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Product Owner vs. Product Manager: what are the differences?

One role comes from the Scrum framework, the other is more generalist but both are agile and must carry the product vision.

Head of Product Team
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There are nuanced differences between “Product Owner” and “Product Manager”: the two concepts are easily confused and can be used in a similar way within organizations. At the heart of both roles is the product, addressed through backlog management and solution development.

What are the differences?

Originally, the term “Product Management” appeared in the 1930s. HP or Procter & Gamble were the first companies to create Product Manager positions and to organize themselves around the product. Product Management was then enriched over the years, especially when companies began to compose teams entirely dedicated to building successful digital products. Conversely, the profession of Product Owner is much more recent, since it is defined within the framework of the SCRUM framework established in the 1980s, then in the Agile manifesto of 2001.

The major difference between these two functions concerns the nature of their commitment:

  • The Product Owner is focused on the team and the product. He is indeed responsible for defining and prioritizing the backlog, product quality, delivery and compliance with the deadlines set by the roadmap. It’s an operational role.
  • The Product Manager is more focused on discovery (user research). In this sense, he identifies customer needs and validates user and business value to define the product vision. It therefore has a strategic role.

In short, the Product Owner would be in charge of delivery and the Product Manager would have a broader role in guaranteeing the product strategy as a whole. The function of Product Manager is not necessarily synonymous with management, but the Product Manager can be brought into some organizations to manage Product Owners.

Another point of difference concerns the methodological framework:

  • The Product Owner role is part of a SCRUM team and does not exist without developers.
  • Conversely, the roles and responsibilities of a Product Manager are not defined by an agile framework and precise rules. The Product Manager therefore exercises his activity whatever the method used and his functions are carried by the different states of the life of the product.

What are the similarities?

In reality, strictly comparing “Product Manager” to “Product Owner” is too simplistic.

In several organizations, one and the same person, a “full-stack” Product Manager, is in charge of strategy, delivery, construction and communication of KPIs. We find this unique role within small structures such as start-ups, whose workforces are sometimes too small and involve the merger of the discovery and delivery parts. We can easily draw a parallel with a Developer who would also take on the role of Scrum Master.

The “full-stack” Product Manager is therefore the only entry point for users and businesses. It benefits from a 360° vision: environmental control and product vision, along with an understanding of business and technical issues.

The presence of a “full-stack” Product Manager within an organization, or a Product Manager alongside a Product Owner, depends on several criteria:

  • the structure,
  • their experience,
  • company culture,
  • budgetary resources,
  • the chosen agile methodology (with agile at scale for example, the two functions, Product Manager and Product Owner, always coexist. The teams will be responsible for delivery, and the Product Manager will be responsible for strategy).

In reality, complementary roles

The discovery stage is essential for delivery, and vice versa. Product Manager and Product Owner cannot work in silos if they ultimately want to build a successful digital product.

  • The Product Owner must explore and understand user needs and feedback; he must think like a Product Manager. This is an essential prerequisite if he wants to create value-added features for users and build a product aligned with the product vision defined upstream.

The user value must drive and challenge the thinking of the Product Owner, the choices of prioritization of User Stories and justify their realization to the development team.

  • The Product Manager must engage with the team and be part of it. He must regularly participate in agile ceremonies to understand the operational context, identify pitfalls and discuss solutions with the team. This reconciliation is necessary to define the long-term product vision and prioritize actions to achieve this objective.

Which function should be favored within your team or structure?

If you can accommodate both functions within your organization, it will allow you to have:

  • A role truly dedicated to the strategic design of the product, with user research, in-depth study of needs, construction of the product vision and external communication (customers, users, sponsors).
  • A role truly dedicated to the operational realization of the product, with the improvement of the functioning of the development team to optimize the delivery of new developments.

The Product Manager and the Product Owner must then work closely together, feeding each other in order to achieve their common goal: the creation of a successful digital product.

Depending on your needs and resources, keep in mind that:

  • A Product Owner is an integral part of the agile team. Whether a Product Manager is present or not, a Product Owner’s function will be necessary even if there is only one development team, whatever its size, so that they can guide the operational realization of the product (writing of User Stories, backlog definition, etc).
  • A Product Manager discovers the product to be built and sees the complete picture. You will need a Product Manager in fast-growing organizations where several teams (DevOps, UX/UI etc.) participate in the collaborative construction of the product, and where it is essential to carry and spread a strong product vision.
  • The functions of Product Manager and Product Owner can be carried out by one and the same person, especially in structures with few resources (for example, start-ups). Be careful however, taking on both roles can be a hindrance to the rapid and regular delivery of new functionalities or to the performance of “strategic” tasks (i.e. involving a certain step back).
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