be peers, or POs can report to PMs. Company/PM culture and organizational dynamics play a key role here. I have promoted many POs to PM roles over the years and most of them have thrived.

Let’s Navigate the Roles Together

Check out our slides from our latest co-hosted AIPMM webinar, The Product Manager vs. Product Owner Role – Siblings, Rivals, or the Same Person? You’ll learn a practical orientation to navigating these roles as an individual contributor, and as a product leader. Then, contact us to learn more about how our Optimal Product Management course teaches you the role clarity and collaboration techniques you need to build better products.

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View the Slide Deck Here

About the Author

David Nash - VP of Products & Services
David Nash is VP of Products & Services at 280 Group.
David is a recognized expert in Product Management, Product Marketing, Entrepreneurship, and Team Development. He has delivered generations of successful technology Products (Hardware, Software & SaaS, Systems) and Services, and is expert in B2B SaaS, Pricing, User Experience, and In-App User Engagement. 280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

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