Product Owner vs Product Manager

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Yes, there is some overlap. But it helps to understand the distinction between product owners and product managers.

Product Managers and Product Owners

The titles of product owner and product manager sound similar. Both are representing the customer and both are focused on delivering the right product. In a startup or a smaller company they might be the same person. But in larger companies, the product manager and product owner roles might have very different backgrounds and orientations.

  • Product managers are the champions of product and its vision; they ensure that a stream of follow-on products continues throughout the product life cycle. They’re thinking in terms of a product roadmap spanning years, not months.  
  • Product owners interact with the team that creates a new product. The role of the product owner is to represent the customer to agile teams and to make sure that the team realizes the vision of the product. Product owners think in terms of weeks and months, not years.

Difference Between a Product Owner and a Product Manager 

Product managers bridge the external and the internal stakeholders. They connect customers, users, and other stakeholders to a company’s product development capacity. Their role is to create a product vision and a product strategy to achieve that vision. They see the big picture.

Product managers capture the voice of the customer, research the market, analyze competition, prioritize product features, and engage in ideation to conceive new product ideas that are aligned with strategy. Product management is not complete at product launch. The product manager’s role begins at the product’s initial conception, continues throughout the development process, and ends only with the product’s retirement from the marketplace. At each step in the product lifecycle, the product manager communicates inputs from external users (customers) and internal stakeholders to the core team members.

The product manager’s role has a long history. They were often called marketing managers in the past. Like today’s product managers, marketing managers researched customer needs and market trends. And they communicated to product people downstream a strategic vision for a company’s product portfolio.

The term product owner emerged from scrum and agile frameworks. The product owner’s role in the scrum framework is to represent the customer on the scrum team. Scrum product owners communicate and champion the product goals for the delivery team. They write user stories and prioritize the product backlog items. They ensure that the product backlog is understood and visible. They’re successful when the team produces an offering that creates the intended business value. They keep track of the details.

As an outgrowth of scrum and agile methodology, the product owner’s role is to interact with a team. Their focus is internal, but a product owner cannot lose touch with the user experience and they must remain aware of the long-term vision they’re serving.

In a new product development program, the product owner’s job is to shepherd a product to market so that it will satisfy customer requirements. Once the product is released to the market, the product owner’s work is done for that release. 

Thus, the scope of product managers and product owners differs. Product managers tend to look over a one to three year time horizon after the product’s release. Product owners are looking at a nine to twelve month horizon from the start of the sprint process. Agile product managers usually have significant institutional knowledge. They’re focused on a product roadmap that encompasses a series of releases over a period of years. Product owners tend to have less institutional background; their focus is on user stories, demos, and release plans. 

Product Management: Long-term scope, larger strategic focus

Product managers are about what products, over time, project teams will need to develop to provide a stream of solutions for end customers. They are also about accounting for why a certain feature or product is what customers need, whether they know it or not. 

Their focus is longer-term and more strategic than a product owner’s. Their world is about customer visits, market research data, product definitions, feature lists, product roadmaps, customer support, and obsolescence plans. They are responsible for the strategic planning and profitability of new products.

Product management processes diagram

Product Ownership: Shorter-term focus, connecting strategy and tactics

Product owners are about representing the customer to a particular project team. Their focus is short-term, and focused on individual offerings, not on the product roadmap as a whole.

Product owners are also one of the roles on an agile or scrum team. They’re focused on the sprints, demos and launches that will realize a successful product. The term product owner tends to presuppose a framework where there are scrum masters, product owners and team members. The product owner’s world, in the scrum universe, is about user stories, prioritizing features and managing backlog.

Agile team members

The Skills of Product Owners vs. Product Managers

The career path of a product manager often runs through Marketing, but can start from an engineering role; product owners often have a background as an individual technical contributor. The differing skill sets of product owners and product managers illustrates the contrast between these two types of leaders. 

Product Owner Skills

  • Knowledge of Agile/Scrum processes
  • Ability to translate the voice of the customer into features
  • Ability to prioritize features for a product team 
  • Must oversee design sprints with scrum master
  • Should have basic project management experience

Product Manager Skills

  • Ability to analyze customer data and turn feedback into features. 
  • Superb communication skills with the ability to motivate a team and persuade executives
  • Understand the strategy, and have a feel for markets and market changes.
  • An ability to develop detailed product roadmaps connected to strategy.
  • Executive presence and excellent communication skills. 

Do you need both product owners and product managers?

In startups these roles are often taken by the same person or shared between two people so that their efforts overlap. In larger companies it is a good idea to separate these roles. 

Product managers in more mature companies are dedicated resources that focus on a product mindset over a scope of years; they create product strategy, champion a portfolio of offerings, and maintain communications with external stakeholders. These activities are essential for executing on your business strategy.

Larger companies must also have dedicated product owners who are focused in the short term on producing the right product that’s going to market in the next six to twelve months. These professional bridge strategy and tactics; they are product leaders who make sure that teams deliver on what will produce business value.  

Larger companies also tend to have more teams, more resources invested, and more external stakeholders from suppliers to shareholders. This means many more complex interdependencies, and that makes a program manager role extremely important. Thus, in larger companies it makes sense to separate the product manager, program manager and product owner roles and to define them carefully.

Larger and more mature companies may also make a distinction between product management and product marketing. In these companies, product management may have sole responsibility for inbound marketing, that means, capturing the voice of the customer, and ensuring that the development team has a prioritized list of features, and delivers an offering that meets customer needs. 

On the other hand, product marketing oversees outbound marketing. Typically product marketers work with sales and promotion to make sure that existing offerings are positioned to sell. They’re concerned with pricing, creating marketing collateral, distribution channels and other aspects of getting products in the hands of customers, both pre- and post-launch.

Product Owner vs Product Manager: TLDR

Don’t get it? Too long, didn’t read? Here’s what you need to know.

Product managers and product owners are both responsible for translating the customer’s voice into products that realize business value and satisfy stakeholders. 

But product managers tend to have a wider time horizon (years not months) and they’re thinking in a broader, strategic way about the future of your product portfolio.

Product owners are focused on executing a particular project, usually with a particular team. They’re there to represent the customer in the process of executing a new product. They’re scope is months, not years. They bridge strategy and tactics to execute a product development project

The product manager’s role is more strategic and focused on the future. The product owner’s role is more tactical and focused on the execution of a product in the here and now.