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Let’s End the Confusion: A Product Owner is NOT a Product Manager

by Saeed Khan

This has been brewing for a while, but recently it’s boiled over and I decided to put a stake in the ground.

There’s always been some level of confusion around the role of Product Manager in high-tech companies.

  • What exactly do Product Managers do?
  • Who do they report to?
  • How should PM teams be organized?
  • How is Product Management different than Project Management?
  • How are those different from Program Management? etc.

When I started in high-tech product management (20 years ago), things we less complex than they are today, but the profession was immature and so some level of ambiguity was acceptable.  But like all things, it would work itself out in time as understanding grew and the profession matured right? Wrong!

Now (20 years later), in some ways things seem even less clear than before. There’s still a lot of confusion over the role, and different companies implement it quite differently. But the biggest point of confusion today is the whole notion of Product Owner vs. Product Manager.

I’ve blogged a plenty on this, so I won’t rehash the details of what I wrote, but there are some links at the bottom of this post if you take a look. If nothing else, check out The Scrum Title ‘Product Owner’ must die!

A Product Owner is no more a Product Manager, than a waiter is a restaurant manager. I’m not disrespecting waiters (or Product Owners) in any way, but just using an analogy to illustrate the point. More analogical reasoning further down in the article.

What is a Product Owner

A Product Owner is a ROLE defined by the Agile movement that acts as the external “interface” to the Scrum team and represents “the business” and their priorities to the Dev team.  It is an inside-out, and intentionally narrow view of the organization. i.e. looking from the IT/Scrum team outward to the business and defining one “throat to choke” for the benefit of the Scrum team.

One point to make clear.  The Product Owner DOES NOT “OWN” the product.

The role should always be described  Agile Product Owner and not Product Owner.  i.e. their “ownership” only exists in the context of the Agile process as an interface between “business” and IT.  Anything beyond that is a land grab or misunderstanding within the organization.

I say this because I’ve seen Agile coaches talk about how the PO is responsible for the ROI or other business value metrics which make absolutely no sense, and in fact cause real organizational problems within companies.

The Product Owner is focused on ensuring the Scrum team implements the right functionality in the right order and in  helping the Scrum team overcome obstacles where possible.

The Product Owner was originally derived in the context of an internal IT organization, but the concept has spread to product-centric organizations as Agile development has spread.

The Product Owner covers (at best) a subset of what Product Management focuses on.  See more details below.

i.e. Product Owners do not work with sales, marketing, product marketing, partners, executives (for the most part) etc.

Product Owners are responsible for:

  • Overall backlog management
    • backlog grooming
    • backlog prioritization
  • Epic/Story definition, refinement in conjunction with business stakeholders
  • Sprint planning along with Scrum Master and other stakeholders.
  • Facilitating problem resolution related to sprint/story implementation
  • Working with Scrum team members to minimize disruption to Scrum team velocity
  • Ensuring alignment between business and Scrum team during development cycle (sprints etc)

In some enterprises, Business Analysts are trained to step up and fill in the role of Product Owner.

Related Article: Goodbye Product Owner, Hello Backlog Manager

Pictorially, the Product Owner role interacts with a narrow range of people. Something like this:

In an enterprise, the “business” is typically business analysts or other members of a business unit for whom an application is being built and who can provide or clarify requirements or help resolve problems during sprint planning, sprints or sprint reviews.

In an ISV (i.e. a products company), the PO is often part of the Product Management organization (but that doesn’t make them a Product Manager per se), or the PO might be part of the Engineering team and interface with Product Management.

Related Article: A new (and better) definition of Product Owner

What is a Product Manager

A Product Manager is a cross-functional leader working with groups like sales, marketing, product marketing, engineering, executives, partners etc. and focused on overall product success across the product lifecycle.

Product Management requires a mix of business, technical, domain and systems knowledge. Product Managers can vary in their focus and skills. Product Management is a critical business FUNCTION which typically manifests itself in a department with roles of varying focus. e.g. technical Product Manager, Product Marketer, Dir. Prod. Management etc.

Product Managers are responsible for:

  • Understanding market problems/opportunities
  • New product innovation/definition
  • Product vision and product roadmap
    • Release timing and focus (i.e. release themes)
    • Release requirements
  • Coordination with engineering during development cycle
  • Product strategy, positioning and messaging
  • Defining pricing and licensing
  • Managing internal/external release enablement
  • Ongoing optimization of product related marketing/sales activities
  • Competitive analysis and positioning
  • Win/Loss analysis
  • Cross-functional communication across product lifecycle

Some of these activities above may be done by Product Marketing or other teams, but Product Management is ultimately responsible for ensuring they are correct and aligned with each other.

Pictorially, a Product Manager communicates and works with teams ACROSS the company, including Engineering.

i.e. there are many more communication paths, interactions and responsibilities. And one thing is clear: this is a VERY different role than a Product Owner.

Does the Front Desk Manage the Hotel?

Calling a Product Owner a Product Manager would be like calling the employee at the hotel front desk the “Hotel Manager”. The Hotel Manager is responsible for the overall successful operation of the hotel.  That front desk employee is my INTERFACE to the various services and members of the hotel and can get answers for me and help me resolve issues, but that is a VERY different set of responsibilities than a Hotel Manager. I’m not belittling or brushing aside that front desk role. It’s important and I appreciate the work they do, but it’s a specific role in the overall success of the hotel.

Related Article: The Product Owner (er…Backlog Manager) debate again

What if Agile was replaced by something better?

And let me make one last thing clear. It’s really important to understand a fundamental fact about good Product Managers. They really don’t specifically care about the details of things Agile, Scrum, Waterfall, XP etc.  i.e about the mechanics of HOW software gets built. Those things are the purview of the Development/Engineering/Scrum team.

If some other new. more efficient and effective development methodology came along and completely displaced Agile/Scrum etc. and was adopted by Engineering teams overnight, that WOULD NOT CHANGE the focus or the goals of Product Management one bit.

Product Managers would welcome this new improvement and leverage it to achieve their goals, and continue to work with ALL the teams (Sales, Marketing, Engineering, Executives etc.) in the same way as before.

The same could NOT be said about Product Owners. They are tightly bound to Agile.  That in itself should be distinction enough between the two.

Product Management is a distinct, evolving and maturing business function. It’s critical for business success. The Product Owner is a role tied into the Agile/Scrum development methodologies and is critical in that model. But outside that model, it doesn’t exist. So let’s stop the unnecessary confusion and keep these two things separate.


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About the Author

Saeed Khan is a founder and Managing Editor of On Product Management, and has worked for the last 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He also speaks regularly at events on the topic of product management and product leadership. You can contact him via Twitter @saeedwkhan or via the Contact Us page on this blog.

"Let's End the Confusion: A Product Owner is NOT a Product Manager", 1 out of 5 based on 5 ratings.
  1. Ivan Engle

    In the above diagram which displays the segments of the business that a PM interacts with the most important piece of he puzzle (IMO) has been left out and hence this post loses it validity.

    Where is the customer?

    The PO according to my knowledge and experience, works to have an in depth understanding and an “in the shoes of “ perspective of the customer. In doing so a vision and roadmap is built into the backlog so that a business can provide a product that adds value to and solve problems of the customers we service. Without a customer there is nothing, no marketing, no sales, no executives and no finance etc.

    Hence forth the underlying tone of what the PM is as described above is a problem I see in business in many cases and that is sales first, customers at the expense thereof. Working with a backlog that first and foremost paints a picture of what the customer needs and from this point on internal business interactions and experience should enrich this artifact so that we build with purpose.

    PO, PM, Product Vision Champion … should be structured and a team formed in a way where the backlog/vision is manicured in parallel with interactions from all internal business segments in order o add value to the customer!

  2. Dieter Verhofstadt

    I’m sure many agile fans will vehemently disagree and say that agile is not a methodology (scrum is) but an attitude. One major feature of that attitude is “short lines between customer and team”. So, if the situation allows for it, the PO should do what the author says the PM does and these roles unite. Indeed, agile/scrum encourages organizations to allow for it, always.

    The way you describe the PO role is precisely how ambitious POs can experience their role as being a mere “secretary”: the backlog manager. And I tend to sympathize: it’s both unfair to the PO and not good for the business to create such a go between administrator, just like I hate the expression “single wringable neck”. So I can’t talk to customers but you’ll wring my neck? No thanks.

    What we have experienced is that for big scopes and many customers, it’s probably best to split the PO-PM role into those inward facing and outward facing roles, especially when multiple teams work on the same commercial product but different aspects/parts. For smaller scopes and just a few customers (like in a startup), there are good reasons to put those two faces on one body: the product owner, who owns the product. This is how agile/scrum was designed, naively thinking that 1 team would always work on 1 product for just a few customers. This assumption is false, so we adapt. But we shouldn’t create long chains of translating business needs to team efforts if we can do without. And yes, that requires the “PO role” to perform business analysis, or otherwise stated, your business analyst to take up the PO role. Why would that be wrong?

    1. Saeed

      Dieter, I’m also sure many agile fans WILL vehemently disagree. 🙂 Agile is not a methodology. You are correct. But Agile seems to be whatever the Agilists want it to be. The whole PO role (it’s not a job title) has caused enormous unnecessary headaches and the Scrum proponents in particular seem to continue to expand the PO’s purported responsibilities every year.

      The overlap of responsibilities between the PO role and Product Managers could be easily clarified if Scrum advocates came out and said, PO is a ROLE and in many companies, Business Analysts or Product Managers already have these responsibilities so you should not be creating new PO job titles for this. But this does not help them spread Scrum, get certification and training money etc. The same is true for Scrum Master vs. Project Managers IMHO.

      AFAIK the “single wringable neck” has been removed from the messaging of PO. it was there in the early days but itself shows how inwardly (toward the Dev team) focused the whole Scrum concept was founded on.

      I agree that in larger projects, the roles should be split and they were — Product Manager and Technical Product Manager — so that the breadth of the overall Product Management job can be done efficiently, scale etc. You can see my thoughts on scalable PM teams here —

  3. DJ Larsen

    Seems like Product Manager is the evolutionary path from Product Owner – in an aspiring startup. But then again, the Founder usually starts out as a Product Owner & janitor.

    1. Saeed

      Product Manager is no more evolutionary from Product Owner than Marketer is from website manager. Product Management has been around for decades (just like Marketer), and fulfilled an important business role then and today. The fact that Agile created the Product Owner ROLE (not job title) was simply an acknowledgement that there needed to be an interface between the technical people and the business people. But then they defined processes, actions and deliverables around this role and it became a job title. But that interface ALREADY existed. Within IT organizations, it was usually Business Analysts. In ISV, it was Product Managers. So there is no evolution here. Agile did a a “rip and replace” to suit THEIR worldview, not that of the business. It’s caused huge problems in companies that take the Agile methodology literally and don’t think through the right organization model.

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