Product Manager vs Product owner

Product Manager vs Product Owner – What Is the Difference?

When it comes to job titles and roles, organizations tend to be quite creative in assigning great-looking labels to certain roles (and printing them on business cards). Over the past one to three decades, the title “product manager” has grown in popularity. Meanwhile, the responsibility of the role changed from being responsible for a product within a department to a more cross-functional role with overall accountability for a product from its development to its market success. As companies have been trying to become agile over the past ten years or so, the role “product owner” evolved with an increasing number of professionals having it as their job title.

While both roles and titles sound quite similar and even tend to be used interchangeably, there are a number of differences. In this article, we will share the fundamentals of both roles and shed a light on their actual differences.

What Is a Product Owner?

Product Owner is a defined role in an agile project. It is commonly associated with the Scrum framework, a popular form of agile project approaches. The following description of the role actually refers to the Scrum role definition (The Scrum Guide, p. 6)  which is basically similar to such roles in other agile project frameworks with slight differences in the details.

A product owner is the business representative in an agile project. Her/his objective is maximizing the business value of the output of the project. The product owner is in charge of the product backlog, the single source of product requirements, and their prioritization which determines the order of their development. She/he is also assessing the increments against the requirements and criteria of a product.

This role also implies a lot of communication work. While a product owner is the only decision-maker in respect of the business and product requirements, she/he needs to liaise with the stakeholders as well as with the development team. Backlog items need to be transparent to all parties, and clarifications and explanations are to be given to the development team whenever necessary.

A project is per definitionem taking place within a limited time frame. A product owner is therefore a temporary role in a project that might be taken on by professionals from inside or outside an organization. In their organizational role, they might have various job titles such as (senior) manager, expert, business analyst or developer, for instance.     

What Is a Product Manager?

While agile project frameworks and methodologies come up with a comparatively clear description of the product owner role, this is not the case for product management. There is a number of definitions out there that aim to cover the responsibilities, tasks and typical areas a product manager is working on.

In practice, the characteristics of this role may range from a marketing specialist with a focus on one single product to a strategic “mini-CEO” managing a product line throughout the value creation process, from its invention to its selling.

The book “Product Management For Dummies” offers a handy definition of the responsibilities of this role within an organization. According to this book (p. 15-20), the focus areas are:

  • Delivering a product addressing a market need,
  • materializing a valid business opportunity in line with the company’s strategy, and
  • managing a product throughout the product lifecycle.

It also points out that the product manager has a strategic and coordinating rather than an operational role in the implementation and realization of these points. This concerns design, development, quality assurance, supply chain and operational matters, manufacturing, marketing, project/program management, sales and customer services.

Productplan defines 3 responsibilities: Managing a product’s lifecycle from its design to its end of life, creating the operating plan, and managing the strategy and marketing plans incl. their implementation.

While many definitions relate to the functional responsibilities of a product manager, the book “Product Management in Practice: A Real-World Guide to the Key Connective Role of the 21st Century” looks at it from a different angle. The author, Matt LeMay, defines the role based on the skills and methodological capabilities that are required to master the challenges of that job (pages 2-5), namely:

  • A lot of responsibility yet little authority,
  • whatever needs to be done for the success of a product is part of the job,
  • which includes identifying the tasks and actions that need to be done rather than following prescriptive job descriptions or waiting for instructions,
  • being in the middle of different functions and stakeholders,
  • but not being the “boss”, and
  • not doing the operational work.

The actual responsibilities and the extent to which a product manager is involved in operational work differs a lot between different types of organizations. A product manager in a start-up may be required to do a lot of things herself/himself – from market intelligence through development to sales – while such a role in a large corporation may come with a focus on strategic and coordinative planning. This inevitably makes a functional definition of this job title vague while the abovementioned methodological (and social) skills remain broadly valid for either circumstance.

What Are the Differences between Product Manager and Product Owner?

“Product manager” is usually a job title and a role within an organization. Product owner, on the other hand, is a defined role in an agile project which takes place within a given timeframe. The success of product management is often measured against market-related performance indicators (such as sales targets, revenues, P&L contribution, for instance). A product owner’s success depends primarily on the business value and stakeholder satisfaction of an output generated in a project which needs to be a usable increment but not necessarily a marketable product (e.g. parts of a product or enhancements of internal elements). In some organizations, the role of a product owner in an agile project, such as scrum, is taken on by a product manager. In other organizations, business analysts, managers of an organization or other professionals can work as a product owner in projects. This may or may not be on behalf of a product manager as a strategic stakeholder in a product development project.

Characteristics, Differences and Similarities of Both Roles

The following table summarizes the interceptions and differences between both roles.

  Product Manager Product Owner
Type of Role A job title that represents a role in an organization A role in an agile project (with Scrum as the most common agile framework), while the job title itself does not really matter
Objective and Mission Coordinating and supporting the development, building, testing, marketing and selling of a single product or product line across divisions, departments, functions and teams Taking part in an agile project team and supporting the realization of stakeholders’ requirements into a working product while maximizing its value for the organization
Responsibility Creating, developing, maintaining and selling a marketable product (which can also be a service offering) that usually generates revenue for the company or organization A usable increment or product – this might be a marketable product or service but can also refer to parts of them or to results that are used by the organization rather than marketed. While value and stakeholder satisfaction are highly relevant, a product owner is usually only responsible for the creation and development of a product but usually not for its marketing or selling.
Success Measures Market success and market-related indicators of a product (e.g. sales, learnings for future developments) are probably the most common measures of success Creation and acceptance of a usable product (or increment) consisting of the features and characteristics that are most valuable for the organization (thereby ensuring stakeholder satisfaction and quality)
Timeliness A product manager is responsible for a product, product line or service on an ongoing basis, i.e. in a long-term perspective or even without a time limitation A product owner is responsible to maximize the value of the product or increment created in an agile project which in itself has a time limitation. Upon completion of a project, the product owner moves on to working on other products or tasks
Operational Tasks Strategic and operational planning of products, market intelligence, development, marketing, supporting or doing sales, and other roles.   While product managers across different types of organizations usually share the strategic component of the job, her/his operational involvement may differ, depending on the kind and size of a company Managing and prioritizing a project’s backlog to maximize value, explaining product requirements and making the backlog and its items transparent, ensuring understanding and supporting the development team, making decisions with respect to product characteristics (may represent the stakeholders), several tasks in meetings typical for agile projects (e.g. Scrum review)

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) sets out the different scope of both roles in more detail (strategic and client-focused vs. operational and more development-focused). Read more in our article about product owner role definitions.

Takeaway Points

Both titles, product manager and product owner, have been subject to increasing popularity in recent years. This article explained the characteristics, similarities and differences of both roles. Most of them arise from the fact that “product manager” is a role within an organization while “product owner” is a role within an agile project like Scrum.

While this implies a clear distinction of both roles in theory, lines tend to be blurred in practice: Product managers take on project roles as a product owner on a regular basis, while some companies, when transforming to agile organizations, use “product owner” as a job title rather than a project role.

Therefore, a product manager could temporarily narrow and deepen her/his scope when she/he switches to the product owner role. On the other side, a transition from a product owner to a product manager will likely require an enhancement of strategic and marketing skills, given that product ownership tends to focus on the operational development of a product within a project.

We hope you have found this article insightful. Feel free to share your thoughts and insights in a comment.