Product Owners vs. Product Managers

What’s the difference between a product owner and a product manager?  In my experience, these are two distinct roles within an organization but both of them usually have the same title. To make things worse, this is often inconsistent between industries, companies, and even teams within the same company.  Each of the roles is super important, but it might not be clear to some the difference between the two, and when you’re just getting started, you might have to do both jobs for a while.  I felt it would be helpful to clarify the difference between the roles as I define them within my team.

Product Owner 

A product owner is a role defined by SCRUM development methodology.  There’s a fairly comprehensive definition of the product owner role here but the TLDR is that the product owner is focused on product development.  They are in the trenches and the weeds with the development teams, managing backlogs, writing user stories, participating in daily SCRUM ceremonies, and driving development to achieve and optimize a business goal.  My experience has been that the simpler the product, the easier this job is.  There quite simply aren’t that many decisions to make when working on a relatively simple product, such as a content blog, or a e-commerce storefront.   However, when you’re working on a complex product, like a set of developer tools for streaming video, or a massively tuned distributed system, there are a host of technical trade-offs that the dev teams need guidance and business context to make appropriately.

This can vary by industry or company, but my observation is that the more complex the product, the more essential the product owner role.  I think an reasonable comparison to think about this role is as the “CTO of a single product.”  The more a company/product leans towards the hi-tech industry, the more essential the CTO role is.  But if you’re in a company/product that leans away from hi-tech industry, the less essential this role is.  (A caveat – if your company doesn’t actually make it’s own products, i.e. you just resell other people’s products, then this role isn’t that essential either).  I’ve been in both environments and so can appreciate the value that a great Product Owner can bring.

Product Manager

I’m not sure who invented it, but the role of Product Manager is pretty much often defined as the “CEO of a product.”  I think this refers to the interdisciplinary nature of the job.  I’ve also heard it referred to as the “hub of the wheel.”  Sounds great!  So what’s the job?  I feel this is where the role of Product Manager is often misunderstood and/or inconsistent.

What does a CEO do?  There’s literally hundreds of activities that a CEO and by extension, a product manager, is expected to do:

  • drive execution
  • bring in business
  • build a team
  • define a vision
  • set goals
  • make important decisions
  • and many more…

In my experience, the things the best product managers do well are defining a vision and setting goals.  (i.e. define a roadmap and backlog) When these are done well, it becomes much easier to do things like drive execution or bring in business, because it becomes super clear to everyone what you are doing, why it is essential, and how you’ll be able to deliver it.   The challenge, however, is that any product manager can define a vision and set goals.  So the only way to really measure the quality of that vision and goals is by the market result.

In the end, the market judges CEOs (and by extension, product managers) by their market impact.  Company craters?  Bad CEO.  Company succeeds?  Great CEO.  So I feel that’s also the best way to think about and to judge product managers – by the success and /or failure of their products.  The primary job of the product manager is to deliver results, and to eliminate all of the excuses in the way of success.

To Compare the Two:

A product owner and product manager are two distinct and necessary roles.    However, I feel that the product owner is a specialized subset of the product manager role, which is increasingly important in high tech / complex products.  Most companies don’t have the resources to staff two distinct roles until a product achieves a certain size.  But for mature companies, it’s important to recognize that both roles are an essential ingredient of success.