Product Owner vs. Product Manager: What’s the Difference?

By: on October 18, 2018

Googling the term “product owner vs. product manager” pulls up some interesting related questions:

Google results on product owner vs product manager

Google search results for “product owner vs. product manager” (Source)

This quick search tells us that businesses have a lot of questions about product owners and product managers—two of the most important agile roles.

The bad news is that many small businesses deal with these questions by simply ignoring them. There is a perception that agile teams have more important things to do, such as attend sprint planning meetings, which overshadows creating a business culture that’s consistent with agile values.

This can have dire consequences.

Small business teams with poorly defined agile roles won’t have the right people in decision-making positions. This will lead to team accountability issues, low project quality and costly delays.

Instead, SMBs looking to build successful agile teams should begin by clearly defining agile roles—in this case, that of product owner and product manager.

In this report, we’ll help you do exactly that by exploring the differences between the roles and help you understand when your small business should use either of these agile roles.

Product Owner vs. Product Manager: Similarities and Differences

The differences between product owners and product managers can be summed up as follows:

  • Product owners are team-facing. Accountable for ensuring that the team delivers high-quality products to end users, within the agreed upon time-to-market deadlines.
  • Product managers are customer-facing. Responsible for doing market research, understanding customer requirements and creating the product vision for the organization.

However, there are areas of overlap when it comes to understanding the responsibilities of these two roles.

  • Product owners must understand customer requirements. Their core responsibility is to understand and present key customer requirements to the team as a prioritized list of product backlog items. They also coordinate with product managers to write users stories, capture customer feedback and participate in product demos.
  • Product managers must engage with the team. They regularly participate in Scrum meetings to sketch out wireframes and solutions with the team. That’s because they need to define the long-term product vision and work closely with the team to prioritize activities that help them achieve this vision.

Now, let’s look at the differences in more detail. This chart from Gartner’s “How to Staff the Product Owner Role” report (content available to clients) breaks down the differences based on key factors.

Product Owner
Product Manager
Product vision Acts as the voice of the customer for the product vision. Acts as the custodian of the product vision on behalf of business sponsors.
Strategy Is responsible for iteration goals and delivering value to the customer. Is accountable for strategic roadmaps and business outcomes.
Acting on feedback Ensures that the voice of the customer shapes key decisions in the organization. Adjusts the strategy and product vision based on customer feedback.
Communication Engages with the customer, the team and the wider organization to show ongoing product value and success. Engages with senior stakeholders or helps the product owner and team do it (when necessary).
Risk Maintains a short-to-midterm focus on the immediate sprint and release. Maintains a long-term focus on ongoing support for product capabilities and the value stream.
Requirements Is responsible for defining epics and stories as well as their success criteria. Is accountable for defining high-level epics and the MVP.

Know When to Use a Product Owner or a Product Manager

There are various factors that determine whether your business needs product managers or product owners, or both. For instance, businesses practicing scrum generally don’t have a product manager because the Scrum Guide makes no mention of such a role.

Product management expert Roman Pichler explains this saying that product managers were considered antithetical to agile when the Scrum Guide was released in the 1990s.

Why? Because back then, product managers were responsible for creating the 1,000-page market requirement documents and extensive project plans. But agile practitioners now consider these processes inefficient.

Regardless, agile has come a long way, and small businesses follow different kinds of frameworks than scrum alone. Many businesses today have created a strategic distinction between product managers and product owners:

  • Product owners help the dev team build the product. Product owners are more or less default to agile project management. You need a product owner, even if you have a single development team working on short-term projects and whether or not you have a product manager.
  • Product managers discover what products to build. You need product managers in growing businesses where multiple teams (DevOps, UI/UX etc.) collaboratively build the product. Gartner notes in its “Moving From Project to Products Requires a Product Manager” report (content available to clients) that a project manager or Scrum product owner isn’t the right person to fill this role.

Here’s a table of recommendations to help you understand the need for these two roles in your small business:

You need a product owner if: You need a product manager if:
• You have a small dev team, consisting of fewer than 20 people.

• The dev team has a lot of questions regarding the product.

• You’re facing project tracking and reporting issues.

• You’re a growing business with a large team and multiple products.

• You’re receiving a lot of customer complaints about the product.

• Internal stakeholders aren’t happy with the product quality.

Conclusion and Next Steps

It’s clear that most small businesses need a product owner. On the other hand, product managers are more necessary for growing businesses adding more products.

Determining the right agile roles for your business is crucial. As your team gains clarity on their roles and responsibilities, they can collaborate better and make decisions more quickly. These are the essential traits of high-performing agile teams.

Once you determine the roles you need, empower your team by streamlining inefficient processes and using the right tools. For instance, establish a project stakeholder management strategy to help product managers engage and manage stakeholder expectations more effectively.

Likewise, empower product owners with the right agile project management tools that will help them plan sprints and track team goals.

For a better understanding of which agile solution, such as scrum software or a kanban tool, is ideal for your business, call us at (844) 687-6771 for a free and no obligation consultation with a software advisor.

Last but not the least, here’s a list of reports we created to help small business like yours manage agile projects more effectively:

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