For 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.
As you might know, the product owner role originated in Scrum, where it is responsible for “maximising the value of the product …”  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?
There are two major reasons for this misunderstanding: The nature of Scrum and the use of the role in SAFe, which is a popular agile scaling framework. Scrum as a simple framework focused on helping teams develop complex products. It is not a product management framework. Consequently, it does not cover common product management practices, such as, product strategy development, product roadmapping, business modelling and financial forecasting; and the only product management tool it offers is the product backlog.
Additionally, SAFe uses a product owner role which is different from the Scrum product owner. The latter has full-stack product ownership: The individual owns all aspects of a product, the vision, strategy, and tactics. But the SAFe product owner owns only the tactical product decisions and hence has partial ownership. Consequently, the role is complemented by a SAFe product manager who is outward-facing and makes the strategic product decisions, as shown in the picture below. Splitting product ownership in this way is a common scaling technique. But calling the tactical role “product owner,” as SAFe does, is an unfortunate mistake: Having two product owner roles with different levels of authority and responsibility creates confusion and gives rise to misunderstandings.
Note that I have always viewed the Scrum product owner as an agile product manager. I would hence not agree with the notion that the product manager role is only outward-facing and strategic in nature. Traditionally, product managers were responsible for strategic and tactical decisions, for example, creating a product roadmap and a requirements specification.
So why did Scrum introduce the product owner role in the first place? Why didn’t the framework use the term product manager? An early version of Scrum did, in fact, use the product manager role. In a paper presented at the OOPSLA conference in 1995, Ken Schwaber who is one of the creators of Scrum and the individual who mainly coined the Scrum terms, used the term product manager.  Subsequently, the name was changed to product owner, though. Here are three reasons for this change:
First, 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 context, where product people are required to collaborate with development teams on an ongoing basis—without neglecting the users 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 don’t employ any product managers. But they do use digital products that either help market and sell their revenue-generating offerings, such as an online banking app, or they develop internal software assets that are 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 first having 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 may well be beneficial, as I discuss in my post Five Tips for Introducing Product Management to Your Company.)
Last but not least, the term product owner strengthens the idea that the person in charge of the product must be empowered and respected.  This is particularly important in an agile context where collaboration is valued, and development team members and stakeholders frequently contribute to product decisions, for example, by discussing the latest product increment in the sprint review meeting. If no agreement can be reached, the product owner makes the necessary decision thereby avoiding a deadlock where people potentially argue for hours and days instead of running an experiment to test an idea.
So where does this leave us? My hope is that we will move past the divisive product manager-product owner debate and stop labelling people. I have worked with organisations where the product managers were desperate to be become hip agile product owners, and I’ve experienced the opposite where product owners could not wait to become product managers to finally take charge of the strategic product decisions. I, for one, have decided to follow Rich Mirnov’s lead and prefer to use the term product people. 
In the short run, we should acknowledge that the product owner is a product management role. People playing the role should therefore acquire the relevant product management skills. This includes the necessary strategic and tactical skills and the appropriate leadership capabilities. As product management is a complex, multi-faceted discipline, it takes time and effort to become a well-rounded product professional—usually months and years rather than days and weeks.
Additionally, I recommend using either the term product manager or product owner in your company and qualifying it, for instance, by employing the terms senior and junior product manager or junior and senior product owner. This reduces confusion and helps unite people. (See my article Six Types of ‘Product’ Owners for additional product roles.)
At the end of the day, it’s the good we do for our users and businesses that truly matters, not our job roles and titles.
 The quote is from the Scrum Guide 2020. Scrum was first used at Easel Corporation in 1993 to create a “design and analysis tool” according to Jeff Sutherland, see “Inventing and Reinventing SCRUM in Five Companies.” The first Scrum product owner, Don Roedner, had full-stack ownership of the product as he “had to own the vision for the product, the business plan and the revenue, the road map [sic] and the release plan, and (…) a carefully groomed and precisely prioritized product backlog for the team,” Agile Product Management with Scrum, pp. xv.↩
 Thanks to Peter Stevens for making me aware of use of the product manager term in Scrum.↩
 Personal conversation with Dave West, CEO of scrum.org, on 11 July 2019.↩
 Thanks to Rich Mirnov for introducing the term to me.↩