ProdMgmtTalk: Product Manager vs. Product Owner

This post is one of a series.  For more, please start here.

Today’s Global Product Management Talk, a weekly realtime Twitter conversation among product management professionals, covered the topic “To Agile or Waterfall…Does it Matter?” featured Mark Mansour, CEO of Agile Bench.  As an agile product manager, I looked forward to this conversation despite that its timing at 6pm Eastern prevented me from participating realtime.  The first posted question was “Product Manager, Agile Product Owner, What’s the Difference?” Since this is near and dear to my heart, I’ve composed my response here.

Some of the comments from the host that I found especially helpful included:

  • agilebench: “Product Manager and Product Owner are two roles, sometimes occupied by the same person.”
  • agilebench – PMs – outward (customer) facing. Channel, brand, price, the whole product.  Strategic. POs – inward (project) facing. delivery, detail focused. Tactical.

The Problem: One huge problem is when one person tries to do both roles.  From personal experience, I can confirm that especially with large-scope products in multi-national corporations with products in multiple silos, it’s practically and effectively impossible.  Brainmates summarized the problem I experienced: “Market focus suffers, because it’s easier to work on tactical development activities.”

In companies I’ve been exposed to, it was not only “easier,” but there were so many fires that there was really no choice.  Because of the product’s complexity and the complexity of the organization (not to mention infighting and territorial-ism) there simply wasn’t enough time to participate in user story level design discussions, groom the backlog, coordinate sales and support, and simultaneously monitor the competition, research trends and pricing, and the other activities a business leader in the company should perform.

The Team Approach: As an alternative, agilebench suggested “can you find someone with product sympathies who can act as a proxy for you?”  This echoes an approach I’ve seen becoming more commonly cited–including last week’s Technology Association of Georgia presentation by Mike Cottmeyer–of having a Product Owner Team.  The team consists of a handful of roles that must be addressed: Product Manager handling the outward market-facing strategic functions, product owner acting as the development liason and sitting with the development team and driving home the detail around the user stories, and potentially a user experience analyst and others.  Thus as Roger Cauvin proposed, “one model is that product management is more market facing, while product owner is more inward facing.”

NOTE: Another great read about a similar topic was recently posted to On Product Mangement.

The Balancing Act: One major concern about this approach is “too many cooks in the kitchen,” or not having a single point of authority on the product.  I think the split approach can work, if and only if the members are diligent about remaining aligned on a daily basis.  Another alternative is a balancing act: The PM/PO must be accessible to the team at all times, yet must get in front of customers and the other teams within the company to ensure a successful rollout.  This balancing act can work if the team is talented and can work (at times!) without direct input from the product owner.  A few calls and meetings spread through the week is one thing, but if the product owner is rarely visible except for the daily scrum, even a seasoned development team may be hard pressed to succeed.  Conversely, if the product manager never leaves the scrum room to speak with customers, the team is at serious risk of building the wrong product “successfully”!

Two Pounds In a One Pound Bag: Given more than a full-time job’s worth of responsibilities outside the scrum room, and nearly another within, it should be inherently obvious that a product manager should not be placed in the impossible scenario of performing product manager and product owner responsibilities on two products at once!  I can also confirm this from personal experience.

Other Topics: Other topics were discussed, including

  • how to gain the respect of the development team
  • how to break up deliverables when more than one product manager is on a single product
  • when are agile methods not suitable for product management
  • How do product managers ensure the vision when agile delivery teams are focused on small pieces of work?
  • If it all needs to be done why does it need to be prioritized?
  • How do you roll up individual projects into an org-wide roadmap aligned with company strategy?

Plenty of great discussion on all points is archived and available in PDF (start at the bottom!).  Enjoy your read!