Who is a Product Owner? How is a Product Owner different from a Product Manager?

  • by Sanjeev Kulkarni
  • Product Knowledge

The term ‘Product Owner’ came into existence due to Agile frameworks, especially Scrum. The ‘Product Owner’ is a role, not a ‘Job title’.

According to the Scrum Guide:

The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.

The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog. Product Backlog management includes:

  • Clearly expressing Product Backlog items;
  • Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
  • Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;
  • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next; and,
  • Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.

The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.

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.

For the Product Owner to succeed, the entire organization must respect his or her decisions. The Product Owner’s decisions are visible in the content and ordering of the Product Backlog. No one can force the Development Team to work from a different set of requirements.

If you go by the Scrum Guide’s definition anyone who can do these things can become a Product Owner. Then it may be a Product Manager, A Product Marketing Manager, A Business Manager, An Enterprise Architect or even an Executive.

Product Owner v/s Product Manager

There are numerous debates around this topic of Product Owner v/s Product Manager. We would like to shed some light on the difference, without trying to engage into the conflict :).

If we were to go by the definition of the ‘Product Owner’ as per the scrum guide, the role seems very tactical. Product Management on the other hand involves taking a very strategic and a ‘big picture’ view of the ‘Product’.

The ‘Product Ownership’ role as defined by the scrum guide tends to not touch upon topics such as Product Vision, Product Strategy, Financial Forecasting, and Product Roadmap. But these are important. Someone needs to take an outward look into the dynamic market - The competitors, The Customers, Customers’ needs, Pricing strategies, Understanding user behaviors etc. In large organisations Product Management function takes up that role.

Such organisations may also have a more tactical ‘Product’ role to deal with the daily engagement with the development team as well as internal teams such as tax, legal, compliance, asset protection, finance etc. That role could be the ‘Product Owner’ role.

In smaller organisations the two may merge into a ‘Product Management’ function.

The Scaled Agile FrameWork (SAFe) separates the two roles completely as Strategic v/s tactical. But again the Product Owner in a SAFe organisation is not the same as a Product Owner on a Scrum team. The Product Owner on a Scrum team, may also be the Product Manager himself / herself, who may also be responsible for the Strategic goals of the Product Organisation.