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product owner vs product manager – what’s the difference?

The discussion of product owner vs product manager is an interesting and complex one. The two roles have a lot of similarities and that can certainly lead to confusion around separating and defining the two.

Despite their similarities, product manager and product owner are different and have separate roles. The two job roles have different responsibilities, goals, and scopes despite their areas of overlap.

Knowing the difference between a product manager and a product owner is essential in the world of tech and software development. Getting to know the nuances between the two can help you understand more about how development teams do and should work. Both knowing and celebrating the roles’ differences can help you build the most effective scrum team possible for your project.

So, that being said, in this blog, we are going to discuss the differences and similarities between the roles of product owner vs product manager so that you may have this new insight. We will discuss each role in turn and then compare them. Giving you all the knowledge you need along the way.

Let’s start with the role of product owner.

What is a product owner?

The first thing to note about the role of product owner is that the name can be a little misleading. The product owner is not someone who owns the product being developed. Nor do they own the team making the product or the business hired to upgrade the product. 

The role of product owner is a Scrum team role. It hails from this AGILE framework and can be defined by the Scrum guide as someone, “accountable for maximising the value of the product resulting from the work of the Scrum Team.” The guide defines the product owner’s responsibilities as the following:

  • Developing and explicitly communicating the Product Goal;
  • Creating and clearly communicating Product Backlog items;
  • Ordering Product Backlog items; and,
  • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is transparent, visible and understood.

As the role of product owner traces back specifically to AGILE practices of project management and software development, you will most commonly find this role within an AGILE team.

product owner responsibilites

A product owner has responsibility for day-to-day activities, and they are certainly in the thick of things. They have a consistent role within the development process that focuses mainly on customer needs and product strategy and includes the entire team. They liaise with all layers of product management and all sorts of people that make up a project. Very often they work with internal stakeholders and external stakeholders to coordinate the project on these various layers.

Product owners certainly do not have an easy job role. They are pulling together lots of different aspects to provide both a cohesive structure for a development team and the desired product outcome for customers.

Some product owner responsibilities you might expect to see on an everyday basis include:

  • Listening to customer feedback, identifying customer needs and collecting user stories
  • Communicating between the customer and development team, and then representing external stakeholders and internal stakeholders
  • Managing the product backlog
  • Assisting the development team stay on track with the product roadmap
  • Outlines a product vision and helps the team achieve the said vision

Overall, a product owner is a busy member of the team with a huge impact on business value. They are critical to both the day-to-day functioning of a team working towards a certain goal, and they are the glue that holds many different sides of the equation together.

What is a product manager?

Now onto the other side of the coin, what is a product manager?

Where a product owner works on the everyday level, a product manager has a more conceptual role within a development team. A product manager is responsible for creating a product vision, a project vision, and a team vision. They are the ones who have the bigger picture of where a project is going and why.

It is a higher-level role that deals with the entire product lifecycle. There is an element of business analysis in the role of a product manager, as they work with market trends and company objectives to help build the most successful products possible. Their long-term vision helps guide a development team to tech success.

Some of the typical activities we might expect to see a product manager doing include:

  • Conducting market research and data analysis
  • Decide which product to build and prioritise
  • Develop the project roadmap
  • Budgeting
  • Customer care
  • Assisting with a marketing campaign for the product
  • Liaising with external stakeholders and vendors
  • Communicating with all members of the product team to ensure smooth sailing in a project

In short, a product manager has a wide, overarching focus that helps ensure a successful product life cycle. A product manager decides what direction a team should go in and how they should do it. With a particular focus on a way that best meets customer needs. They may not always be someone with expert technical knowledge, rather they can be someone with great personal and business skills.

How are the two roles similar?

Before we talk specifically about the crucial differences that separate the roles of product manager and product owner, it is important first to acknowledge that the roles do have a lot in common. Hence the common confusion over which one is which.

Some key similarities between product managers and product owners are:

  • Movement through the system development process
  • Cross communication between customers, development teams, and shareholders
  • A solid customer/user-centred focus
  • Creation of value for customers
  • A solution-driven focus

The main aspect that pulls the two roles together is their dedication to customer needs. They are both ultimately trying to assist in the creation of the best possible service for customers. In that, they can both agree.

How are the two roles different?

While there is this similar vision of a product manager and a product owner, we do need to differentiate the two roles. That is what you came to this blog to learn about.

The following comparisons help to sum up the differences between the two quite succinctly:

  • Vision: The product manager has a strategic, long-term vision. The product owner has a tactical, day-to-day vision.
  • Responsibilities: The product manager is responsible for the big picture of a product, they need to create the product roadmap and establish customer needs. The product owner, on the other hand, is responsible for following this product roadmap and assisting a development team in meeting user needs. The product owner has particular responsibility for the product backlog.
  • Ownership: Product managers own the product roadmap and MVPs. Product owners, in comparison, own the backlog, epics, and user stories.

Product managers are sometimes known as “mini-CEOs” as they have such a wide scope of responsibility. They can be seen as having a more external facing role as they prioritise customers, clients and external shareholders within a project management team.

Product owners are more akin to a scrum master or specialised project manager within an AGILE team. They have more of an internal-facing role as they work hand in hand with the development team to meet the external goals already outlined by a product manager.

Which one do you need?

The two roles of product manager and product owner should, in an ideal world, work hand in hand for the same goals. When in tandem, these two roles hold a lot of potential and power. If they are able to work on these separate levels to make progress on one singular project, they can have very profitable success.

The biggest mistake that tech companies could make is mistaking the roles of product manager and product owner as interchangeable. They have very different and should be seen as separate but mutually beneficial. They work on different levels from each other and having only one aspect at work could put you at a disadvantage over other teams. In this modern day and age, you cannot afford to be at a technical disadvantage to anyone, that is for sure.

So, the simple answer to which one do you need? A product owner or a product manager?

The answer is both.

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