Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

A View on Product Ownership vs. Management

In order for companies to successfully adopt Agile development methodologies, a good place to start is to properly define and assign the Product Owner vs. the Product Manager roles.  Or, to combine these two roles into one until the product is mature enough or the market is diverse enough to warrant separate positions (but more on that later..).

In general, what I’ve read regarding Product Manager versus Product Owner responsibilities is right on the money (refer to blog post links on this topic at the end of this article).  For example, Product Owners tend to focus internally and work closely with development teams to ensure successful delivery against published timelines.  Conversely, Product Managers work externally with non-development functions, such as Sales, Marketing, and Customer Service, and with customers to ensure financial and market success for a product.  Here’s a quick summary of additional key differences:

Product Owner Product Manager
Internal focus External focus
Execution objectives Strategy/Financial objectives
Single function (Development) Cross functional
Mature product Early stage product
Reports to IT Reports to business/CEO
Delivery Success Commercial Success
User Centric Buyer Centric
Post MVP Release MVP Construction
Single Customer Market of Customers

Titles can also vary for Product Owners and Product Managers and can help clarify to the organization their primary objectives.  Product Owners often report up through the IT organization, are primarily responsible for backlog prioritization, and collaborate closely with development teams.  Therefore, they may be titled as Technical Product Managers, Inbound Product Managers, Backlog Managers or Business Analysts.

Product Managers, due to their business oriented goals for the product can assume titles such as Product Marketing Manager, Business Owner, Commercial Product Manager, or Strategy Product Manager. Product Management often reports directly to the CEO or through a business oriented function such as Sales, Marketing, or Operations.

The bigger question, however, is do these 2 roles need to exist as separate positions in your organization?  If your product or service is targeting a single customer, then the answer is probably no.  Your single customer could be an internal operating division, a target user for your MVP, or a client for your customized solution.  However, if your product serves a diverse market of users or is growing beyond a narrowly targeted MVP to address multiple business pains, your organization likely needs both a Product Owner and Product Manager to manage the volume of product management tasks.

To provide some perspective, I’ll share what I’ve seen work managing products at both start-up and large organizations.

There’s no question that small startups, where the pressure is intense to build a product quickly and gain traction efficiently, should combine these 2 roles into one.  Furthermore, this person should be sitting right next to the development team.  At my first start-up, the developers, consultants, and myself all shared a small office and it worked wonders.  We openly talked about how the newest customers were using our software and how the latest sales presentation went (we all sat within earshot of one another).  When a customer service call came in, the call would be forwarded to whomever was available. Then we’d share what was just discussed (if it wasn’t obvious already).  By having a single point of product contact and co-locating that person with the rest of the team, we always knew we were working on the most important things and could be immediately responsive to any questions that came up.

Similarly, at 2 subsequent startups where we used 3rd party development shops, it was advantageous for me to be the single point of contact. Developing without clear goals or not developing while awaiting responses to questions from remotely (often 6-8 time zones away) located teams could add unnecessary hours to our tab.

At large organizations serving a diverse marketplace with mature products, these 2 roles should be separated. The bandwidth required to manage a backlog and keep a development team on track requires that a Product Owner be a dedicated role.  The Product Owner should work closely with the Product Manager to free up his/her time to focus on business objective oriented product activities. In a sense, the Product Owner becomes an extension of the Product Manger, like a point guard is an on-court extension of the basketball coach ensuring that the team is working together effectively.

At the large enterprise software company where I served as Product Manager, we didn’t have a separate Product Owner role. The responsibilities were shared between myself and the Development Team manager, thus diluting our respective effectiveness. She was constantly having to hunt me down to ask questions while I spent inordinate amounts of time documenting requirements since I couldn’t be as available as she’d have preferred to attend development team meetings and respond to emails.

I also witnessed the dysfunction of not clearly defining these 2 roles at a large organization experiencing rapid growth.  We were a B2C company but the development teams were building internal systems to help the business operate more efficiently, i.e. a single customer. There were Product Managers but they operated more like Product Owners – managing the backlog, attending daily scrum meetings, and writing technical requirements.  While they collaborated daily with the development teams (a portion of whom were located in India), they were on the west coast while the customer (i.e. internal operations teams) were in Chicago making it difficult to understand the needs of the business.  There were business analysts, operations managers, and finance managers in the Chicago office that all contributed to the dialogue about what was needed to best support the business.  But there wasn’t a true Product Manager whose singular focus was to ensure success against and clearly communicate business goals. Confusion about what was being delivered (and when) and frequently missed delivery dates ensued.

In conclusion, there are business environments where both a Product Manager and Product Owner are needed and others where these roles should be combined.  Regardless of the structure, however, it is imperative to clearly define and communicate these roles throughout the organization.

Good Blog Postings on the Topic:

The Clever PM: Understanding the Difference Between Product Managers and Product Owners
The PM Vision: Duties of Product Manager vs Product Owner Responsibilities & Product Ownership and Management in B2B Commercial Software
Product Focus: A Product Owner is not a Product Manager
On Product Management: The Scrum Title “Product Owner” must die!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *