Product owners come in different shapes and sizes. That's only natural: The application of the role varies depending on the product and the company. Being a product owner of a brand-new product in a startup differs from looking after a mature offering in a large enterprise. But there are two common types: big and small product owners. Which one are you? And is your product ownership level right?
Big vs. Small
What’s a big and a small product owner? “Big” and “small” define levels of ownership. A big product owner owns the entire product; a small one takes care of the product details or tactics, as the following picture shows.
The picture above distinguishes three levels: vision, strategy, and tactics. The vision describes the ultimate reason for creating the product. The strategy covers the product strategy, the product roadmap, and the business model. The tactics refer to the product details such as epics and user stories, design sketches, scenarios, and interaction diagrams, which are typically captured in the product backlog. 
The big product owner is how the Scrum product owner is defined in mind. A small product owner is how the SAFe, the Scaled Agile Framework, views the role.
Good vs. Bad
Being a certain height has its benefits and drawbacks, just like working as a big and a small product owner. The advantage of being a big product owner is that you control all aspects of the product. As there are no hand-offs, and you should be able to make consistent decisions in a timely manner. But you may find it challenging to take on all responsibilities, as it requires a diverse set of skills and it may be too much work for a larger product.
Being a small product owner allows you to focus on the product backlog and the product details. This can help you do a great job and prevent you from getting overworked. But it requires that you effectively collaborate with the individual who owns the vision and the product strategy.
Otherwise you may suffer from hand-offs, waiting and delays, loss of knowledge, inconsistent decision-making, and confusion about who decides what. Bear in mind that an effective collaboration requires that you have at least some knowledge of the strategic product aspects just like the individual looking after the vision and strategy should know what a product backlog is and how to manage it effectively.
The following table summarises the benefits and the drawback of the two product owner variants:
|Big||Fast and consistent decision-making||Diverse skills set; potentially unsustainable workload|
|Small||Focus, greater degree of specialisation||Hand-offs, delays, loss of knowledge; inconsistent decisions|
Right vs. Wrong
If both variants have the benefits and drawbacks, when is it then better to be small product owner and when to be a big one? I find a big product owner particularly beneficial when a product is young and when it evolves fairly rapidly. Once it grows steadily or it has become mature, employing small product owners can be helpful to share the workload and facilitate scaling. In other words, you should make your choice based on the lifecycle stage of your product, as the following picture illustrates.
As long as your product is young and you are trying to achieve growth, it is advantageous to have person in charge of the product and to work with a big, single product owner. The reason for this is simple: While the strategy directs the tactics, the latter influence the former. How customers and users respond to product increments and releases can have a profound impact on the strategy. It can even cause a pivot, a significant strategy change. Take, for instance, YouTube, Flickr, and Instagram, which all changed their strategy to become successful. If several people share the product management responsibilities then the individuals will have to agree on the appropriate actions. This can slow you down significantly. In the worst case, you end up with a decision-by-committee scenario and a weak product full of compromises.
As powerful as a big product owner is, playing the role can become overwhelming once your product experiences growth, attracts more features, and becomes bigger. What’s more, as your product tends to be more stable now, and bigger changes are less likely to happen. Sharing the responsibilities across several people and employing small product owners is therefore a good option – unless you decide to unbundle your product and to promote some features to new products. Think of Facebook taking the messenger functionality of its main app and turning it into a new product , the Messenger app.
 I have borrowed the idea of distinguishing between a big and a small product owner from Rich Mirnov who suggested the term back in 2008.
Post a Comment or Ask a Question
Dear Mr Pichler,
I just published a post on Linkedin having as starting point your very own blog ‘Big Product Owner v. Small Product Owner’.
Thank you very much again for writing this very illustrative article!
Big Product Owner: Intelligent, well-regarded person with vision and a future for their career
Small Product Owner = nameless, faceless, detail-oriented interchangeable Scrum-trained data entry clerk in a dead end job (probably a lead BA)
The small Product Owner doesn’t really seem to own the product, so why are they called the Product Owner. It sounds like they just own the backlog and its “details”
I’m having trouble seeing how the “small product owner” approach avoids the “Under-powered product owner” and “Partial product owner” anti-patterns described in Chapter 1 of the “Agile Product Management with Scrum” book.
Hi Andrew, Thanks for your comment. If a small product owner is used while the product is young, the anti-patterns you mentioned are likely to manifest themselves. Once the product has stabilised and grows steadily, distributing product ownership across several people works in my experience – as long as the responsibilities are clearly assigned. Does this help?
Hi Roman, Thanks for replying.
I guess I’d have to try this Backlog Manager / Product Manager split to see how it worked out. I haven’t had the opportunity to try to scale Scrum up.
Feels like kind of the opposite of https://www.romanpichler.com/blog/product-owner-product-manager/ and potentially very disempowering for the small product owner and for the team. Knee jerk, I’m more attracted to the scaling approaches of https://www.romanpichler.com/blog/scaling-the-product-owner/ . Highlander principle and all. This resonated : http://blog.aha.io/index.php/the-product-manager-is-the-product-owner/ .
So, I’m skeptical, but I’d have to try it.
If you would: would you say your thinking on this has evolved to the “small product owner” for scale approach since writing https://www.romanpichler.com/blog/scaling-the-product-owner/ ?
A “small product owner” doesn’t, well, own the product. “Product Backlog Manager” as a more evocative role name?
Hi Andrew, Thanks for your follow-up comment. I find that a single, big product owner is particularly useful when a product is young and does not grow steadily yet. As the product matures, it usually becomes bigger and attracts more features. This can make it unsustainable for one person to own the entire product. In this situation, you have two basic choices: spilt the product owner role or split the product.
The former requires creating a hierarchy with a (senior) product manager or chief product owner at the top. The second option involves unbundling a feature and promoting it to a product in its own right, think of Facebook Messenger, or creating product variants, for instance, iPhone 6 Plus. New product owners/managers would then take care of the new products.
Both options have their strengths and weaknesses, and you can also combine them. In sum, I recommend that you consider the product lifecycle stage and what you need to do to make it or keep it successful when you decide if and how to apply the product owner role.
Does this help?
I have struggled for some time articulate what it is that I am good at doing, because the term Product Manager is used more commonly (at least in New York) and can vary from a business and market strategy roles all the way to a small product owner.
I think this article will help me improve this message of where I want to focus. Thank you!
We use the partnership model in our organization – the Product Manager is effectively the “big product owner,” and owns the roadmap; the Product Owner is what you call the “small product owner” and owns the backlog.
By ensuring close partnership and frequent collaboration between both roles, we have enough bandwidth to handle feature rollouts, beta programs, customer visits and interviews, things that were becoming lost after product launch with a single “big product owner.”
I wrote a post detailing the split of tactical duties between both roles as we began to implement. For the most part, we still follow this today.
Thanks for sharing your experiences, John. Great to hear that you have found a model that works for you.
I have heard this concept presented before as the difference between leadership and management. The “big product owner” = leader, “small product owner” = manager.
Enjoy your blog. I manage an construction/industrial product, but find your writings equally applicable.