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Product Manager vs. Product Owner

Published on 14th March 2017 Last Updated on: November 4, 2021

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.

What?

As you might know, the product owner role originated in Scrum, where the product owner is responsible for “maximising the value of the product …” [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?

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.

Scrum Product Owner vs. SAFe Product Owner
Scrum vs. SAFe Product Owner

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 What?

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. [2] 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. [3] 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.


Now What?

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. [4]

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.


Notes

[1] 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.

[2] Thanks to Peter Stevens for making me aware of use of the product manager term in Scrum.

[3] Personal conversation with Dave West, CEO of scrum.org, on 11 July 2019.

[4] Thanks to Rich Mirnov for introducing the term to me.

Post a Comment or Ask a Question

22 Comments

  • Michael Thomsen says:

    Such an important topic!

    I think far more Agile projects fail because of the lack of product management skills rather than issues with building / engineering.

    We are getting better constantly at building things right but still fail often at building the right things.

    • Roman Pichler says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective Michael. I agree that strengthening product management skills helps agile initiatives succeed. I also find that many organisations are not clear on the role of product and lack an empowered product management function. On the positive side, the product management community has grown, there are more opportunities for product people to educate themselves, there is more guidance available and more tools than 10 or 15 years ago. Onwards and upwards 😉

  • Jovana says:

    Finally, somebody tells it like it is. Thanks Roman!

    I became interested in this topic while doing research for my recent project. Most articles out there insist that these two roles are completely different, that there must be two people in these roles. But in my experience, it depends on the company. In our startup, we have pretty limited resources and it’s one person performing both these roles. So I prefer your term ‘product people’ and use it often myself. 🙂

  • Mal says:

    Hi Roman…my comment is more of a question as i have read your articles with great interest. I have recently taken up a role looking after a [Software] Product organisation which i hope to transition from a founder led Waterfall way of working to a more Agile way of working. I seem to have Product Managers UK based but my development team is remotely based in Asia. I see a SCRUM Master role fitting in well locally within the dev team, but the PO role i am struggling with due to the overlap between the PO and PM. Have you experienced this before, would there be a suggestion or a good case-study you know i could leverage from? I guess in part this is where i define whether i need a “Product” Owner or a “Project” Owner???

    • Roman Pichler says:

      Hi Mal,

      Thanks for sharing your question. It seems to me that you are facing two challenges: help your product managers embrace an agile way of working and collaborate with remote development teams.

      The first challenge require the willingness of the individuals to adopt a new mindset together with new techniques, tool, and processes, as well as learning and development measures to help the product managers successfully embrace an agile way of working and become effective product owners (or if appropriate, feature and component owners).

      In order to address the second challenge, I recommend reviewing the current collaboration between the UK-based product managers and the dev team in Asia together with its strengths and weaknesses. While an agile process like Scrum is likely to require more interaction between the dev team and the product people, if your current setup is working well and if you don’t plan to make any major changes to your product(s), you may be able to continue with the setup.

      Watch out, though, that you don’t use a proxy product owner at the remote site, someone who acts as the local product owner for the dev team but is not empowered to make the product decisions, see my article “Avoiding Common Product Owner Mistakes” for more information. I find that remote product owners often have to regularly travel to their teams in addition to having frequent video calls. What’s more, some agile techniques like user stories are difficult to use in a distributed environment.

      As a rule of thumb, the more stable your product is, the fewer changes it experiences, and the more the dev teams knows about the users and product, the easier it is to have a remote product owner.

      Does this help?

  • Iraj says:

    Hi Roman and VP. I have similar views – based on my personal career experience. A Product Owner is the strategic role and a Product Manager is more tactical and works closely with an agile team on developing products.

  • Lakshmi Easuwaran says:

    Interesting post and have read it many times. Felt like adding my comment today.

    I have been a PO for many years now. In the system that I have been part of, we have product managers and POs working in tandem with each other to generate business value. I believe that there is a 80/20 and 20/80 here; PM’s role is 80% outward facing and he/she would need to interact with sales, marketing and most importantly array of customers in a given geography, so on and so forth and the rest of the 20% is inwards facing the team which involves participating in sprint demos, giving feedback, working closely with the PO in terms of prioritisation from multiple customer perspectives, etc.

    While as a PO, I have spent 80% of my time with the team on all the relevant ceremonies, refining my backlog, explaining the vision of the product, release, sprint, etc. and the 20% outward facing which have been mostly working with my PM on the priorities of features and requirements, lining up working software for new/existing customer demos whenever they visited us, etc.

    In my view, these are definitely distinct roles with some overlaps which is definitely healthy and much needed in our today’s world of product innovation and delivery!

    Cheers
    Lakshmi

    • Roman Pichler says:

      Hi Lakshmi,

      Thank you for your feedback and comment. It’s great to hear that pairing two product roles works well for you. Personally, I still would refrain from calling the inward-facing role “product owner”. A product owner is meant to be outward and inward-facing, work with the users and customers, stakeholders, and development team.

      This suggestion may seem a bit pernickety. But I have seen a lot of confusion caused by people being called “product owners” even though their actual job had little to do with how the role is meant to be applied.

      Best wishes!

  • Christian Beaulieu says:

    Roman,
    Recently in my organization, there has been some debate around the Product Owner / Manager dichotomy.

    Currently, roles and corresponding titles around product management in general are not well defined. We have product owners on scrum teams that are not true “Owners” of products. They have accountability to coordinate delivery of products and solutions while the exec level truly owns the overall success, failure, profit, loss of the product. In addition, there are traditional product managers interfacing with the market and product planning. The current leading idea is to more purposefully socialize and specify roles in this arena by labeling the true owners (execs) “POs” and the current PO’s as “PMs”. Personally, I see this as “labeling down” our current POs rather than empowering them match their title. Have you seen this method lead to success?

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

    • Roman Pichler says:

      Thanks for sharing your question Christian. It’s difficult for me to make recommendations without knowing more about your company, but I would suggest the following:

      First, help management focus on running the business and business strategy, and encourage the product people to fully own their products and be responsible for their success. This may require up-skilling some of the individuals as well as establishing trust between executive/senior management and product management.

      Secondly, review the split between strategic product people (“product managers”) and tactical folks (“product owner”). If the spilt works well, great, but consider renaming the “product owners” to tactical product manager/person. Consider alternative options for sharing the workload between the product people, which I discuss in my article “Scaling the Product Owner” role.

      Hope this helps!

  • Himanshu Gulati says:

    I think the Product Owner has onus of delivering the product which suits the user and helps the organization deliver a great product and make money. Product Manager and Product Owner do have a lot of overlap but I feel that Product Manager is more customer advocate while the Product Owner is more Development team supporter. Its also the role of program manage the whole product and deliver it.
    Feature prioritization is an important asset that a PO has to get to the product in accordance with the customer need.

    • Roman Pichler says:

      Thanks for your comment Himanshu. While I appreciate your perspective, I disagree with your view: As I explain in the article, the product owner is not a development team supporter but someone who makes strategic and tactical product decisions together with the dev team and stakeholders.

  • Pierre says:

    The fact this article (and many others) exist is the consequence that there is a widely spread confusion itself caused by the creation of new terms to define similar (or existing) roles or behaviours. This is not specific to software development ideologies. For example, the terms “Carnism” and “Cisgender” create similar confusion and unnecessary cleavage that prevent people from understanding each other’s on very important societal aspects.

    In fact, the definition of terms is an essential part of any debate and teaching (or coaching) process. Our understanding is partially or totally subject to subjective perceptions of the parties. These perceptions are largely modulated by the different cognitive biases that interact and self-feed them. This adds other emerging and unwanted complexities, because perceptions are highly variable and their complex nature creates repetitive causal loops of behaviours, which are difficult to detect and fix.

    In consequence, that’s why I’m in favour of calling a spade a spade. Product Manager is the term everybody understands. It generally covers everything a “Product Owner” is supposed to do. I have the exact same opinion for the “Scrum Master” role (the “Servant Leader”), which creates further confusion and often leads to a “Scrum Janitor” or worse, a “Scrum Manager” in badly implemented Scrum.

    IMHO, that brave act of redefining the terms would lead Scrum to the next and deserved level.

  • Vishal says:

    I agree that it is less to do with roles and titles. What is more important is to deliver successful products. Irrespective of whether we have a single person who is both internal and external facing ( we can call him product.owner or product manager or anything else is not the question) or one who is external facing and the other who is internal facing, what matters is the work getting done. If it helps a company to have a single person perform both roles based on the maturity of the product or two people performing the separate roles with checks and balances in place to reduce information loss, so be it. Would you agree?

    • Roman Pichler says:

      Thanks for your comment, Vishal. When a product becomes successful and starts growing, then a single person is often no longer to look after it and sharing ownership amongst several product people becomes necessary, as I discuss in my article Scaling the Product Owner Role. Hope this helps!

  • V P Krishnan says:

    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 says:

      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.

  • Eva Gysling says:

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

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