Product Manager vs Product Owner

The terms Product Manager and Product Owner are often used interchangeably, although they are not the same.

But some commonalities create confusion. The biggest one is the common goal both product manager and product owner have. They both work on improving the products by creating more value for customers and stakeholders. They both work on optimizing product features.

And even drawing the line after the ‘common goals’ is rather challenging. Because there are other factors involved that change from company to company. These factors may include product maturity, departmental structures, company size, scrum and agile adoption, and company philosophy.

Naturally, there is so much debate around product manager vs product owner: How do the roles and responsibilities differentiate, does an organization need both? And so on.

But, before we get into each of these questions specifically, it’s important to understand the fundamental differences on the surface. For it to make sense.

Breaking it down:

The product manager establishes the product vision, prioritizes future development, understands customer needs, and unites the team around a product roadmap.

The product owner is in charge of prioritizing the Team Backlog to optimize the product’s value following the plan and company goals. He also creates user stories and communicates the customer’s voice in the Scrum process.

Now let’s be more specific.

Product Manager

In one sentence: the product manager determines what to build next. The role requires high-level responsibility, from customer awareness to product delivery, to cover the entire product lifecycle.

Product managers are constantly focused on long-term strategy, market trends, product vision, and identifying new opportunities. A PM is in charge of a company’s product growth, launch, and ongoing support and enhancement.

In addition to performing product management duties, a great product manager is also a leader, communicator, customer spokesperson liaison, product visionary, and team player.

Responsibilities of a Product Manager

  • Organizing the product team around a detailed action plan.
  • Identifying user’s needs through data and analysis.
  • Choosing which features to build first
  • Creating a holistic vision for the product’s lifecycle.
  • Performing research to find out the competitor’s and buyer’s persona.
  • Delivering the product that meets the user’s demands.
  • Assisting the management, investors, and stakeholders in ensuring that the product’s vision, plan, and strategy are carried out smoothly.

Product Owner

The word “product owner” comes from Scrum, a framework for developing and promoting complex products. A product owner, according to the official Scrum Guide, is “responsible for maximizing the value of a product resulting from the work of the Development Team.”

The product owner is a member of the Scrum team with a particular responsibility to fulfill. Scrum uses a method to build and support complex products, so it must use a task system to keep track of progress using product management tools. By prioritizing these tasks for the staff or engineers, the product owner contributes to the team. To keep things going, the product owner ensures that a good list is maintained so that engineers can concentrate on the activities that are most important to the final product.

Therefore, while the PM oversees the entire product lifecycle, the product owner has a narrower focus and works more closely with the development team.

Responsibilities of a Product Owner

  • Converts customer problems and pain points into actionable user stories, priorities them, and arranges them in the product backlog.
  • Transform the project manager’s vision into actionable steps and then convert these tasks into everyday responsibilities for employees.
  • Builds and priorities production processes so that the development team knows what to focus on next.
  • Transfers the voice of the customer to the development team.
  • Provides the product manager with input on the validated roadmap.

Can a Product Manager also work as a Product Owner?

This question is often asked because of the similarities between both roles. And the answer is: Yes, a product owner can become a product manager, and here’s why.

In smaller and newer companies, many times, the product owner takes up the role of a product manager. In such cases, there might not be a separate title for a product manager. Therefore, the product owner quickly establishes a product development team and takes care of the product management operations. But when the company grows, eventually there’s a need for a product manager also.

Therefore, a product owner may take on the role of a product manager due to a lack of resources and also consider the strategic side of product development. This especially happens with software startups that are not yet ready because of the same reason to hire both professionals.

To put it another way, though we explicitly mentioned the differences in the roles and responsibilities of both professions, the fact is that they overlap, and a single individual may theoretically fulfill both roles at the same time.

Do companies need both?

Now we know that a product owner may work for both roles because of the lack of resources, but what if a company can afford to hire both a product manager and a product owner?

Naturally, many companies struggle over this. Whether to hire a product manager, product owner or both?

To make this decision, the company must focus on outcomes, not titles. Titles are not as relevant as knowing the results that you would like to accomplish, and the flaws in the current structure and process, says Rosemary King, Director of Training Products at Mind the Product.

She recommends asking a series of questions before making a decision:

  • Who is currently doing what right now?
  • What are the main challenges of the key players?
  • What is your process for making decisions?
  • What does success look like?

Therefore, it’s not about product manager vs product owner but it’s about when you need a product manager or product owner. It’s about understanding how your company operates and based on that, you can make this decision.

The Product Manager’s position is more strategic and encompasses the entire lifecycle of the product. The role requires high-level responsibility, from customer awareness to product delivery. Whereas the product owner is more focused on particular areas of the product and works closely with the development team.

A company needs a product manager when it’s moving from the early stage to the growing stage, where multiple teams work for developing the product. Whereas product owners help a new company grow and are mostly default to agile project management.

Both product managers and product owners are necessary to run an organization. And choosing the right person for your business should be based on your company’s needs, as well as your customers’ needs and preferences.

Zeda.io aims to make Product Management and Development Simpler & Smarter. We write about Product Management, Product Design, Product Development, and startups.

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