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Product Owner vs. Product Manager Exploration

Regardless of which role or title you may have, you should have at least a basic understanding of the Product Owner vs. Product Manager comparison; similarities, differences, and overlap.

Why? In our recent Product Management Team Survey we found that in companies doing Agile development, 70% indicated that the Product Manager is also the Product Owner.

If you don’t have a good understanding of both roles (whether you are doing both or just interacting with someone doing one of them) you won’t be nearly as effective in leading your team.

This article discusses some of what we teach in our Agile Excellence for Product Manager and Product owners training course that includes the worldwide-standard certification credential.

Product Owner vs. Product Manager Background

As you have almost certainly noticed by now, Agile development methodologies have taken the product world by storm and don’t seem to be leaving anytime soon. Our study indicated that 69% of teams are doing some form of Agile.

We at the 280 Group have specialized in helping Product Managers learn how to be great for over a decade, and now with Agile development so entrenched in much of the product industry and intertwined with Product Management, there is a new role that has become important to understand: the Product Owner.

The scrum framework has included the product owner as one of its defined roles in Agile and so naturally this has spawned a great deal of Product Owner vs. Product Manager confusion and debate.

Before we go any further, it should be noted that this is a discussion about Product Owner vs. Product Manager as roles as opposed to titles. For example, you may have the title of Product Manager and be acting in the role of Product Owner.

The Product Manager Role

Product Management is a broad discipline which comes with a vast range of activities and responsibilities. In general, the Product Manager is responsible for driving the strategy and overall success of the product.

The job of Product Manager may be specifically defined differently across different businesses but if you engage in any of the following responsibilities you are acting as a Product Manager.

Business/Strategy Focus

As a Product Manager you should be the market expert because you have listened deeply to you customers. Product Managers are the authority on anything regarding the landscape of the market and act as the voice of the customer in all situations.

You own the product strategy which drives the vision and roadmap, and manage the product throughout its entire lifecyle, not just the development phase.

Product Managers must focus on the notion of the problem space and avoid specifically defining the product. They present needs in the form of user stories (when doing Agile) and market requirements (when doing waterfall/phase-gate development) and let the engineers create the solution to solve the problems.

You must ensure that there is a business justification for your decisions, and make the tough trade-offs with regard to features, schedule, and costs.

Ultimately Product Managers deliver differentiated products to market based on a winning strategy the have defined, and their role traditionally belongs to the “business” side of things.

The Product Owner Role

Much like the Product Manager role, Product Owners’ tasks may vary depending on the situation but based on the Scrum Guide, there are a few special tasks that absolutely need to be done by the Product Owner.

Features/Development Focus

It is the job of the Product Owner to maximize the value of the product and the work being done by the development team.

As a Product Owner you are the sole person responsible for managing and ordering the product backlog.

Product Owners prioritize and manage user stories and need to work closely with the development team to ensure they understand what each item in the product backlog is and why it is important.

Product Owner vs. Product Manager Role Visualization

The Big Issue is That All These Tasks Need to Get Done

You need to have clarity on who has responsibility for each of these items.

When looking at the Product Owner vs. Product Manager graphic above you can see that Product Owners are responsible for more of the detailed work and how closely they work with the development team.

There are many tasks that you can find in the top right corner of the graphic which overlap between the PM and PO roles; when allocating these, it may be helpful to take individual strengths and weaknesses in to consideration.

In the top left portion of the chart, you see a set of tasks that are outside the scope of what Agile defines as that of the Product Owner.

If you only remember one thing from this article, it should be how things are broken out in the graphic. Make sure that it is clear who does what and that nothing is left out.

This is one of the biggest mistakes that Agile teams make – they have someone who focuses on the Product Ownership duties and then the strategic, vision and other activities aren’t owned by anyone and don’t get done.

This means that the strategic focus is greatly diminished or lost. The result is that the product may meet needs short-term for customers but ultimately fails in the longer-term.

Many organizations struggle with dividing their Product Owner vs. Product Manager responsibilities and if someone has all of these tasks assigned to them, the workload becomes overwhelming, and at this point the focus becomes what is urgent and detailed. One way to combat this is to make sure that both the PM and PO have gone through training and obtained a certification so they can be more productive.

The Product Owner vs. Product Manager comparison is one of similar but distinct roles and while the division of roles may vary, it is critical for the product and the business as a whole that all the responsibilities are adhered to.

Learn More

If you would like to learn more about the roles of Product Owner vs. Product Manager and how to be excellent in an Agile environment, take our new training course: Agile Excellence for Product Managers and Product Owners.

Download the first two chapters of Agile Excellence for Product Managers the book that inspired our new Agile course here:

GET YOUR COPY

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4 Responses to Product Owner vs. Product Manager Exploration

  1. Ram Srinivasan - CST Oct 6, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

    “As a Product Owner you are the sole person responsible for managing and ordering the product backlog.”

    While this is true, this is only half true. The Scrum Guide also states (under Product Owner section) that “The Product Owner may do the above work (ordering, etc), or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.”

    This is important, especially in a scaling context as this frees up the PO to higher value work. It also gives more context to the Dev Team and the PO is not spoonfeeding the Dev Team with user stories

    The analogy I use if that one person should be the captain of ship regardless of the label you put on that person

    • main280website Oct 6, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

      Ram – you are correct that the Scrum guide says this. I believe it is one of the clues that it was written by engineers rather than business people. If the development team prioritizes the backlog will they really have the data, business background and customer and market knowledge to prioritize things according to business value? Development’s specialty is writing effective code to solve the customer problems that the Product Owner and Product Manager present to them. What I have observed is that if the Dev team takes over the backlog you get prioritization that reflects what the engineers think is “cool” or useful from an engineer’s perspective.

      • Jim Nov 7, 2016 at 8:54 am #

        I have to agree with main280 here. How can you expect the dev team to manage the product back log in an unbiased and LT product beneficial manner? I am not suggesting they would intentionally or consciously ‘mismanage’ it, but without a view of the big picture and more importantly – accountability for it – I believe it is a poor idea.

  2. Tim Elton Oct 7, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    Many organizations split the PM role into PM and PMM (Product Marketing Manager). I’d like to see the article updated to include the PMM role, including a Venn diagram of the PMM, PM, and PO roles.

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