Product manager or product owner?

Product manager or product owner? Which term must we use? Are they different roles? Are they complementary? Is there overlapping? Is it better to have two distinct individuals, one for each role? Or is it better to combine two roles in one single person?


First of all, let’s check some existing definitions:

The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the Development Team.” says the Scrum Guide, and then it continues: “The Product Owner is one person, not a committee.
The Product Owner may represent the desires of a committee in the Product Backlog, but those wanting to change a Product Backlog item’s priority
must address the Product Owner.

The product owner represents the stakeholders and the voice of the customer,” says the Wikipedia. “who is accountable for ensuring that the team delivers value to the business. The product owner writes (or has the team write) customer-centric items (typically user stories), ranks and prioritizes them, and adds them to the product backlog.

By the definitions above, it is clear that the product owner’s focus on:

  • Managing backlog priorities based on inputs from stakeholders and clients, and;
  • Maximizing the deliveries from development team. 

On the other hand, in a previous article, I’ve defined software product management as follows:

Software product management is the function responsible for all aspects of a software product, during the whole lifecycle of this product, from its conception to the end of its life.

It is the function responsible for making the connection between the company strategy and the problems and needs of clients using the software product. This one must be, at the same time, helping the company to accomplish its strategic goals, and solving the problems and needs of clients.

In other words, product managers need to know very well the business who is the owner of the software as well as the goals that the business intends to reach with the software. On the other hand, product managers need to know very well who is going to use the software and what are the goals their users intends to reach by doing using the software. Based on it, product managers define their software.

On one side, the definitions of product owner are strongly focused on the process, meaning they prioritize the backlog and maximize the production of the development team; on the other side, the definition of product management is strongly focused on results, meaning they prioritize the software goals based on the software owner and the software users.

Product owner definitions focus on process, since all agile methodologies focus on the software development process. The Agile Manifesto itself estates that “We are discovering better ways to built software”. Notice that the concern is about discovering better ways of building software, and not about discovering ways of building better software. It is a subtle but important difference.

While “discovering better ways of building software” is focused on the process of developing software, when we talk about “discovering ways of building better software” we immediately focus on the results of software development: the software! That’s why my definition of product management focuses on the software and the goals of its business and its users, while the definitions of product owner focus how to improve the software development process.

So are they different roles?

Shorts answer: NO. Although they have distinct focus they are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. In other words, we can’t focus on improving the process of software development without thinking of improving the software that is being built; the same way that is not possible to think of improving the software without investing on improving the process of software development.

I’ve interviewed dozens of IT directors and managers, and asked them how they design their software development organization. The findings: there are product owners who are a part of the software development team, and responsible for managing the backlog and detailing the items of this backlog; and there are the product managers, who are part of the development team, and are responsible for the software business view and give to the team great epics which will be detailed by a product owner.

At Locaweb, we used to use the terms product manager and product owner as synonyms, because, as said earlier, for us they are two sides of the same coin. You can’t prioritize the backlog and maximize the deliveries of the development team if you don’t have a profound knowledge on the goals of the business and the users of the software. In addition, to build the software that meets both the goals of the business and of the users, you must prioritize the backlog and optimize the development process.

One side of the coin is the development team’s “what” and the other side is the development team’s “how”. One doesn’t exist without the other.

So, if you’re in a company where the product manager and the product owner roles are divided in two distinct people, you must keep on reading. The next session explores your situation.

What to do if your company has product managers and product owners?

I know some companies that operate with this role division between two distinct individuals and that, by reading this article you’re now thinking you have staff to spare. :-O

Please don’t. Very likely, some other role is missing in your software product development team. My recommendation in such cases:

  • Don’t go radical: don’t go on firing people thinking that there are overlapping roles. It is necessary a more careful look because other roles might be missing in your organization.
  • Product marketing: probably there’s a lack of people taking care of the product marketing, someone who has complimentary goals but different from the product manager. In a later article, I’ll write about the difference between product manager and product marketing manager.
  • Analyze what is being done today: it is probable that your product manager, sometimes called business manager, is doing more stuff than a product marketing manager. In this case, it is interesting that this person starts to work as an actual product marketer and leave the product manager activities for the product owner eventually. This one, thus, can take care of the product management.
  • Use a new product to experiment the new role division: another way to experiment this new role division and responsibilities is to use them only in a new product. When you start to develop a new product, experiment this new role division and see how it goes. If it works, you can unroll it to other existent products.

Product owner vs product owners

More recently we’ve been dropping the use of the term product owner. As described earlier, the core team of software product development is composed of product managers, UX designers and software engineers.

When we refer to the product manager as product owner, it may give the perception to the team that this person is the owner of the product and that she makes all decisions by herself. And the rest of the team, product engineers and UX designers should follow and implement her decisions without questioning. This is incorrect. All team members should be responsible for product decisions. In fact, even though there may be only one product manager in a product team, all members of the product team are owners of the the product in the sense that all decisions about the product should be taken by the team who should make the decisions with all viewpoints taken into consideration.

Now that we understand a little bit more about what is a software product manager, let’s see which are the main characteristics of this role.

Product Management: how to increase the success chances of your software

In 2015 I wrote a book on Software Product Management in Portuguese. In the beginning of 2016, Paulo Caroli talked to me about how he enjoyed the book and how this book could be useful to people in the software industry not only in Brazil but anywhere in the world. For this reason, we decided to create an English version of my book.

The book is organized in 5 sections:

  • Definitions and requirements
  • Life cycle of a software product
  • Relationship with other areas
  • Product portfolio management
  • Where to use software product management

This book is suitable for anyone working with software. Even companies that do not have software as its core business use software in their day to day and often have developed some software that interfaces with its customers such as a website or a mobile application. It is important for these companies to understand the software product management role and responsibilities, so they can better manage this software and increase its chances of success.

We are working on the translation but as we progress we are already releasing the content. If you want to see the work in progress, please visit the book page at LeanPub. Still in beta but already with valuable content. Feedback is always welcome!

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