Agile, Product Management, Product ownership

ProdMgmtTalk: Product Manager vs. Product Owner

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.

RELATED:  What is product management? Who's asking?

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!


Image source: Flickr


  1. Bill Bliss

    Is any of this covered well in Pichler’s book?

    I haven’t read it yet.

  2. Bill Bliss

    Nice post John. At the conference I was at this week (Creative Good Councils, this issue came up in a SIG session yesterday.

    I rather expected the consensus to be more or less along the lines of the #prodmgmttalk discussion and this post.

    Surprisingly, it was split – maybe not 50/50 in the ~10-15 people attending, but close. Almost everyone had tried it, but about half gave up for all the reasons mentioned above. Others were happy as clams. I even got the sense that some saw those who didn’t combine the roles were somehow copping out on agile a little.

    Anyway I found it curious that there would be such a binary reaction. I don’t know the answer but I suspect at least part of it reflects the complexity of the product and/or the business. That’s a biased POV though.

    I think this is a very fascinating subject, along with the role of interaction and visual design in the agile process, which was also discussed.

    On that point, I have a strong gut feel that if you try to do req’ts and UX design in realtime (or close to it) in an iteration, you will waste dev’s time on half-baked designs. Yet go too far and you are at scrumifall which isn’t good either. And I think some of your ability to be agile in that area is in part a reflection of your UI platform and UI complexity. I’m very interested in this though as I think it’s an area for further investigation and documentation of best practices.

  3. “One model is that product management is more market facing, while product owner is more inward facing.”

    For all the reasons stated here and by the comments above, I totally agree and my experience shows the same. A sufficiently sized company needs that split between market-biased Product Manager and execution-biased Product Owner. It’s almost like a major/minor university degree. As a PM, I major in the market and minor in execution. Our PO majors in the product build out and minors in the market.

    One question we run into seems unimportant but really causes headaches – exactly what should the reporting relationships for these positions be in an organization? PM is well-understood to be a function that should report direct to CEO or perhaps through marketing, but what about the product owner? Can they report to development without losing that important ability to “be the voice of the market”? Can they report to product management without sacrificing the Scrum team’s need to always be available? We haven’t really figured these questions out yet.

  4. John,

    As I was thinking about your post, I also recognized that product marketing can be the same way. I have seen where a role or product marketing (strategic elements) are asked to manage the backlog and maintain the role of Product Owner. This as with the PM/PO duality, is almost impossible.

    Thanks for thoughts!


  5. I am so disappointed that the #prodmgmttalk sessions are at a time that I am universally unable to join (weekly commitment at the time), as this is a topic that I am passionate about.

    For the last year, I have been living the life as a dual person, the Product Owner, and the Product Manager. I knew at the outset that it was not a role that was amenable to a single person, for many of the reasons you highlight. Prioritization of time always goes to the Product Owner role, as keeping the product backlog groomed, and ready for the next round of development, as well as being the arbitrator of uncertainty is top of the list to keep the team flowing smoothly. But by slighting the Product Manager tasks, the backlog doesn’t grow, and customer/product feedback is not gathered to replenish the list of features/functions/stories to sustain the team long term.

    Add to that the usual fire fighting that an established product has (bug triage, sales enablement, and outbound marketing), and there is just no time in the day left for the higher level product management tasks. This leads to Really Bad Things happening(tm). Like Business Development setting strategic course. Or Sales demanding feature X (because it is why we lost the last deal, you know how important their quota is). That is, to go back to a rudderless product definition, and probably a miserable product manager who will just quit.

    The team approach is key, but that takes finding someone who can function effectively part time (from your suggestion to find a person with product sympathies to proxy for you) assumes that they have the skills, and more importantly the capacity to do two jobs. This is likely to just create more overloading of staff, albeit no longer your overloading.

    The real solution, and the one that I am working towards is to have two full time people, one for each role. It is easy to justify, yet it seems to take a lot of battling with senior management to achieve. So far, I think I have won the main battles, and just need to get the right assets.

  6. Hey John,

    Great post! Especially great for me since I had to join the call late this week, and entirely missed this portion of the discussion.

    I’ve seen (and lived) the exact same issues you identified. In the last couple months, I’ve seen multiple references to the term “product champion” – that seem to match up to John’s “product sympathizer” role – someone not-in-the-scrum to help out when you are forced to be both product manager and owner.

    I also agree with Roger’s split of market-facing bias (for product manager) combined with execution-facing bias (for product owner) when sharing the goal (but splitting the role) of connecting the dots between the team and the market.

    Love your points about the balancing act too. More and more, I think of it as the tyranny of the urgent – like that loud guy that tries to talk over everyone in the meeting, regardless of what anyone else is saying.

    Scott (@sehlhorst on Twitter)

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