During my seven years at Atlassian, and specifically working on Jira Software, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with thousands of software teams. Software teams of every shape and size, building everything from SpaceX rockets to cars to pizza delivery drones. While no two teams were the same, the majority of them shared a desire to become more nimble in how they were planning and developing software.
During these conversations, one of the most common questions that came up was: “What’s the difference between a product owner and a product manager?” Especially for teams that are incorporating agile methodologies into their process for the first time, it’s an excellent question. If you already have a product manager who ostensibly “owns” your product’s direction and strategy, why would you also need or want to introduce another person into the mix with very similar roles and responsibilities? Will these two roles step on one each other’s toes and slow one another down? Is the work they’ll be responsible for duplicative?
The fact of the matter is that while the roles of product management and product owners may sound similar on the surface, they’re more unique than they first appear. While both jobs are invested in building a superior product that drives increased value for users and the business, the means through which they achieve this end are quite different. And, if set up correctly, in fact quite complimentary.
While on a recent customer call the topic of how to incorporate a product owner into a team with a product manager came up once more and it reminded me of what an important topic it is. So in this piece I’ll do my best to clearly break down the key differences between product owners and product managers.
A product owner is primarily focused on what’s being built today, while a product manager is responsible for figuring out what will be built next.
That’s the most brief way I can put it. Of course there’s a lot of detail and nuances to it, which we’ll spend the rest of this piece getting into.
It can also help to understand the high-level definition of each role::
A product manager uncovers the customer needs and business objectives that a product or feature will satisfy, drives product strategy and vision, and works across the organization to make that strategy and vision a reality.
In terms of the roles and responsibilities of a product owner, we can go directly to the source and consult the official Scrum Guide:
A product owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the development team. This person is specifically accountable for effective and ongoing backlog management.
Product managers are largely focused on the future, and what needs to be built next
In relation to the roles and responsibilities of a product owner, a product manager’s duties are far more strategic and multidisciplinary. As the “CEO of the product” it’s a PM’s responsibility to connect the dots between, and balance the needs of, the business, the tech stack, and the user (and user experience).
While the day-to-day of a product manager depends on any number of factors, you can generally find product managers focused on one of six tasks:
The role of product manager is one that touches every part of the product development lifecycle. They’re responsible for partnering with and influencing internal and external stakeholders, setting, championing, and executing on a long-term product, and ultimately ensuring success for customers and the business alike.
Given the above, it’s no surprise that product managers are often the busiest and most extended role within an R&D organization.
Product owners are squarely focused on the present, defining and operationalizing what’s being built today
For teams that have adopted Scrum, the official Scrum Guide defines the main job of the product owner as being the sole owner of the product backlog and fully accountable for effective backlog management. But what does that actually look like day-to-day? Let’s break it down.
Here are six tasks you’ll find product owners focused on:
If we think about the product manager as being the CEO of the product, then it’s fair to say that a product owner largely serves the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of each development team working on said product. And through this lens, it becomes quite clear how complementary these two roles really are. While the product manager is a more strategic role and spends their time trying to connect the dots at a macro level, the product owner is more operationally focused and busy connecting the dots between the individual pieces of work and the specific development teams tasked with carrying this work out.
Note: From time to time I’ve seen and heard product owners compared to project managers. While there are some similarities between these two roles, simply put a product owner is not a project manager (or vice versa). I’ll unpack the differences between these two roles in a different piece.
The short answer is no.
Something important to recognize about the product owner role is that it’s typically found in teams that are practicing Scrum, an agile framework that’s become popular among high performing development teams. And it's for this reason you often see product owners referred to as "agile product owners". While there are a number of advantages to Scrum, one of the reasons it’s become so popular is because it gives teams increased autonomy and self-sufficiency. It specifically calls for learning through experience, self-organization, and a focus on continuous improvement.
That said, there are multiple styles of product development and some teams that prefer a different style. In such cases, it’s likely you won’t find the specific role of a product owner.
Note: It’s important to separate the product owner role from the specific responsibilities of the product owner. While a team may or may not have a dedicated product owner role, as a practical matter every development team will need someone handling things like backlog management.
The short answer is yes.
In fact, it’s not only possible for a product manager to wear the product owner hat, in my organizations and teams (especially smaller ones) adhering to a Scrum process, it’s fairly common. As mentioned above, as a very practical matter any high-performing development team needs someone to be continually grooming the backlog, acting as the defecto voice of the customer in discussions, ensuring the team’s work is aligned with the product roadmap, and so on. If a team chose, due to the headcount reasons or otherwise, not to put someone in a full-time product owner role, the individual closest to each of these activities is the product manager, and they often step in.
The above said, over the years I’ve also seen a number of different variations of these roles, especially in startups and scaleups. Here are a few examples:
Per the Scaled Agile Framework, product owners report to product managers. Moreover, SAFe methodology recommends there be a 4:1 ratio between product owners and product managers, and that each product owner should be responsible for up to two product backlogs.
The product manager.
As the product roadmap is a direct reflection of the product strategy, the roadmap is solely set and managed by product management. While it’s common for product owners to be intimately familiar with the roadmap, as well as provide feedback on the product roadmap to the product manager, if the single owner of a product roadmap is the product manager.
This has been my best effort to explain the key differences and nuances between product owners and product managers. And again, this is based on my seven years of experience working closely with teams and individuals in each role. I think this is a good general perspective that probably closely applies to most companies out there.
But can I promise your next company will see things the same way? Of course not! Because I’ve also encountered plenty of exceptions to the rule. In fact, in some companies the product owner is seen as the de-facto strategy lead. I guess it’s just so tempting to assume that the word “owner” means that person is the most senior stakeholder and executive sponsor of the product. Are these companies wrong?” Of course not. They’re just a little different. In product management—and life—you’re gonna encounter this a lot.
I hope this guide has provided some clarity on the product owner vs. product manager debate. Now go forth and own, or manage, your product the very best that you can.