In the seven years or so that I’ve been working in Product Management roles, one question that seems to come up regularly is the difference between the Product Owner and Product Manager. In my mind, this is actually quite simple, yet even in my own organization we often use the two terms in conflicting ways.

Those of us in Technology like to think that we are transforming the industry with a Product mindset by advocating for the expansion of Product Managers in the organization. The truth though is that Product Managers have been around for 90+ years. To be fair, early iterations of Product Managers worked predominantly in Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) firms, such as P&G, so they weren’t necessarily the interface between the customer and engineering that they are Technology firms today, however their core responsibility, to be the voice of the customer, has not changed.

In terms of the Tech industry, even then there’s a long history of employing the role, probably starting with Hewlett-Packard in the 1940s. Suffice it to say, the role and title of Product Manager has been around for quite a while. So if the PM role is well established, perhaps it is the PO role, or Product Owner, that is causing some confusion.

Product Owner

Indeed, the role of Product Owner really only came in to being with the creation of Scrum. In the Scrum literature, the Product Owner is typically described as being played by the customer, or a representative of the customer. Their responsibilities include prioritizing the backlog, writing stories, and accepting completed stories.

As an aside, I’ve even seen the case where the “Product Owner” term is used to refer to someone in a business operations role, because they are the end-customer (for an internal tool, for example), and the Product Manager, on the other hand, is the person who writes the stories and prioritizes them with the scrum team. Essentially, this is the opposite of what the scrum literature advocates for, and is confusing to no end.

To clarify, “Product Owner” is a role on a scrum team, just like Scrum Master is a role on the team. It’s has a set of responsibilities that someone on the team takes on for the benefit of the scrum team. Typically, in my experience, and as a best practice, the person who does the role of Product Owner often has a different job title: Product Manager.

Product Manager

As a set of distinct responsibilities, the Product Manager role is usually described as having responsibility over the “strategic” side of things. They are responsible for establishing the long term vision of the product, communicating that vision, evangelizing the product, and understanding the growth and direction of the product. However, I feel this is incomplete. Though it’s true that the Product Manager does own the strategic side of things, I also explained earlier that they are the voice of the customer, and have been for 90+ years. Some people will take this perceived dichotomy between the strategic side of things and the non-strategic tactical side (i.e. the Product Owner responsibilities) to imply that they are two different roles/people: one “outward”-facing and focused on understanding the customer (the Product Manager), and the other “inward”-facing and focused on delivering the customer needs with the scrum team (the Product Owner).

This is a false dichotomy. There are no other industries in which you would have someone who is customer-facing, tasked with understanding the needs of those customers, and quite a different person who is responsible for relaying those needs to the people who can provide a solution. Think of the last time you went to a restaurant. Could you imagine telling the waiter what you would like to have for dinner (i.e. the waiter is thus understanding your needs) and then someone else entirely (who is not present in your conversation with the waiter) recording your order (i.e. writing the user story) for the kitchen staff to prepare? Though, in theory, it might work, it would be terribly inefficient and certainly prone to errors.

Product Owner and Product Manager

So where does that leave us. To put it simply, Product Owner is a role that someone does on a Scrum team, whereas Product Manager is a job in the organization. Not only is it best practice, but it’s also really important and beneficial that the Product Owner be the Product Manager. The one writing the user stories in the backlog (the Product Owner) should be hearing first hand from the customer in order to be able to represent and prioritize those needs accurately. To put it the other way, the person who has the Product Manager title will often be a Product Owner on one (or more) scrum teams, thus understanding customer needs and then writing and prioritizing stories for those teams to solution.

Some Exceptions

There are valid, but rare, cases where the Product Owner is not a Product Manager, and conversely cases where the Product Manager is not also a Product Owner.

In the first case, where the Product Owner in the scrum team does not have the Product Manager title, this can happen with very technical and small backend or platform products. In that case, because of the technical nature of the product, I’ve occasionally seen it such that a senior engineer will take on the role of Product Owner for the team. That individual, being an engineer, will also allocate a portion of their time to developing the product alongside the other engineers. This will only work insofar as the product is small and doesn’t have a clear need for a full time Product Owner. If the Product Owner responsibilities do become full time, then generally it’s time to hire a Product Manager, otherwise not only are you’re losing the capacity of one of your senior engineers, that engineer is likely also not spending enough time to strategize and evangelize the vision of the product, since they also have engineering responsibilities to attend to.

The second case, where the Product Manager may not also be a Product Owner on a scrum team, will happen as Product Managers become more senior in the organization. A more senior Product Manager manage other Product Managers and wont necessarily participate as a Product Owner on any one scrum team. This doesn’t make them any less as Product Managers, but it does mean that they likely aren’t tactically involved in the individual story writing, prioritizing and story acceptance.

Further Reading

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