A lot of people tend to use the terms product manager and product owner interchangeably. This could be due to the abundance of startups and small companies, where the product owner role often includes the product manager role. However, if we consider the product owner vs. product manager narrative, there are some key differences.
In medium-sized businesses, enterprises, SaaS, and other businesses, such as eCommerce businesses where there are a lot of products and product lines, the role of the product owner is often a separate position.
However, if we were to get down to the absolute basics, the difference comes from methodologies. Project managers tend to be strategic, while product owners tend to be tactical.
In a way, product owners are the extensions of product managers as they execute the strategies laid out by product managers.
In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the product owner vs. product manager scenario and detail the differences of each role in product management.
Let’s get right to it.
Product Owner Role Basics
Technically speaking, the product owner role can be traced back to the Scrum agile methodology for product management. As a result, most product owner roles will be found in organizations that use an agile development approach. The product owner is part of the agile team and, in a way, controls the team.
The agile team is otherwise known as the Scrum team. Therefore, the product owner is technically a role that you play on any Scrum team.
Another definition of product owners is that they’re more tactical and their job description involves action rather than planning. That’s because they work closely with delivery team members to make sure that the product is built, launched, and marketed systematically.
Scrum product owners tend to transform a product manager’s vision into reality. When a product strategy is in place, product owners work with certain stakeholders, and even outside parties such as audit, finance, and security operations, to ensure smooth product development.
Since product owners tend to be more proactive – they have to attend team coordination meetings, discuss delivery methods, and handle the teams involved. They organize product demos and analyze those demos to understand the voice of the customer. Being part of the ongoing tests helps them develop a proper product roadmap so that a certain product lifecycle can be achieved.
These actions ensure that the development team uses market research and customer needs as the baseline for the development process. As a result, the final product is a customer-centric product that provides maximum business value.
Product Manager Role Basics
A product manager is an authority on the product management of a company’s products. Product management involves the development, launch, and ongoing support for all products. It also includes product marketing, product vision, project management, and the handling of a product backlog.
Under the umbrella of product marketing, the product team consists of product marketing managers, project managers, other product people, and product managers. Product managers, in this case, focus on product strategy, long-term vision, the identification of new opportunities, and new market trends.
Any product management role usually follows the Waterfall methodology – a sequenced method of events that involves an idea, analysis, design, development, test, and the final product.
Since the product role can’t be played by a single person in its entirety, each part of the Waterfall methodology is divided among different product experts. Product managers focus on the idea, analysis, and design by identifying markets and developing product strategies.
Product managers also observe dynamic trends in the marketplace. As a result, they can identify potential outcomes of following certain themes or strategies for their product(s). They also analyze the value of the customer in any given market, ensure the product meets customer needs, and support the sales process.
In doing these things, product managers are often involved with user stories and other customer-facing tactics. Therefore, a product manager also needs to have excellent communication skills. In some ways, they also act as business analysts.
Based on these things, product managers are involved in product marketing and support product sales, as well. They develop product strategy, so they also handle budgeting and the long-term product vision. Most importantly, they’re a key component to customer care and they support the solution-delivery team.
Product Owner vs Product Manager – A Responsibility Comparison
The difference between a product owner and product manager is usually fluid – it might vary from company to company based on their size, industry, goals, and priorities.
For example, a new company such as a SaaS startup follows the agile framework and the Scrum framework. They’ll usually try to hire a product owner early on in the product development cycle so that they can build the product management team. According to Scrum masters, smaller organizations hire product owners so they can hire a product manager.
However, the Scrum guide isn’t applicable in all cases. In bigger and established companies where there are already a lot of products in place, product owners play a secondary role to product managers.
On the other hand, even though both the product owner and product manager play very different roles and have unique functions, smaller companies may mix the duties and responsibilities of product owners and product managers alike.
For that reason, a more detailed comparison and contrast of the two is required.
Responsibilities of a Product Owner
The product owner’s overall focus is very detail-oriented. They tend to focus on the short-term and mid-term product development stages. Meanwhile, they’re also responsible for the execution of the entire product strategy.
However, their primary responsibilities are pretty straightforward. They are tasked with optimizing the entire product development process. That means they actively analyze ways to develop, implement, and act on a product strategy faster, quicker, and more efficiently.
Furthermore, they turn the product vision into an actionable backlog, meaning they’re responsible for converting product ideas into market actions. This is where the product strategy execution part usually comes in.
Lastly, product owners are also responsible for communicating the customers’ needs to the development team. This ensures that the development team adjusts and refines the product before launch. As a result, the final product that’s released in the market is the best possible version – one based on customer needs.
The product owner will be able to show you the entire action backlog along with information on what each action accomplished. They will also be able to show you user stories that helped them refine the development process by communicating customer needs.
The success of product owners is usually measured based on completed stories. Therefore, refining the development process based on customer research plays a vital role in a product owner’s success. Furthermore, the performance of the development team also helps assess how well a product owner did their job.
Responsibilities of a Product Manager
The product manager, on the other hand, plays a more holistic role when it comes to product management. Their overall focus stems from a strategic point of view. Their focus is mostly long-term, which is why they’re responsible for creating the grand vision of a product.
Based on the vision they create, product managers develop an entire product strategy that spans across the entire product roadmap. It’s applicable and relevant throughout the product lifecycle.
The primary responsibilities of a product manager start with the product vision. They analyze the product and the market, and based on their findings and the product’s value proposition, they develop a product vision.
After that, their job is customer discovery – where their market analysis comes into play. Based on the newly develop product vision, product managers now have to discover potential markets, customers, and buyer personas.
Afterward, they focus on product strategy. This includes feature prioritization and cross-team alignment. That means that product managers bring different departmental teams together to develop an executable strategy. Using prioritization, the strategy is divided into certain steps.
Typically, the average product manager would own the product roadmap that will showcase the entire product lifecycle and strategy. They would also be considered the pioneers of the product and its success.
However, their success is measured using hard numbers. The success metrics include NPS (Net Promoter Score) of the product, product conversions, revenue generated for the business, and the overall churn experienced by the business.
Product Owner vs Product Manager – Key Differences in Operations
While we’ve established the differences between a product owner and a product manager and their responsibilities, we still haven’t discussed how their work is different in day-to-day operations.
The following provides a range of the differentiating functions of both roles.
Primary Focus with Regards to the Product
Product owners dedicate their focus to the product itself.
Responsible for user stories and organizing customer feedback, they analyze the product from a customer’s perspective. If they find any problems with the product, they log in potential solutions and prioritize them based on their importance.
Product owners also help the development team meet project goals to maximize product value. To do this, product owners take advantage of things like sprint preparation meetings and team-building activities. These Scrum rituals ensure good team collaboration while making the development process more efficient.
On the other hand, product managers focus their efforts on the people building the product. They ensure development teams have the resources required to fulfill the product owners (short-term) vision. Product managers set up projects, align teams, and follow up on project deadlines.
They work closely with engineering and design teams while also managing communications with the marketing, sales, and customer service departments. This interdepartmental system helps product managers perform behavioral analyses on their customers and work out product usage charts. In the end, product managers manage all the people related to the product to ensure everyone plays their part in releasing a fully beneficial product.
Connection to the Product
Product owners can be considered the lifeline of the product because they translate the customer’s needs into the product’s vision. Their customer-centricity ensures that the product is ready for the marketplace and is in demand. Product owners develop an on-going process of to-and-fro feedback with the development team to ensure a positive reception of the product.
Product managers are not directly related to the product itself but to its success. They ensure that the product developed is produced and delivered to the right market with the right product strategy. They make sure all the teams and departments are doing their part, meeting expectations, and solving any problems that might come up.
Product Concept and Strategy
Product owners are directly involved with the product and its development. Therefore, they essentially visualize the product’s concept. Using existing data, product owners figure out the potential features of a product or potential tweaks that can be made based on customer data. Since no product can have everything, product owners have to make an informed decision and choose the most useful and wanted features in a product.
They then communicate their final plan with other stakeholders in the company – including product managers. This results in an open communication channel where all relevant inter-company stakeholders can relay their opinions and any other useful information.
On the other hand, the product manager executes the development strategy while developing a product strategy. They handle any roadblocks in the development process, which often leads to dealing with trade-off decisions. These decisions may go against the product owner’s initial product vision. In such a case, product owners and product managers will work together to resolve any outstanding issues.
Product Development Process
A product owner’s vision is based on meticulous research, analysis, and reworks. Therefore, they’re responsible for the product quality, and if they don’t approve the quality, the development process restarts.
The product owner consistently and periodically checks in on the development process to ensure everything is on track. If there is a design or engineering problem, they work out solutions along with the product manager. In a way, the second aspect of their job is quality control.
Product managers, on the other hand, are logistical handlers who ensure deadlines are met. The product roadmap and the product vision is their blueprint, and based on that, they follow a very specific development and product strategy.
Product managers also task different teams with developing different features. Furthermore, they define the actions that will need to be completed to bring the product to the market. They communicate the timeline and expectations to the relevant parties, run A/B tests, and use customer reviews to revise current development processes.
Product Owner vs. Product Manager – Do You Need Both of Them?
We’ve established that both the product owner and the product manager have varying roles and responsibilities. Each person plays a key role in the development and deployment of a product.
For example, in the case of software development, a product owner would be responsible for making sure the software helps the customer and provides value. Meanwhile, the product manager will ensure that the software is developed according to the UI and UX requirements.
In a grander view of product management, product managers are also products. And product owners don’t only make the company’s products, but also their product managers, to some extent.
In the end, it’s not a matter of product owner vs product manager – it’s more so about when you need a product owner and when you need a product manager during the lifecycle of a product.
If you are new to product management and are looking to break into your first product role, we recommend taking our One Week PM course, where you will learn fundamentals of product management, launch your own product, and get on the fast track towards landing your first product job.