Product Owner vs. Product Manager: what is the difference?
Since I switched jobs (and companies), from a Product Owner (PO) to a Product Manager (PM), I got questioned a lot about the difference. And not only by my friends and family but also from people within the industry. So is there a difference? If you ask me there definitely is, and this article is to give my (personal) explanation to it.
The one-sentence explanation
If I would be forced to answer the difference in one sentence I would say:
As Product Manager you are responsible for both the Discovery and Delivery of your product, whereas a Product Owner you are more focused on just the Delivery.
For those that are less familiar with these two terms, I try to briefly explain it below. But since there are people who did a far better job already then I can do in this short paragraph, I would recommend you to read this article.
- Delivery: making sure the value of your ideas reaches the customer as soon as possible. So the implementation from the thought out features. Translating the idea into epics/user stories that can be implemented and guiding them through the software development processes. From writing the requirements until the release to production.
- Discovery: making sure you focus on the right problems and implement the most valuable ideas. Prioritizing ideas, using the product vision and strategy as guidelines and focus on “discovering” which ideas will get you there fastest. Using practices like data analysis, user research, experimentation, etc. to find out which ideas are worth the team's valuable time.
And in my experience as a Product Manager you are responsible for handling both funnels, or as you might see it: one big funnel.
The theoretical explanation
As you might know, the title Product Owner comes from Scrum which is also why it is often referred to as Scrum Product Owner. Where "a Scrum Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Development Team" if we need to believe the scrum alliance. And "The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog". If you look at the responsibilities described it is clear that the role is very much focused on managing the Product Backlog, so the Delivery.
Since the job as Product Manager does not have a clear origin, it is also hard to find an aligned definition. Atlassian describes the job as "the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.". As you might notice it goes beyond just the delivery ("…turn that vision into a reality") of the product.
A Product Manager is always a Product Owner. A Product Owner is not always a Product Manager.
If you are working in an Agile/Scrum environment, the PO is a role that needs to be fulfilled. And since most of the time PM’s are working in an agile environment, you can say that a Product Manager is always a Product Owner. But a Product Owner is not always a Product Manager.
In my experience your set of responsibilities is way broader as a Product Manager. Next to this discovery funnel, you are also focused on the phase after the release. Where one part is about the communication of your product (or bluntly called marketing): thinking how you can make sure your users know about it, if it needs any special marketing campaign or things like onboarding. The other part is the feedback of the user, which can also be translated again into new ideas, feeding your discovery funnel — making it full circle.
For me a Product Manager is really like being a mini-CEO of your product. You need to think about the vision and strategy of your product (and how this aligns with the vision and strategy of the company), the development of ideas, the implementation of the product, and the marketing. Whereas a Product Owner you are this key-figure between Business & IT. The gate-keeper as a key role but without all the responsibilities himself.
Just like any responsibility, it does not mean that you have to do everything yourself. I noticed that as PM I collaborate with a way broader team. Not only an engineering team but also a Product Designer, Customer Care specialist, and User Researcher working closely together on a weekly or daily basis. Which brings me to an important acknowledgment.
The prerequisite for being a Product Manager
There is one big elephant in the room that we need to address. And that is that the role of a Product Owner/Manager heavily depends on how your organization and the development teams are set up. If a team is not autonomous enough to be in charge of all these practices regarding their product, you will have a hard time acknowledging the role of PM as I described above. But again, this is my experience and my definition.
Since this opens up so many different points of discussion and is an entirely different beast, I wrote a separate article about it. Which you can read here.
Differences throughout the world
All of the things I wrote above about the role and responsibilities are heavily influenced by the markets and companies I have worked at, and the people in the community around me. Which is also why I realized that there are so many differences throughout the world.
So for those of you who are looking for a job as a Product Owner / Manager, be aware of these differences. Always have a look at the job description. Because again, the things I am writing in this article is how I see it, and some companies might disagree.
To just name a couple of differences:
- A Product Manager is also a job title for non-software products.
- Tech companies are more likely to recognize a job as Product Manager.
- In the US there are few jobs that refer to the title of Product Owner, where in Europe this job title is on the rise.
- In the US the role of PM is even more focused on the positioning and marketing of a product.
Why everybody should hire Product Managers
Ready for a heavily opinionated last paragraph? Well, here it goes.
Let me start with the most personal answer: being a Product Manager is way more fun. Yes also way more challenging, just look at the broader set of responsibilities, but that is part of the fun.
I also think that having this broader set of responsibilities is necessary for such a key role. For example. You didn’t deliver any value with your product if nobody uses it. So if you don't look at the marketing of your product, how can you say you are focused on delivering value?
The build trap
A very well-known book and there are dozens of talks from the author, Melissa Perri, about the so-called build trap.
Are you building what your customers want, or are you just building?
For me what Melessa Peri describes here is very much describing the differences between a Product Owner and a Product Manager — and also what is wrong with this misalignment.
Instead of going into all the details of her talk and book, I would highly recommend you to just watch one of her talks. You can see my own little summary in a sketch below. Can you spot the Discovery vs. Delivery in there?
Wrapping it up
I hope this article and my simplified explanation about the subject helped to clarify some differences between a Product Owner and a Product Manager.
If you are interested in this topic and want to know more than just my opinion, I recommend reading the following articles:
If you found this an interesting read, have a look at some of my other articles:
Agile IRL: Early and Continuous Delivery in Sri Lanka
What we can learn from the Sri Lankan hotel business.
Product Teams: striving for Autonomy & reaching for Business Agility
Why I think there is just one type of team you should care about.