Product Manager vs. Product Owner

For many years, people have debated what the difference between the product manager and the product owner role is, if the roles can coexist or not, and which one should be used. This article shares my thoughts on the topic and reflects on the origin of the product owner role.


As you may know, the product owner originated from Scrum, where the role is responsible for “maximising the value the product creates.” This sounds like a text-book product management responsibility to me. Nevertheless, the product owner is often regarded as a tactical role focused on managing the product backlog, detailing requirements, and interacting with the development team. How come?

The confusion stems—at least partly—from the fact that Scrum is a simple framework focused on helping teams develop software. It does not cover common product management practices, such as, product strategy development, product roadmapping, and financial forecasting; and the only product management tool it offers is the product backlog.

Additionally, some approaches like SAFe employ a separate product manager and product owner role. Using a strategic product role—the product manager—and a tactical one—the product owner—is a common scaling technique. It works particularly well when a product is stable or maturing, as I explain in my post “Scaling the Product Owner Role.”

But calling the tactical role “product owner” is an unfortunate mistake in my mind: The SAFe product owner is not the same as the Scrum product owner! Having two different product owner roles makes the confusion worse.

So What?

So why did Scrum introduce a product owner role at all? Why didn’t the framework use the term product manager? When Scrum was developed in the 1990ies, product management was different from what it is today. Product managers used to do the upfront market research, product planning, and requirements definition work. They would then hand off a requirements specification to a project manager who would work with development and test to deliver the product. The product manager would return only to issue change requests or help with the launch.

This is in stark contrast to the collaboration in an agile process where product people are required to collaborate with the development teams on an ongoing basis—without neglecting the market and the internal stakeholders.

Secondly, Scrum has been applied outside the realm of product development and commercial software products. Many organisations that have adopted Scrum like banks, retailers, and media companies traditionally don’t have a product management group and hence no product mangers. But they do have digital products that either help market and sell their revenue-generating offerings, such as, an online banking app, or they develop software that is used to automate business processes, increase productivity, and reduce cost.

By offering the product owner role, these organisations can start working in an agile way without the immediate need to establish a product management group and initiate an organisational change process. Instead, employees from the appropriate business units can—with some training and coaching—act as product owners . (In the long run, however, establishing a product management function is helpful, as I discuss in my post “Five Tips for Introducing Product Management to Your Company.”)

Now What?

So where does this leave us? My hope is that we will move past the divisive product manager-product owner debate and just talk about product people.

In the short term, we should acknowledge that the product owner is a product management role. People playing the role should therefore acquire the relevant product management skills. As Marty Cagan and others, including myself, have pointed out, a two-day training course is not enough to become a competent product owner. Product management is a complex, multi-faceted discipline that takes time and effort to master.

Additionally, I recommend using either the term product manager or product owner in your company and qualifying it when necessary, for instance, by employing the terms senior and junior product manager / owner and strategic and tactical product manager / owner. This reduces confusion and helps unite people.

What matters are not job roles and titles. It’s the good we do for the users and our businesses.

Reference: Product Manager vs. Product Owner from our JCG partner Roman Pichler at the Pichler’s blog blog.

Roman Pichler

Roman is an agile product management expert. He helps companies create new products by providing consulting and training services, and he is the founder of Pichler Consulting.
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