Have you ever wondered why some organizations have a Product Manager and a Product Owner (sometimes called a PO) while others only have one or the other? You’ve maybe stumbled upon multiple articles about the differences between the roles, or talked with someone who had passionate opinions about them.
In this post I will explain what organizations typically expect from a Product Manager and a Product Owner. I will also explore how a project’s specific context can change these expectations and, most importantly, what you can do to succeed in either role.
When I First Realized a Product Manager and a Product Owner Might Be Two Different People
I attended a conference a few years ago with a colleague, Dany. Dany is a Product Owner, and he was telling me how excited he was about his team releasing a new product feature.
He mentioned how his frequent communication with the team’s Product Manager had made a significant impact on his team. He also said that his team’s Product Manager would have a weekly checkpoint with him to communicate user feedback and upcoming backlog items. Dany found this regular communication very helpful when prioritizing the team’s backlog and planning when to bring the stories to the team.
My confusion and disbelief upon hearing Dany’s story showed in my face. I had been performing both the Product Owner and Product Manager roles. It was awkward to learn that there were two different people at Dany’s company doing all the work I did on my own. As I continued talking to Dany, though, I began to realize he was working with a much larger organization than mine. They were using the SAFe framework, and they needed to separate the two roles.
How Product Manager and Product Owner Differ
I’ve heard many opinions from industry professionals for or against a specific Agile framework, and for or against different approaches to these two roles. What I came to grasp is that context is critical. Organizational style, size, culture, and the nature of the project all play a role in how a business tackles development.
Some companies are small and perhaps focus on one software project at a time. The Product Owner may also wear the Product Manager hat, or assume some Product Manager tasks.
Other organizations are much larger. They implement a structured framework, such as SAFe. They have both a Product Manager and a Product Owner. They may even have multiple POs, each one overseeing several teams. They may also have multiple Product Managers, often overseeing four or more POs.
Some IT professionals think the Product Manager is perhaps the profession itself and the Product Owner is only relevant in Agile environments, such as a Scrum team or a company using SAFe.
If we look at specific responsibilities, it’s easier to see how these roles may be combined or separated.
|Product Manager¹ Responsibilities||Product Owner² Responsibilities|
|Identifies customer needs||Defines user stories|
|Supports market research||Maintains and prioritizes team backlog|
|Defines relevant metrics (KPIs)||Accepts work developed by team|
|Owns product roadmap||Supports team closely|
|May frequently communicate with stakeholders|
When the Roles May Blur
It’s common to see a Product Owner absorb some tasks from a Product Manager. For example, the Product Owner might take over the product roadmap. In that case, the person in that role will have frequent checkpoints with the stakeholders. This requires a high degree of transparency and a communication style that adapts readily to each stakeholder. The role might also require the ability to explain in very simple terms the complex and technical challenges in the project.
How SAFe and Agile Differ
In an organization using SAFe, the Product Owner works with Product Management to prepare for the Program Increment (PI) Planning meeting. Product Management is responsible for the program backlog. Product Managers work closely with the Product Owner, sharing their input about the features that will be discussed in the PI Planning meeting. They know that the PI Planning meeting will be highly collaborative and so they do their best to be in sync prior to the session.
On the Agile team, the Product Owner serves as the customer proxy, working with Product Management and other stakeholders, including other Product Owners, to define and prioritize stories in the team backlog. The Product Owner writes clear, concise, and detailed stories for the team. Since he or she is the customer proxy, the team knows that any issue related to the story acceptance criteria will be brought to the Product Owner’s attention first. Since they have close communication with other Product Owners and stakeholders, the Product Owner also has a broader view and is more able to predict when the team will become a dependency for another team or vice versa.
When It Works Best, the Roles Work Together
If an organization has both a Product Owner and a Product Manager, their relationship should be symbiotic. Dany’s case illustrates beautifully how these two roles should co-exist and support each other to ensure project success.
Dany’s Product Manager led frequent checkpoints with Dany, kept Dany aware of the upcoming initiatives, and got him involved with other stakeholders and Product Owners as needed. All these practices translated to the tremendous project success, and Dany and his team were understandably proud of their work.
Context matters most, and organizations should adapt their approach to these roles to their unique needs and development framework.
¹ Scaled Agile Framework. Product and Solution Management. October 20th, 2019.
² Scaled Agile Framework. Product Owner, October 20th, 2019