Difference Between Product Owner and Product Manager Explained
It’s time to remove this confusion and help teams deliver value.
These are consequences caused when people misunderstand the difference between Product Owners and Product Managers.
I’m surprised by the number of questions I still receive related to this topic; here are some of them:
Should I apply for a Product Owner or a Product Manager position?
I am a business person. Does that mean Product Manager jobs fit me better?
Do I need a technical background to be a Product Owner?
Is the Product Manager the boss of Product Owners?
Although you can find many articles explaining the difference between both roles, I still get the same questions from people all over the globe. Therefore, I decided to share my perspective on this topic, hoping to shed light on it. Also, I made this content available on my YouTube channel, Untrapping Product Teams; you can have a look at it if you’re interested.
What’s the Difference Between a Product Owner and a Product Manager?
My answer is straightforward: there’s no difference between a Product Owner and a Product Manager; at least it should not be—one bus, one driver.
Stick with me, and I will help you understand.
Product Owner is a role in Scrum (currently, it’s an accountability, but I still prefer the role) — the most used agile framework in the world — while Product Manager is the job itself. An experienced Product Manager is often the best person to play the Product Owner role. In short, you cannot succeed as a Product Owner without solid product management skills. It seems clear, right? Well, it’s supposed to be, but somehow the market adapts simple concepts in bizarre ways.
Let me give you some examples. I searched on Linkedin for Product Owner jobs in the European Union and got more than 43K results.
Then, I decided to search for Product Manager jobs in the European Union. And surprisingly, I got more 77K+ results.
If there’s no difference, why can you find open positions for Product Owners and Product Managers? Because many companies get it all wrong.
What Are Common Anti-Patterns of Product Managers and Product Owners?
Unfortunately, it’s pretty common to observe many anti-patterns due to a wrong understanding of Product Management and Scrum. Here are some of them:
Responsibilities: the Product Manager is responsible for identifying the right thing to do, while the Product Owner is responsible for implementing the thing right. One takes care of “what,” and the other takes care of “how.”
Strategy and tactics: the Product Manager defines the strategy while the Product Owner handles the tactical part.
Hierarchy: Product Owners report to Product Managers.
Story Writer: Product Owners spend almost all their available time taking care of the Product Backlog. They write stories, refine, sort the items, and agree with the team on what fits a Sprint.
Deadline Orientation: Product Managers agree on arbitrary deadlines with management, and Product Owners have to figure out how to make it possible. Decisions are often based on compromise instead of delivering value because sometimes Product Managers have the mistaken belief deadlines will motivate the team to deliver faster.
While I call the above points anti-patterns, I know many people will disagree with me; let me tell you why. Depending on the framework you use, you will find different types of Product Owners. For example, in Scrum, the Product Owner is responsible from end to end. In contrast, in SAFe (the undercover waterfall agent), the Product Owner is responsible solely for execution.
Scrum Product Owner: The Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Scrum Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.
SAFe Product Owner: The Product Owner (PO) is a member of the Agile Team responsible for defining Stories and prioritizing the Team Backlog to streamline the execution of program priorities while maintaining the conceptual and technical integrity of the Features or components for the team.
To be clear. I don’t agree with SAFe in any manner, and I perceive their Product Owner definition as limiting and uninspiring. If you apply for a Product Owner job, you must understand its context.
Can Product Owners and Product Managers co-exist?
No matter the framework you use, the confusion between the Product Manager and Product Owner still exists. I’ve seen many companies working with “Scrum” and having both roles. The question is, does it make sense to have both roles in the same context? From my perspective, it makes no sense at all. But why does that happen then?
Companies claim to be Agile but still have the old ways of thinking. Putting people inside boxes is still the way to work in many places. You get promoted by coloring inside the lines and punished for stepping out of your responsibilities.
Segmented responsibility is still a widespread way of working. Therefore, Product Owners and Product Managers may co-exist, which leads to poor results. Without clear leadership, confusion takes over.
A Product Owner or Product Manager, whatever name you want to call it, should carry full responsibility from end to end. How can you lead a team if you’re not accountable for the whole picture? Take football as an example. Have you ever seen a successful team with two managers? Imagine someone responsible for the team’s strategy and another for the tactics. How would that work? It wouldn’t. A blame game would potentially take over because leadership requires full accountability.
When Product Owners and Product Managers co-exist, it adds complexity in many layers, and the results are nothing but disappointing. Here are some examples:
Lack of responsibility: when the team doesn’t reach the expected result, who would be accountable for that? The Product Manager could say the implementation was faulty, while the Product Owner could say the decision was wrong. Without single accountability, a blame game takes place and limits the team.
Poor communication: the more people you add, the more issues you can face with communication. With Product Owners and Product Managers co-existing, the message tends to be distorted along the way. Product Managers talk to clients, then speak to Product Owners who talk to developers. It’s like building bridges between teams instead of working as a single team.
To conclude my perspective, before you sign up for a Product Owner or Product Manager job, you should be aware of what that entails. Don’t let the name fool you; each company will implement these roles differently.
I think both names, Product Owner and Product Manager, suck. They don’t provide orientation but create confusion. As a Product Owner, you’re not the owner of anything; as a Product Manager, you don’t manage anyone. I wish these names could be removed once and for all.
I believe the name Product Lead would reflect better what the responsibilities entail. The job is all about leading and empowering teams and not managing anything. You lead teams to create value as soon as possible.
🚀 Premium material for subscribers
A single link that will change your life for the better :)
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Untrapping Product Teams to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.