Product Owner vs Product Manager: Who is the Boss? by@anna.aria

Product Owner vs Product Manager: Who is the Boss?

June 23rd 2018 49,546 reads
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Anna Aria

Product owner vs. product manager, this is the question! With so much debate over these two terms, it’s time to shed a little light on them.

What’s the difference between a product manager and a product owner? Who is who? Who is the boss? These are all interesting questions, of course. And they need some unpacking, too.

Since I am now mostly considering tech companies and startups, I cannot but speak about agile product companies. Guess why? Almost all the tech startups and a whole lot of established businesses in IT and not only, are agile practitioners. Agile is a whole philosophy, a mindset, and it eases the process of product management as well. I will get to it in my upcoming articles, too.

But before that, let’s speak about the famous PM vs. PO dilemma.

Ideally, the product manager communicates the voice of the customer by achieving both customer and market success. And there is another role there too which is that of a product owner. This person is there to create, maintain, and prioritize the product backlog, create actionable user stories for the development team, participate in daily scrum meetings, answer developers’ questions as the customer/user representative, accept the finished user stories to make sure the work meets the criteria, participate in iteration retrospectives.

BUT! Not all folks organize work this way. Some companies have got only the product manager; others have just the product owner position. In bigger companies, the product manager stands a level higher than the product owner and serves as a connector between the house and the outside world. This is why it’s sometimes so hard to draw a line between the two positions or jobs. To help you understand who is who, let’s go over their responsibilities one by one.

The product manager

When the engineering team includes more than 20 people, many companies opt for splitting the product role into two. In such a scenario, the product manager is someone who is responsible for conducting market research, validating customers, talking with customers, managing and foreseeing the company’s long-term vision, communicating with external stakeholders, etc. Some people describe the product manager as the CEO of the product mainly due to the front-side character of this role.

So, if I were to describe the product manager in a few words, the following phrases would apply:

  • Product evangelist and champion
  • Product visionary
  • Market research guru
  • External and internal communication stakeholder

A product manager is thus the person responsible for driving the product strategy and monitoring the whole product lifecycle starting from market research, customer development and ranging to marketing and sales enablement. The PM is expected to have an in-depth understanding of the product and the target market. That said, a product manager can have a more holistic and high-level approach to the product than anyone else dealing with it.

That’s why a lot of product people call themselves the moms/dads of their products!

The product owner

The product owner takes the back-side role by defining user stories, managing the backlog, talking with the team about the requirements, constructing the product processes, attending all the agile meetings, communicating the validated roadmap to the PM and helping them build the roadmap/vision using internal and external feedback. In other words, the PO does all the product homework that needs to be done. He/she can thus be considered the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of the company.

According to the Scrum framework, the Product Owner does the following:

  • Defines the product backlog and creates actionable user stories
  • Prioritizes the development
  • Elaborates customer problems into user stories, i.e., makes sure that the work fulfills the criteria

So, the difference between the PM and the PO is that while the PM is out of the building doing market research, meeting potential customers and gathering feedback, the PO is at home in constant contact with the development team and making sure all the production processes are being carried out correctly.

He/she is thus the customer voice of the Scrum team. This helps the developers get the right answers fast. Additionally, the immediate availability distinguishes the PO from the PM. The product owner needs to be next to the development team whenever they need him/her while the product manager is not much into the technical stuff since his/her role is more about the grand vision of the product.

What’s then?

My idea is that the PM and the PO can be one person if the company is tiny and is just making its first steps towards creating the product.

I mean, right at the beginning of its establishment, a small startup can have only a product manager who will work directly with the development team and the outside stakeholders simultaneously.

But as the startup evolves and the product gets bigger and bigger, the product person’s role can be split into two, three, four and even more people. Bigger companies might want to have more people responsible for the product. There can be companies with several product owners for separate features of the same product. This allows the product manager to focus more on the long-term vision.

You might say that PM and PO roles sometimes overlap. Well, yes, there IS a certain overlap between the product manager’s strategic activities and the product owner’s tactical activities. This indicates a need for collaboration and communication between the people who hold these roles. The tactical decisions should reflect the overall strategy and the overall strategy is generally affected by the circumstances that the development team faces. So, regardless of how many product owners a specific product has, they all should communicate with the product manager to be on the same page.

What I am trying to say is that both big companies and startups should be flexible when it comes to assigning product roles. The splitting of product roles should be need-based only. For example, if the team is small, there might not be a need to have a separate Scrum master, the team leader can take this role, but if the latter lacks appropriate skills (like communication skill), the product owner can work with the team to communicate stakeholder needs. He/she can also work with stakeholders to elicit and prioritize their needs.

So, it depends.

I do hope that this piece helped you figure out who is who.

Did I miss anything? Let me know by hitting me up in the comments below.

About me:

I’m a startup enthusiast and a writer. Currently founder and publisher of Anatown content marketing agency (the redesigned website coming soon…).

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