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 may know, the product owner role originated in Scrum, where the role is responsible for “maximising the value of the product create.”  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 digital products. 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, the popular agile scaling framework SAFe employs a separate product manager and product owner role. Using a strategic product role and a tactical one is a common scaling technique. But calling the tactical role “product owner, ” as SAFe does, is an unfortunate mistake: The SAFe product owner is not the same as the Scrum product owner! Having two different product owner roles is confusing.
So why did Scrum introduce a product owner role in the first place? Why didn’t the framework use the term product manager? It did in fact at one point in time, but the name was subsequently changed to product owner.  Here are three reasons why:
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 process, where product people are required to collaborate with the 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 no product managers. 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 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, Ken Schwaber, one of the creators of Scrum and the individual who coined the Scrum terms, wanted the person in charge of the product to be empowered and own the product.  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.
So where does this leave us? My hope is that we will move past the divisive product manager-product owner debate and and stop labelling people. I have worked with organisations where the product managers were desperate to be agile and become 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 the term product people. 
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. A two-day training course is not enough to become a competent product owner, of course, no matter if it results in a certification or not. 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, if necessary, for instance, by employing the terms senior and junior product manager or junior and senior product owner. This reduces confusion and helps unite people.
But what matters are not job roles and titles. It’s the good we do for the users and our businesses.
 The quote is from the Scrum Guide 2016. 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 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.↩