Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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The Product Manager versus the Product Owner

What is the difference between a product manager and a product owner. Are these different names for the same role, or are the roles very different and competing with each other or perhaps complementary? It’s time for some answers to this question – let’s start by getting some clarity on the definition of the role.

Definitions for a Product Manager and Product Owner

Product manager:The Product Manager (PM) represents the voice of the customer and is responsible for building the products (physical and virtual) that meet their needs. The product manager outlines the product strategy, specifies product requirements, monitors development, launches products to the market and supports these products until they retire. The product manager radically accountable for the business success of the product.” 

The product manager has an end to end responsibility for the product. Often the product manager is also considered a CEO for the products they are in charge of. Where the buck stops at the CEO for company wide things, the same applies to product related things for the product manager – radical accountability, outward looking, customer facing. The PM operates from the strategic to the operational level.

The Product Owner (PO) role is outlined in SAFe as: “a member of the Agile Team responsible for defining Stories and prioritizing the Team Backlog with the objective to streamline the execution of program priorities while maintaining the conceptual and technical integrity of the Features or components for the team”. © Scaled Agile, Inc.

So the product owner is more of an inside role, working with the development team, whether IT, or business products. The PO ensures products are fit for purpose and in order to achieve this, he or she engages with the dev team on a day to day basis to talk about features and capabilities.  work. In many cases the PO is part of the development team, sometimes he/she is deliberately positioned in the business to ensure the connect with the business. The role is tactical / operational.

Overlap between the Product Manager (PM) and Product Owner (PO)

Reading the above definitions, one could say – oh nooh overlap. Yes, there can be quite a bit of overlap between the roles but at the same time they are also very complementary. Should the product manager define requirements, or should the product owner define them? Who is in charge of prioritization, is that the PO or the PM? The way tasks and responsibilities are organized depends from company to company. In a small outfit the PO and the PM can be the same person. When the organization scales, the roles tend to diverge and there will typically be a single PO per development team. The PM on the other hand is in charge of the solution, and a solution could cover multiple development teams and initiatives.

The easiest way to look at the different roles is to consider the product manager a more holistic oriented person. The product manager is out there talking to customers, delivering demo’s along with the sales team, running marketing activities and managing the profitability of the product. He’s interested in ensuring the right features are build, but may not be technical enough to actually represent the requirements. He’ll join a weekly standup, and prioritizes the business requirements.

The product owner does not talk to customers every day, but talks to the development team every day. He or she understands the requirements and transforms them into workable items for the team. the PO validates that the user stories have been successfully completed, and approves the products for launch. Traditionally the role of the PO was linked to building new things only, but with the devops movement taking place, the PO and team are now fully in charge of supporting the product throughout their journey and are in charge of operating the product as well

Best of both worlds, a golden team

The PM and the PO working together form a dynamic duo. The PM is out there listening and talking to the customer, the PO transforms requirements into logical development initiatives. Together, and supported by the dev team, they can become a continuous delivery machine. There is a natural tension as well as the PM always wants products faster, and the PO has to balance requests from multiple PMs for the product. This dynamic duo sounds fantastic, but anyone with experience in dev. knows there are always far more requirements than capacity to make this dream come true.

Can you do without a PM or a PO?

Interesting question. The short answer is yes, any of these roles could be managed by others in the company. The PM can also be the PO and the PO can also take on the role of the PM.

Replacing PM: The product manager role, when properly appreciated, is critical to the success of a company. Anything you nurture will grow, and this applies to products as well. New initiatives get started, the portfolio will get a boost, customers receive attention, and the market will be developed. In many cases the PM is still considered a jack of all trades, master of none, and the responsibilities can also be managed by a marketeer, sales person, product developer, etc.

Replacing PO: Any company working Agile will need help in prioritization and specification of the requirements. Traditional companies would rely on a development manager and a project manager to outline requirements. Testers would validate the work was done. Modern companies who don’t have a PO could do without when a very strong lead developer is in charge of the team. Developer/Architects with a strong understanding of the business can lead the team and get great things done. These skills are hard to get though.

Is a PM better than a PO?

The PM and the PO are different roles and hence you cannot state that one is better than the other. As the tasks performed by the roles are different, they require different competences, and typically also attract different profiles.

The PM is typically a holistic thinker. He or she thinks in business concepts, business models, and product adoption. The PM is a loner, as he or she does not have a team that reports to the product manager. His role is to work with everyone, and make sure the entire organization moves the right product.

The PO is part of a team and works every day with the same people to develop amazing things. Eliciting requirements is critical to the job, so the PO has a great eye for detail. He or she needs to think through new features to understand the impact they have with existing capabilities.

Thoughts on this article? Let me know



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