Product Manager vs. Product Owner

On the product manager who got product ownership, and vice versa.


Much has been said and written about the differences between the role of the Product Manager and that of the Product Owner. If you look into the topic, you will find that there are at least as many opinions as opinion givers.

Though it can be hard to distinguish the role of the Product Manager from that of the Product Owner, it can be said that product management is the job itself, and product ownership is how that job is done within a Scrum Team.

In some organizations, the Product Manager is the Product Owner, and vise versa.

This is typically the preferred approach for startups and small organizations and/or for products that consist of multiple moving parts. It’s also the least bureaucratic and the most efficient, as one person talks to the stakeholders, the customers, and the Developers on the team.

In other organizations, the Product Manager is senior to the Product Owner, and one handles the strategic work, and the other the tactical. This is especially true in large, multi-national corporations and for more complex products that consist of multiple moving parts (and are therefore built by multiple Scrum Teams).

Some agile frameworks, like the Scaled Agile Framework, explicitly prescribe the roles and responsibilities of the Product Manager and the Product Owner.

The Product Managers, SAFe 5.0 says, ensure that products meet the business goals, get taken to market, are built, shipped, and run properly, and have the necessary organizational support to succeed.

The Product Owners align their products’ backlogs to those business goals by translating program-level Features into product-level Stories and measuring the delivery of business value against KPIs.

The Product Manager’s role in a SAFe organization seems closer to those of the VP/Director of Product in a tech startup, the IT Portfolio Manager in an ITIL/ITSM-driven IT function, or the Program Manager in a PMI-guided group.

The Product Owner’s role is an adaptation of the Product Owner’s role in Scrum with a reduced degree of decision-making and a stricter-defined set of stakeholders whose decisions and feedback ultimately affect the priority of the Scrum Team’s backlog items.

This is the preferred approach for large organizations and/or complex products consisting of multiple moving parts, each of which requires a full-time Product Owner with specific expertise to work in a Scrum Team.

As with many other things in agile, there is no right or wrong here; the best approach is the one that makes the most economic sense for the people doing the work, for the organization that promotes it, and for the customers who get value from it.

An all-empowered Product Owner would do miracles in a Series A startup and wreak havoc in a traditional bank.

Just like the analytical, systematic approach of a Product Manager from the defense & aerospace industry would be completely inadequate for the creative chaos of a Madison Avenue ad startup.

When Having Product Managers and Product Owners Makes Sense

Let’s say that a big, multi-national sportswear brand wants to build a mobile app for its customers. The mobile app will consist of an activity and wellness tracker as well as an online store.

The brand has a presence all over the world, and it plans to make the mobile app its main touchpoint with customers worldwide over the next few years. The fictional example that this is, it is also what many brands are doing right now as part of their digital transformation.

Under the bonnet, the app will be powered by a Consumer Data Platform (CDP) that captures a 360-degree view of each customer so that the brand’s marketers can target them with relevant advertising and marketing campaigns.

A Product Manager may own—and ultimately be responsible for—the vision, budget, and delivery of such a mobile app. But they would most likely struggle with driving all the necessary moving parts and working as a member of all the Scrum Teams to build and assemble them.

So they may end up working with one Product Owner and Scrum Team behind the activity and wellness tracker, another for the online store, and a third for the CDP, possibly in a Scrum of Scrums, Scrum@Scale, or Scaled Agile Framework structure.

(Even if the Product Manager could handle everything single-handedly, there is still a case to be made for multiple Product Owners if the brand wants to protect its investment by reducing the impact of that person leaving, which employees are statistically prone to do.)

When One Person Wears Both Hats

Suppose a small but fast-growing startup that’s building a physical product has just received seed funding and wants to create a website to promote its product.

The founding team consists of a CEO, CTO, and a CMO. The three agree to hire an agency for the website, under the management of the CMO, so that the CEO and CTO, who are both technical, can focus on developing the product itself.

The trio has a simple, modest goal for the website: to establish a digital presence so that investors have something to look at when they search for the startup’s name on Google, and journalists have where to link to when they write about the product.

All they need is something that looks good and can be easily updated by the CMO and future members of his Marketing team over time, without having to call in developers for basic tasks like changing the text of a headline or adding an image.

So they hire an agency to build a WordPress-based website, and the CMO becomes the Product Manager within the founding team and the Product Owner within the agency’s newly-formed Scrum Team.

When they launch their product in the not-so-distant future—and their requirements for the website change—the CMO may choose to hire a Product Manager and delegate ownership over it to them.

Still, it’s unlikely they’ll need multiple product owners for this since the website is purely informational and isn’t considered as a moving part of the product itself.

When It Doesn’t Necessarily Matter

Some time ago, one of my beloved classic car websites had advertised a job: they were looking for a Product Manager/Owner to take over and expand the listings section.

That person, the job posting said, would be given a budget and a Scrum Team at an agency and would have to come up with—and deliver on—a vision, roadmap, and backlog to take those listings to the next level of user engagement, revenue growth, and profitability.

Whoever takes on the job of Product Manager/Owner for the listings section must obviously be responsible for much more than writing and prioritizing user stories in the backlog. They would act as a mini-CEO of a mini-product, with accountability over the P/L, that happens to be part of something bigger.

When a single person manages and owns a product—and nothing in the organizational design creates the need for differentiation between these two activities—does it really matter how that person’s role is called?

I leave it to you to decide. Agile teaches us to review and adjust our plans and ways of working. We often forget that this also applies to the roles and rituals that go along with it.

By Dim Nikolov

Jack of all trades and master of none. Dim is a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and Certified Scrum Master (CSM). He has a decade of experience as a stakeholder, member, leader, and coach for agile teams.