Product Manager vs. Product Owner. What Is the Difference?

Krzysztof Bondar

Sep 14, 2021 • 11 min read
The main differences between Product Manager and Product Owner

The roles of product manager and product owner are often confused with one another.

Product management is a broad area that covers a variety of roles and responsibilities, and many people within the tech industry struggle to distinguish the roles.

The product manager vs product owner debate is often about responsibility. Is the product manager or the product owner in charge of the product’s life cycle? How do the two roles function within a company? What role do they play within the product team and within the organization at large? Does “product owner” really mean that they own the product?

In the blog we’ll take a look at the product manager vs product owner debate and take a look at how the two roles differ.

What is the role of a Product Manager?

A product manager drives the development of a product through:

  • Setting product vision and strategy
  • Overseeing user and market research
  • Identifying opportunities and prioritizing them
  • Communicating with internal and external stakeholders

The scope of the role usually depends on the size of the company and the overall make-up of the development team. The day-to-day tasks of a product manager will also differ greatly depending on the stage of product development.

At the beginning of a product’s lifecycle the product manager might be focused on product strategy and defining a vision of the product. As the product is delivered to users, the product manager will start to focus on product features, market research and customer feedback.

Let’s take a look at three key areas: Scope, Artefacts and Ceremonies, and try to understand the role of a product manager.

Scope

The product manager is responsible for the Why, Who and the What. The scope of their role can be enormous or quite limited depending on a number of factors. According to Ben Aston, an online media entrepreneur and founder of Black + White Zebra, “They work with the project manager along with other team members to get to a successful product launch.”

In general, the product manager will work with external stakeholders such as the client and users. They are the face of the product development team and must be able to communicate strategy and the company’s message while satisfying stakeholder needs.

As you can see, the role of the product manager requires a cross functional skill set. Beyond communication and leadership skills, product manager’s must also be creative and technically capable. They will help to define the product mission, target customers and design a product strategy that serves the long term vision of the product.

Product managers outline what success looks like. Their scope is probably larger than that of the product owner who is more focussed on the day-to-day product related activities.

The product manager usually owns vision and will have a large say in how the company markets the product. They work at both a conceptual and practical level to understand customer needs and fine tune the development process.

Artefacts

Product artefacts are things which are created as a by-product of the development process to ensure that a product or piece of software can be created. Product managers are often responsible for artefacts like a product roadmap, a product vision card or a product requirement document.

When a product manager designs a product roadmap it is for the overall benefit of the product management team as well as setting a cohesive vision for the future of the product. It helps to align a team around goals and facilitates the conversation about progress of development.

They can ensure that the development process stays on track. Artefacts, like a product roadmap or a product vision card, are especially useful when product managers are having to deal with multiple departments and cross functional teams.

Ceremonies

During the product development stage, the product team will benefit from continually taking part in product team ceremonies such as product discovery.

Product managers can preside over the product discovery process, allowing team members to get involved. They can facilitate product management discussions about customer needs and gaps in the market. The product discovery ceremony links in with many of the product manager responsibilities, especially when it comes to deciding the vision of the product and coming up with ideas for product strategy.

What is the role of a Product Owner?

According to The Scaled Agile Framework, “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 product.”

In a scrum team framework that is designed to help teams work together, product owner’s play an integral role in ensuring that all team members are working effectively to enhance the development of the product and maximize value delivered.

Similar to how we explored the product manager role, let’s take a look at three key areas: Scope, Artefacts and Ceremonies so we can understand the product owner.

Scope

The scope of a product owner is generally more limited than a product manager. While product manager’s decide the Why, Who and What, the product owner is responsible for the How. They see user stories and think about the practical steps their team can take to meet the customer’s needs.

“How can we maximize the scrum team’s abilities and develop the best product possible?” This is the sort of question product owners will be asking themselves on a weekly, or even daily, basis.

Product owners work closely with internal stakeholders such as developers, designers, and quality assurance. The scope of their responsibility is focussed almost entirely on the product. As a result, product owners must be technically capable and detail-oriented individuals.

A product owner will also help the development team execute on a shared vision. They will use their excellent communication skills to motivate the scrum team to take creative risks.

While they are devising a strategy for success, a product owner must also keep the customer in mind as well as the long term vision of the product. However, the major strategic decisions to do with delivery, maintenance and market research will be taken by the product manager.

The scope of a product owner’s responsibilities also include:

  • Outlining a plan and a sustainable process for achieving success
  • Owning the team backlog and fulfilment work
  • Getting involved in day-to-day activities and immersing themselves in the roles and responsibilities of the team

Artefacts

Product owners are responsible for creating and owning artefacts such as a product backlog, sprint backlog and the “definition of done”. They may not have the final say when it comes to the complete product but they must know everything about the product as it is developing.

Atlassian explains that “a product backlog is a prioritized list of work for the development team that is derived from the roadmap and its requirements.”

The product owner is the individual within the team that should create the product backlog and ensure that the rest of the team is fulfilling their tasks. The process is easier when a product owner has a clear and sensible product backlog that encourages efficient teamwork.

The product owner role is important for ensuring the team stays focussed on the job at hand. This allows the team to stay agile and respond to any developments within the market as they are creating the product.

Ceremonies

Product owners are also involved in many of the product ceremonies that take place during the product life cycle. These ceremonies include:

  • Backlog Grooming
  • Sprint planning
  • Daily
  • Sprint Review
  • Retrospective

These agile scrum ceremonies are a way of providing a framework for teams to complete projects in a way that is structured and timely. For example, a sprint planning meeting allows the “product owner and development team to meet and review the prioritized product backlog.” This enables the team to complete work incrementally and continually achieve productive goals.

The product owner has to be familiar with the product backlog and will be able to explain the details to the development team. In addition, if you are in the product owner role you have to respond to any questions or worries the development team has about the work.

In this way, when compared to product managers, the product owner takes a more active role in the day-to-day lives of the product team.

Are both roles necessary?

Now you know a bit more about the product manager vs product owner debate, you might be wondering whether you actually need both roles.

The top priority for any company will be business value. If having both a product owner and product manager in your team is beneficial for the product life cycle, then you may want to have both.

Ultimately, product management is about a company’s needs and the needs of the customer. According to The Product Manager: “There needs to be an assessment of who is doing what jobs now, challenges that need to be overcome, the overall decision-making process, and the end goal.”

Assessing whether both roles are necessary should lead you to assess your desired product outcome. Both a product owner and product manager can help you achieve your goals if they are well trained, properly supported and enthusiastic.

Two vital roles for product development

Both product managers and product owners can play vital roles within an organization. When the workflow between the two roles is aligned then the product manager and product owner can work together seamlessly to build and iterate on customer solutions.

Ideally, a company working on delivering a big, complex product will be able to employ both a product manager and a product owner who will fulfill separate but entirely harmonious roles within the product team.

The product manager will be able to focus on the bigger picture, while managing a team of skilled individuals and communicating with external stakeholders. At the same time the product owner will be able to attend to the day-to-day activities and ensure you create a great product.

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Krzysztof Bondar

Krzysztof Bondar works as a Product Manager at Netguru.
Artemest m-commerce