A Brief History of Product Management: Starts With a Spark
Product management was originally seated in marketing but has evolved. It's still misunderstood but it's now getting the recognition it deserves with product people...
What is the difference between a product manager and a product owner? The terms are often used interchangeably, and admittedly there is some overlap. However, the roles product manager and product owner are indeed different. Today we’ll look at the role of a product owner vs that of a product manager and explore the different skills and responsibilities of each.
At the highest level, there are several competing definitions for product manager and product owner. But to the extent that any consensus exists about the basic difference between product managers and product owners, it is this:
In this article we’ll delve into each of these roles and examine the similarities and differences between them.
Product management is the practice of strategically driving the development, market launch, and continual support and improvement of a company’s products. A product manager’s role focuses on long-term strategy, the product vision, market trends and the identification of new opportunities.
The education site Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) offers helpful definitions of both product managers and product owners, which we will summarize here.
DAD describes the role of the product manager as strategic in practice and “focused on the long-term vision for the product, on observing trends in the marketplace, on identifying new potential outcomes or themes to be supported by the product, on supporting the sales/adoption of the product, and on ensuring the product meets the needs of the value stream(s) the product is involved with.”
The DAD site also describes the product manager as typically being involved in:
As product management expert Roman Pichler explains of the product manager-product owner distinction, the product owner role traces back to the Scrum agile methodology for project management. As a result, product owners today are found primarily in organizations that use the agile development approach.
Here is how DAD’s product managers vs. product owners page describes the product owner role: “Product owners are more tactical in practice,” and they “work closely with delivery teams to ensure they build the right functionality in a timely manner. POs will transform the high-level vision of the product manager into detailed requirements. To do this they work closely with a range of stakeholders for the product, including non-customer stakeholders such as finance, security operations, support, audit, and others.”
The DAD page explains that product owners carry out their responsibilities through tactical activities such as:
As Roman Pichler argues, the product owner is a product management role. He also points out, however, that smaller and younger organizations—particularly in the software industry—can bring in a product owner to more quickly establish a role responsible for the product’s development without having to build out a product management team. But in the longer term, Pichler suggests, these organizations should also create a separate role for a product manager.
So in short, no, product owners and product managers are not simply the same role under different names. They are two unique functions.
Some organizations, often due to lack of resources, might have a product owner who also takes on the more strategic responsibilities of a product manager, but as the DAD page describing PMs and POs points out, each of these roles has its own separate focus, and each also represents a full-time job.
As the product management consulting and training company 280 Group explains on its own Product Manager-Product Owner Comparison page, here is a good high-level overview of the different responsibilities of each role:
As you can see, there are some similarities between these functions. Both roles involve the shepherding of a product through the development process, and both require working with several of the same teams across the organization.
Indeed, as the 280 Group explains, in some cases a PO might take on some of the more strategic roles of a PM, and vice versa. But in a prototypical agile organization, the team will have both product owners and product managers, each responsible for some variation of the functions listed above.
In that sense, you can think of a product owner as a type of product manager—more tactical, more internal-facing—who helps keep the product’s progress on track in an agile organization.
As we explain on our What Is a Product Owner? page, an effective product owner (particularly in the fast-moving environment of an agile development organization) needs outstanding communication skills.
This is because a major part of a product owner’s job is translating a product manager’s high-level vision for a product into actionable tasks. Product owners are key point people for developers, QA staff, UI, UX, and designers.
This is why we would argue product owners need to have several of the broader skills required of every product manager—such as the ability to communicate clearly to several different types of professionals, and excellent listening skills.
The short answer is yes: A product owner can definitely be a product manager, and vice versa.
As Produx Labs CEO Melissa Perri puts it in her Product Manager vs. Product Owner article, “As a product manager your roles and responsibilities will change depending on your context and the stage of your product,” and that “Product owner is a role you play on a Scrum team. Product manager is the job.”
In other words, although the Disciplined Agile Delivery organization and the 280 Group both break out the clear division of responsibilities between these two roles, the reality is that there is also overlap among them, and a single person could theoretically perform both roles simultaneously.
In fact, as Roman Pichler argues, this often happens with software startups that are not yet ready organizationally or financially to hire both.
The debate over where a product manager’s role ends and a product owner’s begins—or whether or not these two functions are really just two different aspects of the same role—will probably go on forever.
What is important, however, is that your product organization has a team structure that works for your process, and that the Product Managers and the Product Owners in your team know exactly what the responsibilities and goals are for their roles.