Product Manager vs. Product Owner

By Roman Pichler, 14th March 2017
Photo by Morre Christophe, courtesy of Unsplash

For many years, people have debated what the difference between the product manager and the product owner role is, if the roles can coexist or not, and which one should be used. This article shares my thoughts on the topic and reflects on the origin of the product owner role.


What?

As you may know, the product owner originated from Scrum, where the role is responsible for "maximising the value the product creates." [1] This sounds like a text-book product management responsibility to me. Nevertheless, the product owner is often regarded as a tactical role tasked with managing the product backlog, detailing requirements, and interacting with the development team. How come? The confusion stems—at least partly—from the fact that Scrum is a simple framework focused on helping teams develop software. It does not cover common product management practices, such as, product strategy development, product roadmapping, and financial forecasting; and the only product management tool it offers is the product backlog. Additionally, some approaches like SAFe employ a separate product manager and product owner role in order to facilitate scaling. Using a strategic product role and a tactical one is a common scaling technique. But calling the tactical role “product owner” is an unfortunate mistake in my mind: The SAFe product owner is not the same as the Scrum product owner! Having two different product owner roles adds to the confusion.

So What?

So why did Scrum introduce a product owner role at all? Why didn’t the framework use the term product manager? When Scrum was developed in the 1990ies, product management was different from what it is today. Product managers used to do the upfront market research, product planning, and requirements definition work. They would then hand off a requirements specification to a project manager who would work with development and test to deliver the product. The product manager would return only to issue change requests or help with the product launch. This is in stark contrast to how things are done in an agile process, where product people are required to collaborate with the development teams on an ongoing basis—without neglecting the market and the internal stakeholders. Secondly, Scrum is applied outside the realm of product development and commercial software products. Many organisations that have adopted Scrum like banks, retailers, and media companies traditionally don’t have a product management group and hence no product mangers. But they do have digital products that either help market and sell their revenue-generating offerings, such as, an online banking app, or they develop software that is used to automate business processes, increase productivity, and reduce cost. By offering the product owner role, these organisations can start working in an agile way without the immediate need to establish a product management group and initiate an organisational change process. Instead, employees from the appropriate business units can—with some training and coaching—act as product owners . (In the long run, however, establishing a product management function is likely to be beneficial, as I discuss in my post "Five Tips for Introducing Product Management to Your Company.")

Now What?

So where does this leave us? My hope is that we will move past the divisive product manager-product owner debate and just talk about product people[2] In the short term, we should acknowledge that the product owner is a product management role. People playing the role should therefore acquire the relevant product management skills. As Marty Cagan and others, including myself, have pointed out, a two-day training course is not enough to become a competent product owner. Product management is a complex, multi-faceted discipline that takes time and effort to master. Additionally, I recommend using either the term product manager or product owner in your company and qualifying it when necessary, for instance, by employing the terms senior and junior product manager / owner and strategic and tactical product manager / owner. This reduces confusion and helps unite people. What matters are not job roles and titles. It’s the good we do for the users and our businesses.

Notes

[1] Scrum was first used at Easel Corporation in 1993 to create "the first object-oriented design and analysis tool that incorporated round-trip engineering" and "the first product to completely automate object-relational mapping in an enterprise development environment," according to Jeff Sutherland, see "Inventing and Reinventing SCRUM in Five Companies." The first Scrum product owner, Don Roedner, "had to own the vision for the product, the business plan and the revenue, the road map and the release plan, and (...) a carefully groomed and precisely prioritized product backlog for the team," Agile Product Management with Scrum, pp. xv. [2] Thanks to Rich Mirnov for introducing me to the term.
Summary
Article Name
Product Manager vs. Product Owner
Description
Find out if and how the product owner and the product manager differ.
Author
Pichler Consulting Limited

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You can learn more about the product owner role with the following:

Source: http://www.romanpichler.com/blog/product-manager-vs-product-owner/

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4 comments on “Product Manager vs. Product Owner

  1. V P Krishnan

    Hi Roman.

    Interesting read here. I am in the midst of an organizational change management exercise where the organization I manage acts works as Solutions Managers. We recently adopted the LeSS framework and are in the midst of establishing the Product Owner role (we have decided not to go with LeSS Huge at this time as it would not be required). We have one of our Solutions Managers take on the PO role. That said, we also have the PO role facilitating the prioritization of capabilities to be delivered into a single backlog, delivering a quarterly roadmap and participating in constant prioritization working (again) with the key business stakeholders. I see overlapping responsibilities being carried out here, although I have established a counterpart of the PO (lets call that role a blend of a PM and a Business Architect) focused on the roadmapping and the more forward looking planning activities, with the PO being more inward-facing towards development and the business analysts. The PO and the PM work very well together. A few words on the Business Architect role (part of the PM role). The Business Architect is a higher-level business analyst (an enterprise architect) who thinks more broadly at the longer term capabilities and is key to planning.

    Would love to hear your take on this. As you can tell this is still being fleshed out and am in the information gathering phase at this time.

    Thanks
    Vp Krishnan
    Insurance Tech Exec.

    • Roman Pichler

      Hi VP, Thanks for your comment. If combining a product manager and product owner role works well for you, then that’s great. Be aware that the introduction of an agile framework like Scrum or LeSS often requires two things: establishing an effective product organisiation and establishing an agile way of working. While those two aspects are connected, I like to treat them as separate challenges, see my post “Five Tips for Introducing Product Management to Your Company“. Hope this helps.

  2. Eva Gysling

    I look forward reading your blog.
    Best regards, Eva from Switzerland

    • Roman Pichler

      Thanks Eva!

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