The Product Manager vs. Product Owner

product manager and product owner

Agile product companies have a hard time managing products. The product manager is charged with communicating the voice of the customer — achieving both customer and market success. Meanwhile, agile development teams demand that the product owner must articulate detailed user stories, participate in daily scrum rituals, and answer questions as the customer representative. 

Prior to the moment that paying customers first use the product, a single product manager/product owner model is challenging for any one person to handle. The product lead must simultaneously focus externally and internally. It is hard but advisable.

The product lead is busy externally — formulating a product concept based on interviews and other market research. For internal engineering teams, they must capture the customer requirements as user stories and explain why they are important. And at the same time, the product lead also trains other teams on the core product value proposition and the problems the product solves.

As prototypes are built, it’s time to quickly reclaim external focus — continuing to engage real customers during each subsequent iteration to improve the product and drive adoption.

Being close to customers is fundamental to the success of an early-stage company, as the concept is developed and a winning product is built. And at the same time, the product manager must be the go-to person for engineering.

Yet while everyone rejoices as sales engages prospects and paying customers come on board, juggling the external and internal workload can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned product leaders.

If the product manager continues to spend the majority of their time externally, the development team suffers. Stories aren’t explained in enough detail. Developers wait for answers. Velocity suffers.

Alternately, if the product manager spends too much time being internally focused, the product loses alignment with customers and the market. Client visits are abandoned. Sales enablement materials are few and far between. The product manager does not participate in implementations to find the weak spots.

There comes a point when growing businesses benefit from having two product roles — externally focused product managers and internally focused product owners. And the people are happier too.

When companies achieve a meaningful level of customer success and the engineering team is larger than about 20, many companies split the product role in two. They decide to invest in a market-focused product manager who is externally focused and works on the long-term vision. And they recruit an internally focused product owner who supports the engineering team and manages the software development details.

This split relieves the pain of the overloaded individual. However, it could also introduce overlap and communication challenges that must be addressed in order for the product manager, product owner, and engineering team to be successful.

The good news is that there are a number of ways to address the potential for overlap and ensure the teams work well together.

Making the product manager/product owner relationship great
The following lessons and insights on how to get this relationship right come from my own experience and from pointers I’ve picked up over the years. My team recently decided to address the product management “external versus internal” challenge by hiring product owners to focus internally and allow the product managers to be more externally aligned.

We knew that to be successful, we needed to clearly delineate the respective roles and define how we were going to work together.

The following table is intended to cover the majority of the typical responsibilities of the externally facing product manager and the development-facing product owner.

It is not intended to cover all of the duties of either role, but it should provide a useful reference for how these two teammates work together at our company. And this model can be tailored to other companies.

Role Responsibility
Product manager Tracks the overall market and competitive dynamics.
Product manager Manages the long-term roadmap, involving sales, marketing, implementations, clients, prospects, partners, and other groups. The ideas are expressed as epics.
Product manager Attends iteration demos and some standups.
Product manager Supports other non-technical teams (such as sales, marketing, and channel).
Product owner Leads requirements gathering effort on the epics as needed — consulting with product management, implementations, clients, and other stakeholders.
Product owner Documents story details based on the epics after reviewing with development.
Product owner Attends scrum meetings including standups, retrospectives, and demos.
Product owner Leads backlog grooming to decompose and estimate stories.
Product owner Creates mockups and works with UX on design.
Product owner Answer questions from developers and clarifies requirements.
Product owner Documents the new feature for implementations and release notes.
Both Write acceptance criteria.
Both Demonstrate the latest iterations to customers (pre-release) and gathers feedback.

Our experience has also been that product managers and product owners need to meet at least twice a week to make sure they are on the same page. This allows them to fill in the gaps for each other when needed.

Has this relationship worked in your company?

Do you have experience in an organization with a product manager and product owner who worked especially well together? Or was it a total disaster? Share in the comments below.

This is a guest post by John Peltier. Do you hope to become a great product manager or owner? Want to create brilliant strategy and visual product roadmaps? Start a free 30-day trial of Aha!

John Peltier applies product and marketing spidey senses and user-centered design to solve business problems experienced by real users and buyers. His areas of concentration include B2B software, compliance, and healthcare. He has more than a passing interest in personal branding. John resides in Atlanta with his lovely wife, Phay. Follow John @johnpeltier

Comments

  1. John Gilmore

    Interesting post. I’m currently the product owner, but with more and more potential customers and a lot of sales training required, I’m spending more and more time away from my team. My internally focussed duties are feeling the strain, since the team doesn’t always have me present. I was away for the past two release testing cycles and that added some strain. They’ve suggested splitting this role and I was worried that that would make us much slower. It’s good to see that this has been tried before.

    Reply
  2. John Johnson

    I’ve found that the PM and PO split highly depends at which stage a company is in.

    Do you have multiple products? multiple product verticals? multiple enterprise customers?

    If not, it doesn’t make sense to split these roles as the Product Owner tends to become highly disempowered and unable to make decisions. PO’s then simply act as a liason between the team and the decision-maker.

    I’ve also seen in organizations that have Product Management (which we hope are most!), the Product Manager is the one who should wear the Product Owner hat or title, rather than going down the path of SAFe or other frameworks such as it.

    Reply
  3. Can Hüzmeli

    I don’t think this strict distinction between a product manager and product owner would work. Product owner should the single owner of the backlog. Product owner decides on the prioritization and what needs to get done. He is the one who should communicate with all the stakeholders too. The definition given in the article is against the definition of a product owner. If there is a worry about spending to much time with external stakeholders, the head of products (or chief product owner) can take this responsibility. If the product owner stops communicating with customers and stakeholders, he will become a proxy product owner who is only responsible to articulate what product manager decides what needs to get into backlog.

    Reply
  4. Bart Mastenbroek

    You seem to put a lot of emphasis on the tasks and responsibilities. I recently attended a Product Owner training that moves the onus to collaboration with the whole development team. The interpretation that the PO must write the user stories is faulty, and results in finger pointing as opposed to collaboration. The PO is responsible for the backlog, but anyone can be asked to help, and in my experience is this is necessary.

    Reply
  5. Graham Libaert

    This approach works well within our organisation, as our portfolio is relatively immature, there is much feedback we need to gain from our customers and the market and the product is aligned to more than one industry vertical. If we had one vertical and a more mature product then I would only see the need for a product owner in this scenario. The distinctions for me really highlight well where each role should be focussing their energy to bring the most value to the product, there will always be overlap in a collaborative approach however if my PM spent more time refining the backlog and my PO was spending a lot of time with the sales team it would cause a concern.

    Reply
  6. Russell

    There is a mistake.
    “Meanwhile, agile development teams demand that the product owner must articulate detailed user stories, participate in daily scrum rituals”
    Product owner is not allowed to attend daily standup meetings

    Reply
    1. Nathanael Coyne

      Product owner absolutely can attend daily stand-up meetings, the “rule” is really about not having observers/lurkers – if you attend, you participate.

    2. TC

      Product Owner most certainly needs to be part of the Scrum ceremonies. Collaborative self managing teams in a Scrum shop should always consist of a PO an SM and the Team that is made up of QA and BA/TA roles. This has been a core belief in Scrum for as long as I have been working in software development (1998). Mike Cohn and Ken Schwaber (one of the originators of the Scrum process) have taught this for as long as I can remember.

      “The product owner role requires an individual with certain skills and traits, including availability, business savvy and communication skills. First, the Scrum product owner needs to be available to his or her team. The best product owners show commitment by doing whatever is necessary to build the best product possible – and that means being actively engaged with their teams.” – From Mountain Goat Software

  7. David Novick

    I just came upon this. I am not in complete disagreement with this approach but lets be clear about what a Product Owner is and does. There is ONE product owner who is the KEY stakeholder and visionary in the product… period… end… full stop. If you follow the example in LeSS (Large Scale Scrum) there is a concept of a Product Owner with Associate Product Owners underneath and while the Product Owner may coordinate the entire product vision, each Associate Product Owner owns the vertical slice that is unique to his/her feature team(s) and negotiates his/her priorities with his/her peers to aid in that overall coordination of the product.

    From Michael James’ “Scrum Reference Card”
    “Product Owner

    * Single person responsible for maximizing the return on investment (ROI) of the development effort
    * Responsible for product vision
    * Constantly re-prioritizes the Product Backlog, adjusting any long term expectations such as release plans
    * Final arbiter of requirements questions
    * Decides whether to ship
    * Decides whether to continue development
    * Considers stakeholder interests
    * May contribute as a team member (my addition: note s/he MAY contribute as a team member but is not required to do so)”

    “Daily Scrum and Sprint Execution

    Every day at the same time and place, the Scrum Development Team members spend a total of 15 minutes reporting to each other. Each team member summarizes what he did the previous day, what he will do today, and what impediments he faces. ”

    The PO is NOT mandatory in the Daily Scrum… in fact, the PO should look at development as the “sausage being made” and should “trust” that his/her devs will complete their commitment and the PO should then focus on upcoming things, be available for clarifications, and wait until the end of the sprint for the Demo)

    Further, it is not unheard of for a team to have a business analyst which works more tactically and negotiates the stories with the Devs based upon the priority the PO sets and as his/her proxy. We have that set up now on 3 of my feature teams that comprise one overall product.

    But, I want to make clear that Product Owner in the context of this article and under the guidelines of the Scrum Reference Card and LeSS (Large Scale Agile) owns all these responsibilities and can choose to delegate some of them to his/her business analyst as need be. Going beyond Scrum, I do not find a clear delineation between these two roles as constructive. It sets up a brand new waterfall within the product organization. Our PO negotiates the delegation of responsibilities to his BA, together. But, at the end of the day, the PO owns all of it.

    Reply
    1. Adam

      David Novick, it sounds as if you are allowing ego to get in the way of the ultimate objective of the team. I have worked with Product Owners that also believed that they did not need to participate in the “sausage being made”, but were somehow consistently available to take full credit for the success of the team.

      If you are not involved with the development of a product, you have no right to claim the role of Product Owner. You are an executive or a salesperson, full stop. It sounds as if are underpaying a Business Analyst to me.

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