What is the difference between Product Owner and Product Manager?

Product Owner is an interesting name for the role a product person plays in an agile setting (scrum). Is it really different from Product Manager? And, regardless of how it sounds, Product Owners don’t own the product (or business). Guess what, you’re not alone if you’re confused.

There used to be a term ‘Business Analyst’ for a relatively junior product person, and who’s apprenticing, and aspiring to become a product manager. Along the way, at some point that term went out of favor. Enter ‘Product Owner.’ Agile industrial complex in full swing?

Apparently, a Product Owner (PO) is a separate entity from Product Manager (PM). PO works closely with the developers and the agile team. Among other things, they are responsible for grooming user stories, preparing acceptance criteria, and validating the stories at completion.

Active participation in the product discovery process

Apart from a confusing name, the functions of that PO role are okay. There’s a need to “write” the requirements in a tool of choice (say, Jira). But, my pet peeve is, how are they arriving at those requirements? The answer I hear is that’s the role of the product manager.

I’ve written about product discovery and the dire need to improve the product game in that area. You, as a PM, need to understand the real needs of the customer — empathy interviews. Also, a PM leads discussions on prioritizing features based on impact. Which means, by delivering X (feature) helps Y (a customer segment, expanding TAM, etc.). Even more important is an articulation of why a customer is hiring your product. See JTBD and Job Stories.

Without enough insights or participating actively in the discovery process, a PO will be constantly chasing their PM for answers. Moreover, not having deep enough understanding — their confidence in doing their job will suffer.

As you can see, there’s a clever distinction here: someone who helps with agile ceremonies is a Product Owner, and someone who is doing higher order functions as a Product Manager. False distinction.

Product Owner is a role in an agile team setting

A Product Owner is a Product Manager, period. When they’re in a team setting — insert your favorite process: scrum, kanban — they play a role called Product Owner. This is not necessarily two people. Yes, they may need assistance to help groom the stories, and writing them in the tools. But that need should not arbitrarily split one role to PM and PO.

In essence, I’m arguing PO and PM are the same functions — PO as a subset of PM. A Product Manager plays the role of PO in an agile setting, and they have a continuum of knowledge from discovery to prioritization to execution. You may need to be creative in carving out which areas of a product a PM is responsible for, so that one PM is not overwhelmed.

In addition, when you’re hiring, look for a Product Manager and not a Product Owner.

Related Posts

My New Stories

11product strategy pitfalls
11Customer needs
11Confirmation bias in Product Discovery