Product Manager vs. Product Owner: What’s the Difference and Does It Matter?

5 min read

There is considerable overlap between the role of product manager and product owner. Understanding how these two roles function within your organization is key to your team’s success.

Tess G.
Tess G.
Published April 30, 2021

Who owns product at your company? When so much of your success relies on your ability to deliver continual value to customers through the product experience, it's important to have someone guide the team. The product manager vs. product owner conundrum makes determining ownership even more complex because the line between a product manager and a product owner is nebulous at best.

Both roles perform similar functions, and both add considerable value and structure to your organization. The differences between the two are a direct result of development methodology.

Understanding the differences is all about learning how Agile best practices impact your team processes and workflows—then translating those outcomes for your team.

What Is a Product Manager?

Product managers are the stewards of your product development strategy. They refine your company's product vision and help teams understand the underlying customer and business needs that inform their day-to-day work. They communicate high-level goals and desired outcomes, and they keep a deep understanding of your market and customer expectations.

That means product managers are focused on solutions—they collect and analyze inputs from throughout your organization and translate those inputs into strategic outcomes and goals that add value for both your business and your customers.

What Do Product Managers Do?

Product managers act as a filter for high-level information—bringing together market trends, customer expectations, and competitor analysis and translating that information into new features and updates to your product. They take their deep understanding of your business and your team and define how each person's individual tasks add value to the product experience.

Product managers spend much of their time on research, thinking critically about all the various inputs that go into product development and document their findings for the team. That documentation makes sharing their insight into your overall strategic direction easy and gives the team a single source of truth to reference with any questions.

The most effective product managers are good communicators, sharing goals and desired outcomes with stakeholders throughout your company. This communication helps them garner feedback from key players in the organization and refine their ideas to make the most impact on overarching goals. When each team has a slightly different goal in mind, product managers weigh their options and decide on the path that makes the most impact throughout the product development life cycle.

Product Development Life Cycle

Their ability to prioritize features and product work based on these various inputs puts product managers at the intersection of many different teams. They build and refine your product roadmap to ensure that each release adds continual value to the customer experience while also impacting your company's revenue and goals.

Think about a product manager as the person who defines how your product generates revenue for your business. They understand your business model and find opportunities to build new products that make an impact on your goals.

What Is a Product Owner?

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Product owners are a somewhat more tactical counterpart to product managers. They are a member of Agile product development teams, or SCRUMs as they're called. While they work to refine overall strategy and vision in the same way as your product manager, product owners also manage daily Agile tasks, workflows, and processes.

Product owners span the divide between solution- and process-driven leaders. They understand customer pain points, prioritize work to address those pain points, and ensure that the work required to address them is completed on time. And all this happens while simultaneously managing the Agile development process for your team.

What Do Product Owners Do?

Product owners are the de facto product managers for Agile teams. They provide strategic oversight through the product development process while also ensuring that work moves seamlessly through every sprint. They understand the product life cycle for your team and work to make it as efficient as possible at each step of the journey.

Product owners translate customer needs and wants into product requirements. They communicate pain points as user stories in your team backlog and break up larger project initiatives into individual tasks in your team's backlog. With a mix of high-level customer understanding and day-to-day visibility into team tasks, product owners have a concrete sense of how your team delivers value to your customers—and how that value translates to success for your business.

Your product owner manages your backlog of tasks to ensure that everything within the scope of a project is accounted for and ready for execution. When your team starts planning for their next sprint, product owners will show individual contributors where they need to focus next.

Like a product manager, your product owner ensures that your roadmap progresses based on overarching timelines and schedules. They make adjustments based on sprint commitments and potential delays and communicate any issues that pop up along the way. As a result, they're often able to identify potential bottlenecks before they cause problems for your team or release.

Product owners also give and receive feedback on processes, strategies, workflows, and roadmaps. They work with stakeholders within your organization to communicate this feedback and make changes that have a positive impact on your team's ability to execute effectively on their work.

Is Product Ownership Just Product Management for Agile Teams?

There are more similarities between product owners and product managers than differences. This lack of clear distinction between roles leads to a lot of debate in the product community about whether or not both need to exist in a single organization. And these discussions will continue for as long as teams strive to define how they work together.

But at a high level, the differences between the two come down to a single element—methodology. The product owner role exists to support Agile development practices. Their core duties are tied to how teams execute on a sprint-by-sprint basis. If you're working as an Agile team, having a product manager and product owner might create unnecessary redundancy and confusion for your team.

The overlapping responsibilities of each role could potentially decrease your ability to develop and release products that make a real impact on your customers. That's why defining clear role structures is so important, especially if some teams within your organization use the Agile method and others do not.

If you're thinking about transitioning from product management to product ownership, consider how you'll manage this overlap throughout the process. You'll need to spend time redefining how your team works within the Agile methodology. Because in the end, titles aren't important—it's all about understanding how to add the most value to your team.

Make the Product Manager vs. Project Owner Debate Work for You

Product owners define strategy and process for your Agile team. Product managers do the same, just outside of the Agile methodology. If you're experimenting with Agile workflows, using the concepts of product ownership to create a structure for yourself and your team is a great way to bridge the gap with product management. You just need to understand the shifts in daily responsibilities and use the two frameworks to deliver continual value as a team.

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