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Product Owner vs. Product Manager (Explained)

Published
April 5, 2024
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Last updated
April 5, 2024
Anika Jahin
Product Owner vs. Product Manager (Explained)
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Have you ever wondered how your favorite apps and software products come to life? It's not magic but rather a collaborative effort driven by passionate individuals fulfilling specific roles.

The product manager and the product owner are two crucial roles within the product development landscape. While their titles might sound similar, their responsibilities and areas of focus can be quite distinct.

Understanding these differences is essential for anyone involved in product development, from aspiring entrepreneurs to seasoned developers.

This blog will delve into product management, exploring the what, why, and how of product managers and product owners. We'll look at their core responsibilities, highlight the key distinctions between their roles, and showcase how they work together to drive product success.

What Is a Product Manager?

Product managers are the bridge between customer needs, market trends, and business goals. They translate these insights into a concrete product vision and roadmap, overseeing the entire product development process, from ideation to launch.

They are strategic leaders who possess a blend of analytical skills, user empathy, and strong communication abilities to steer the product toward success.

They are responsible for:

(1) Understanding Customer Needs and Market Trends

Product managers don't operate in a vacuum. They become deeply familiar with the target audience through user research, including interviews, surveys, and usability testing. This user empathy ensures the product caters to real user needs and solves genuine problems.

They also stay on top of industry trends and conduct thorough market research to understand competitor offerings and identify potential market opportunities. This knowledge helps them differentiate their product in the marketplace.

(2) Defining the Product Vision and Roadmap

A product without a clear direction is like a ship without a rudder. Product managers collaborate with various stakeholders to define the product vision, as well as a concise statement outlining the product's purpose and long-term goals.

They then translate this vision into a detailed strategic plan outlining the key features, functionalities, and milestones for product development. This roadmap keeps the entire product team on the same page throughout the development process.

(3) Prioritization and Feature Management

Prioritization becomes crucial with a constant inflow of potential features. Product managers, with the help of user research, market insights, and business objectives, prioritize features based on their impact on users and the bottom line.

They manage the product backlog, a prioritized list of features to be developed, ensuring the development team focuses on the most impactful features first.

(4) Communication and Collaboration

Product managers act as the central hub of communication, fostering collaboration across all levels of the organization. They clearly communicate the product vision and roadmap to engineers, designers, marketers, and sales teams, ensuring everyone is aligned toward a common goal.

This cross-functional leadership ensures all departments are working in sync to deliver a successful product.

What Is a Product Owner?

While product managers focus on the strategic "what" and "why" of a product, product owners delve into the tactical "how." Product owners are the champions of the product backlog, the prioritized list of features and functionalities to be developed.

They work closely with the development team and the customer to ensure features are delivered efficiently and effectively. They prioritize features and ensure the development process aligns with user needs throughout the product development lifecycle.

Here's a breakdown of a product owner's core responsibilities:

(1) Product Backlog Management and Prioritization

The product backlog is the product owner's domain. They are responsible for ensuring clear and actionable user stories and well-defined features and prioritizing based on value to users/business (similar to product manager, but with a more tactical focus).

This prioritization ensures the development team focuses on the features that deliver the most impact first. This role requires constant grooming (refinement) of the backlog to reflect new information, user feedback, and changing priorities.

(2) Collaboration With the Development Team

A strong relationship between the product owner and the development team is crucial. Product owners translate the product vision and roadmap into actionable tasks for developers, designers, and other team members.

Through regular communication and collaboration, they ensure the development team understands the product goals and user needs, fostering a smooth development process.

Following the Scrum framework, product owners typically work with up to 10 developers, ensuring clear communication and focus within the development process.

(3) The Voice of the Customer

Product owners act as the customer's advocate within the development process. They leverage user research, customer feedback, and market data to support features that address user needs and pain points.

This ensures the final product remains user-centric and solves real problems for the target audience.

(4) Acceptance Criteria and User Stories

Product owners define clear acceptance criteria for each user story within the backlog. These criteria outline a feature's specific requirements to be considered "done".

This ensures the development team delivers features that meet user expectations and product goals.

What Is a Product Owner vs Product Manager?

While the terms "product manager" and "product owner" are often used interchangeably, they represent distinct roles within the product development landscape. A clear understanding of these differences is crucial for fostering efficient collaboration and achieving product success.

Let's delve deeper and explore the key areas of divergence and convergence between these two critical positions.

Strategic Vision vs. Tactical Execution

  • Product Managers: Think big picture; the "why" and the "what" of development. They are the architects of the product vision, conducting market research, analyzing competitor offerings, and defining the product roadmap to ensure alignment with long-term business goals.
  • Product Owners: Focus on the "how" of development. They manage the product backlog, prioritize features based on user needs and business objectives, and collaborate with the development team to translate the product vision into actionable tasks.

Focus and Stakeholders

  • Product Managers: Maintain a broader scope, interacting with various organizational stakeholders, including leadership, marketing, and sales teams. They focus on ensuring the product aligns with long-term business goals and market demands.
  • Product Owners: Work more closely with the development team, serving as the bridge between customer needs and technical execution. They prioritize features based on user feedback and ensure the development process runs smoothly.

Project Management Frameworks

The specific responsibilities of product managers and product owners can vary slightly depending on the chosen project management framework. 

Here's a breakdown within the context of Scrum, a popular Agile methodology that clearly defines these roles:

  • Product Manager (Not an official Scrum role, but responsibilities can overlap with Product Owner in some cases): Focuses on the product vision and long-term strategy, potentially conducting user research and market analysis to inform product direction.
  • Product Owner: Owns the product backlog, prioritizes features, creates user stories, and collaborates with the development team on task execution. Their duties are defined by the Scrum Guide.

Here's an analogy to solidify the concept: Imagine a product as a ship. The product manager is the captain, charting the course and ensuring the ship reaches its destination (long-term vision and market alignment).

The product owner acts as the first mate, overseeing the crew (development team) and ensuring they have the resources and tasks needed to navigate the journey (backlog management and task execution).

While they have distinct roles, both are crucial for a successful voyage.

Product owner vs product manager at a glance.

Product Owner vs. Product Manager Working Together

The Agile framework, particularly Scrum, provides a clear structure for collaboration between product managers and product owners.

Within Scrum, the product backlog serves as a shared point of reference, with product owners managing the backlog and product managers potentially contributing to user research and market analysis that informs backlog content. 

The combined skillsets of product managers and product owners are instrumental within the Agile framework. Product managers bring their strategic thinking, user research expertise, and market awareness to the table.

Product owners, with their deep understanding of the product backlog and development process, ensure efficient execution. This complementary blend of skills propels the product forward while mitigating risks and ensuring user focus throughout the development lifecycle.

An Example of Collaboration

Imagine a product manager identifies a new market trend through user research. He communicates this information to the product owner, who then analyzes the trend's potential impact on the product roadmap.

Together, they work with the development team to brainstorm features that address this emerging market opportunity. The product owner refines the product backlog accordingly, ensuring the development team prioritizes features that align with both the new market trend and the overall product vision.

This collaborative approach ensures the product remains competitive and addresses evolving user needs.

When Do You Need Both?

While the value proposition of both roles is clear, you might be wondering if it's always necessary to have both a product manager and a product owner on your team.

Here are some factors to consider:

(1) Project Complexity

For smaller, less complex projects, the responsibilities of both roles might be effectively managed by a single individual.

This person would possess a well-rounded skillset encompassing strategic thinking, user research, backlog management, and collaboration with the development team.

(2) Team Size and Structure

In smaller teams, combining the roles can be more efficient. However, as teams grow larger and the project becomes more intricate, having dedicated individuals for each role can improve focus and communication.

A product manager can oversee the big-picture strategy while the product owner tackles the intricacies of backlog management and development team collaboration.

(3) Development Framework

While Scrum clearly defines the product owner role, it doesn't explicitly mention a product manager.

However, the product manager's skillset can be highly valuable in any Agile development approach. Their focus on market analysis, user research, and long-term product vision complements the product owner's tactical execution within the chosen framework..

(4) Company Culture and Resources

Ultimately, the decision depends on your company's culture and available resources. If your company fosters a culture of collaboration and open communication, a single individual might be able to handle both roles effectively.

However, if resources allow and the project demands a high level of strategic focus alongside meticulous backlog management, having dedicated individuals for each role can be highly beneficial.

TL;DR

Here's a quick overview summarizing the factors to consider when choosing one, the other, or both:

Factors to Consider When Deciding Between a Combined vs. Separate Product Manager & Product Owner Role

Conclusion

Product development thrives on a strong foundation. This blog explored the distinct roles of product managers and product owners, discussing their unique contributions.

Product managers and strategic architects define the product vision and roadmap.

Product owners, the tactical engineers, translate that vision into actionable tasks and manage the product backlog.

Through seamless collaboration, they bridge the gap between strategic vision and successful execution. Whether you have a single individual or a dedicated dream team, understanding these roles empowers you to build a development structure for product success.

FAQs

Is Product Manager Higher Than Product Owner?

In a traditional hierarchy, a product manager role might be considered "higher" than a product owner. This is because product managers typically have a broader scope of responsibility and may oversee multiple product owners.

However, within the Agile framework, the structure is more collaborative than hierarchical. 

Here's a breakdown:

  • Product Manager: Focuses on the big picture strategy, user research, and market analysis. They may not be a direct supervisor of the product owner, but their work informs the product roadmap and overall product direction.
  • Product Owner: Owns the product backlog, prioritizes features, and collaborates with the development team. They are responsible for the tactical execution of the product vision set by the product manager (or collaboratively defined within Agile teams).

Who Gets Paid More Product Manager or Product Owner?

In general, product managers tend to earn a higher salary than product owners. This is likely due to the broader scope of their responsibilities and the strategic nature of their work.

Here's a breakdown of some factors affecting salary:

  • Experience: Both roles see salary increases with experience.
  • Location: Salaries can vary significantly depending on geographic location.
  • Industry: Certain industries may offer higher salaries for either role.
  • Company Size: Larger companies may offer more competitive salaries.

Consider using resources such as Glassdoor, Payscale and Indeed to find salary information for product managers and product owners.

Should I Be a Product Owner or Manager?

Choosing between a product owner and product manager role depends on your skill set, career goals, and the type of work environment you prefer. 

Here's a breakdown to help you decide:

Product Owner

  • Focus: Tactical execution, prioritizing features, and collaborating with the development team.
  • Skills: Strong understanding of user needs, backlog management, excellent communication and collaboration skills.
  • Work Environment: Close collaboration with development teams, fast-paced and iterative development cycles.
  • Career Path: Can progress to senior product owner or product management roles.

Product Manager

  • Focus: Strategic vision, user research, market analysis, product roadmap development.
  • Skills: Strong business acumen, strategic thinking, user research expertise, excellent communication and presentation skills.
  • Work Environment: Collaboration with various stakeholders (leadership, marketing, sales), broader scope of responsibilities.
  • Career Path: Can progress to senior product manager, director of product management, or even Chief Product Officer roles.

Here are some additional factors to consider:

  • Your experience: If you have a strong technical background or experience working with development teams, the product owner role might be a good starting point.
  • Your interests: Do you enjoy the strategic aspects of product development or the hands-on execution?
  • The company culture: Some companies have a more collaborative structure where product owners and managers work closely together.

Ultimately, the best role for you depends on your individual strengths and career aspirations. Don't hesitate to reach out to product managers and product owners in your network to learn more about their experiences.

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