Agile, Product Management

Product Manager vs Product Owner

Product Owner

Product Owner

Should the product manager be product owner for new product development in Scrum?

This post is one of a series on Product Manager vs Product Owner.  My best post on the topic explains that prior to release to market, your product manager should serve as the product owner.  But after release, if your product is to be a successful business venture, having a separate product owner is essential.

Many, many arguments have taken place over whether the product manager should absorb the responsibilities of being a product owner, or whether another person should handle the more tactical elements.  This question is really one of scale.

The vision of a product is best led by one person.  As a product gains more and more paying customers, and as the product manager gets involved with selling, marketing, implementing and supporting his product, there’s less and less time for direct oversight of development.

  1. Consider the environment:
    1. Custom Software: For a company developing custom software for a contract, there is often a single product owner–someone who works for the client, describing what is needed.  No split is necessary.
    2. Commercial Software: When developing software for a market of customers, it is difficult for one person to handle both the tactical engineering guidance as well as internal and external stakeholders.  The more successful the product, the more one or both parts of this dichotomy suffer if handled by one person.
  2. Second, consider product maturity:
    1. Mature product: This is a product whose target market, core functionality and value proposition are reasonably well defined.  If built for a market of customers, a customer base exists, and there are plenty of clients to interview and visit. To maintain growth in a mature market, marketing campaigns and sales campaigns require influence, RFPs must be answered, implementation processes must be overseen, and market interaction is of primary importance to maintain commercial viability.
    2. New product development: For a custom project, this is intensive work to meet very specific requirements.  In commercial software, this is development effort targeted towards finding a successful business (within a startup or a large enterprise).  Pivots result from the learning gained by the software developed in individual sprints.  In the stage-gate days, product managers would “capture” that vision in MRDs and PRDs and toss them over the wall, and then be frustrated that the product which came out the other end did not deliver.   Getting it right requires the intense focus of a single individual.

With these considerations in mind, I assert that a single product owner who shares product manager responsibilities is the best choice in all quadrants except for a mature commercial product.  Once in market, a market-facing product manager should pair up with an engineering-focused product owner (in Saeed’s language, a backlog manager).

The “Product Owner”  without Product Management responsibility is really a Backlog Manager.


The Product Manager Should Team With a Product Owner On Mature Mass-Market Products

For commercial products during initial development only, companies should have the product manager also serve as product owner.  This  ensures that the person with the best knowledge of the market and problem space guides the product’s development, guiding the solution toward product-market fit.  

Product managers are members of the business, not of the technology team.  They are responsible for identifying market problems that people will pay to solve, which can most effectively be done by spending time with customer representatives and studying the market rather than by spending time in the scrum room.

Product managers must interface with the rest of the business in order to coordinate the surrounding roles: creating training guides, helping marketing with positioning and messaging, helping implementations with how to onboard clients, sales support, etc.

How does this play out over time while building a new product?

The product manager builds out market justification and designs the solution (high level, with the lead interaction designer) before starting construction.  During construction, the product manager balances development team support with market interaction.   Market input helps the product manager optimize for product-market fit through the development cycle.

Scrumban may encourage higher velocity by removing some of the detailed estimation, but can be more interruptive because of the tendency to start stories at random times.  Once released, the product manager brings on a product owner to allow for more time in the market.  With the initial framework in place, there’s a known entity to build upon.  The design team can handle iterative feature design with less input from product management.  But they still need stories decomposed and accepted by the product owner team.  Thus, the need for a product owner to pair with the product manager.

RELATED:  Lessons from 'Crossing the Chasm'

More Thoughts

I wrote a response to an episode of Product Management Talk that discussed several other nuances and drew several comments.  Please have a look for additional perspective!


Image source: Flickr


  1. I’m finding this topic quite hot at the moment, seems like a lot of people are asking the same question as it appears on various forums, on Quora etc…

    Our CEO has recently written his piece to add to the discussion:
    plus there’s that article from Jeff Lash:

    What do you think?

    • Thanks, Teresa! Just read through your CEO’s post. I agree that combining the role into one is ideal under some circumstances–as I wrote in this post, I’m especially passionate about that being the case during the initial idea-to-product process. After scale, it becomes more difficult for an individual to manage them.

      I found Jeff’s post interesting as well, and did a good job of suggesting how the structure of the surrounding teams and the strengths of the individual players contributes to this as well.

      Thanks for the links!

  2. Cindy F. Solomon

    Thanks for speaking at the Global Product Management Talk on this subject! Here’s a recap: Managing the Backlog During Initial Development in B2B ISVs w/@JohnPeltier #prodmgmttalk @prodmgmttalk

  3. Here is something we’ve tried out: (end of the post)

    I guess our value stream helps to understand that we do not have “that big of backlog” to actually manage:

    Btw, we are just having this discussion in Agile Finland Coaching Circle: (see the slides for typical questions).

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