Projects-to-Products: Product Managers vs Product Owners

By Brian Nathanson posted 10-11-2019 03:31 PM

  
In my last post, I described the role and characteristic duties of a Product Manager. Now I want to take a minute to highlight the differences between two often-confused roles within many organizations: the Product Manager and the Product Owner. (Note that these are roles, NOT titles. For example, you may call "Product Managers" in your firm "Capability Owners" because it indicates they own the budget for the product. They're still Product Managers even though their title says Owner.)

Most products have one or more Product Owners. Our team has collectively found that Product Owners do the following things:
  • Understand the (internal or external) audience the product serves
  • Understand the value the product provides (or is intended to provide)
  • Manage one or more aspects of the technical delivery of the product
  • Maintain accountability to the Product Manager for technical delivery
  • Should be able to clearly articulate the value delivered in return for the investment 
With similar lists now out there for both roles, it would probably be helpful to highlight the similarities and differences. Both Product Managers and Product Owners:
  • Understand the (internal or external) audience the product serves
  • Understand the value the product provides (or is intended to provide)
  • Should be able to clearly articulate the value delivered in return for the investment
The differences have to do with whether the role is more focused internally or externally. Product Managers:
  • Manage & messages the strategic vision for the product
  • Maintain accountability to the funding stakeholders (investors)
  • Maintain accountability to the business for forecasting & (financial) performance
Product Owners, on the other hand:
  • Manage one or more aspects of the technical delivery of the product
  • Maintain accountability to the Product Manager for technical delivery
Note that "maintain accountability" does not mean that the Product Owner necessarily reports into a Product Manager in an official hierarchy. It simply implies that the Product Manager is often the Product Owner's day-to-day customer, which means the Product Owner is really trying to guide their teams to build value that the Product Manager will accept.

In contrast to Product Managers, Product Owners spend the majority of their time working with the engineers.

While there are a few differences here as well, my experience has shown that project managers generally have an easier time transitioning to become product owners because the emphasis on being organized, documentation of requirements, focus on day-to-day status, and definition of deliverables translate almost directly to the typical activities of a product owner.

A critical point to understand is that both the Product Manager and Product Owner roles are necessary to be successful and, while it's possible a single person can perform both roles for a small product that has limited functionality and audience, our collective experience at Clarity PPM has shown that you will outgrow that ability very quickly.

Did we get this distinction right? Do we need to add anything? Chime in below.
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