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What is the difference between a Product Manager and a Product Owner

product owner

This question comes up so much. My learners and my private clients always want this clarification. There are so many experts who have answered this question in various different formats. I would like to take you through the literature from many experts through the years on this role so we can better understand its history and the evolution. First though lets understand the role from two different perspectives.

1. The Human, Business and Technology (HBT) Model

According to the A good Product Owner / Manager need the skills in the three domains to become good at his or her role. Finding someone who can dabble in all these areas is a unicorn or not there. So a good product owner /manager is constantly learning new skills while performing those he or she is good at. 

2. Agile Product Ownership in a Nutshell

So why do I keep writing that a good product owner / manager? The two roles are essentially the same. The reason is that depending on the context of the organization, depending on the industry and depending on the demands of the role, companies tend to have one or the either title or sometimes both roles.  Let’s look at what some of the history behind this role

A brief history

The Product Owner was called Product Manager in the original Scrum paper presented at OOPSLA. 

Many product companies that sell their products to external customers and users. The title of the person making decisions on the product was called a product manager

Scaling Scrum means many multiples teams working together. One of the most popular / most used frameworks is the SAFe Framework

SAFe defines two separate roles Product Manager and Product Owner

In SAFe Product Managers focus on the Human and Business Side. Product Owners on the other hand focus on working with Technology and working within the Scrum Team

Large Scale Scrum LeSS sticks to the product owner title from the scrum guide and then creates area product owners to scale the product owner role across multiples teams.

The below article on Product Owner from LeSS is a very good read on how the Human, Business and Technology activities of the product owner changes based on the type of organization they work for.

Finding the right Product Owner depends on knowing the type of development you are doing:

  • Product development—For external customers or a market.
  • Internal (product) development—For one or more users within the company. The development group is usually called IT or Systems Development.
  • Project development—Usually for one external customer. The work is organized and contracted as a project of some kind although that does not necessarily mean a fixed scope/date/cost project contract. The development company is usually an outsourcer or systems-integrator. The customer, or client company, includes both the purchasing entity and the users, who are not always in the same department.

Product Development

The company will have either (1) a business unit driving the product initiative (e.g., Retail Banking), or (2) a Product Management department driving the initiative. Traditional Product Management is responsible for customer and competitor analysis, product vision, coarse-grained feature selection and prioritization, product roadmap, and other non-technical activities. They don’t manage the work of a traditional development group.

Where to find a Product Owner for a group adopting LeSS? If there’s a Product Management department, then a Product Manager can be a good choice. Otherwise, look for a person from the business unit that’s driving the initiative. The important thing to keep in mind is that the Product Owner for product development should come from the business side.

Internal Product Development

A good Product Owner for internal product development in LeSS is (1) from within the group that will use the system, and (2) is closely involved in and deeply experienced in doing the real work that the system will support. They are very close to the real users.

Project Development

Project development—The key point is that a Product Owner is from the company receiving the system and, as with internal development, is involved in and deeply experienced in the hands-on work, close to users.

A common variant for both internal and project development is when the system will be used by many departments. Then, a good choice is an experienced, hands-on individual from one of the major user departments who is interested in taking on the role and has political savvy.

Scrum, Product Management, and DevOps: Simplifying the jargon

The internet and social media are full of Agile, Scrum, Product Management, and DevOps jargon, including incorrect and misunderstood concepts. This could be problematic for a learner seeking knowledge. Without a course with Scrum Alliance,, or DevOps Institute, this knowledge is difficult to achieve.

The Concepts & Beyond blog is a free suite of articles and videos packaged in tiny chunks. You will learn or refine your knowledge and skills to help your team and organization be effective. When you want to take your knowledge further, we invite you to join us for our  Certified ScrumMaster(CSM),  Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO), Certified DevOps Engineering Foundations (DOEF) and Training from the Back of The Room courses across the USA and Canada.

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