Should your Product manager be the Product Owner

In some larger organizations, you may find that these two roles are split. And although I heavily disagree with this decision, they aren’t technically wrong. Truth is the founders of Scrum didn’t explicitly say that the Product Owner is the Product Manager. If they had, the role of a Product Owner wouldn’t be so ambiguous. Nonetheless….

A Product Manager, as defined by wikipedia, “considers numerous factors such as intended demographic, the products offered by the competition, and how well the product fits with the company’s business model. Generally, a product manager manages one or more tangible products. However, the term may be used to describe a person who manages intangible products, such as music, information, and services.

Whereas a Product Owner is really just a subset of tasks via the Scrum Agile methodology. I would argue that a PO shouldn’t be confined to just this role, because this person can get too consumed in the trenches and instead of helping improve the process they’ll inevitably make it worse by being another filter to the team from the PM, Executives and Customers.


Strategic & Tactical

Instead of the typical breakdown of PO vs PM, I’d argue that it should be broken down via strategic and tactical responsibilities. Sure there are a plethora of tasks a PO can do that would make it justifiable to be it’s own job title; and the same is obvious for a Product Manager; however, if you’re doing it that way you’re doing it wrong.

Development teams don’t want the PO to simply be a pass-through between the actual PM and the team; what real value would they be adding? Instead if your company is large enough, it’s common to have a high-level PM.. either a Director of Product Management, or a VP of Product Management that will set the over-all direction of all the different products. That person would usually work with several teams. Each of these individual teams could have their own PO, which would then maintain the backlog for each of their respective teams and the PM would be more customer facing; However, neither of these parties should be too disconnected from either real customers or the actual team that’s building the product. Because when the team has a question about a particular story for a feature, they’ll have to ask the PO, who will then have to ask the PM because they wouldn’t know either; they wouldn’t have enough context to holistically understand the real problem the user stories are trying to solve and thus wouldn’t be capable of answering and solving those types of questions on their own.

A true Product Owner needs to be able to do just that, genuinely own the product that their team is working on. To do so, they have to have more than just tactical tasks like grooming the backlog and explaining user stories to the team.

What else? Are you a PM/PO? What size is your company and how do you handle roles and responsibilities — and how many product lines does your company have?


3 thoughts on “Should your Product manager be the Product Owner

  • Hi Vince,

    I’ve written four or five posts on this topic….so here’s my thinking as of this week :) I think it breaks down to whether you’re talking new product development or ongoing releases of a product already in market.

    For new product development, I think the value of having the person who knows customer needs in the room with the team guiding feature development is irrefutable. Splitting the roles before market release doesn’t make sense. That person has to be doing customer development while guiding each sprint..intensive work, no doubt.

    Along with obvious lack of staffing, the above is why that model is most common in early stage startups who are usually doing NPD of a single product.

    For maturing products, that may not be the case if you have good UX team who can own interaction design. To maximize revenue and understand how the market is changing, I’m more comfortable with split roles. I want the PM in the market talking to people. Without splitting, there’s too much risk of that person getting caught up in the day to day with engineering, and losing touch with the market.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Hey John, that’s a great point and strong use case.

      The biggest thing that would concern me, is that it seams that’s how a product could become stagnant.

      I do agree completely that there is a risk of having the PO / PM too caught up in the daily tasks of being in the trenches — however, I’d caution that the opposite is true for the person flying to high near the sun. It seems that there should be an overlap so that each person should pull the other up or down when they get too narrow focused.

      I love this discussion though, and thanks for the great reply!

      • Thanks, Vince! I think the risk of flying “too high” is needed, to ensure that the business finds new opportunities, possibly even new products that can solve new/related problems. Too many teams suffocate the product manager with design issues, when that’s not the best use of product manager time.

        Once the product is launched, product managers have to talk to enough prospects and users to understand which of the many possible next features will be the most profitable use of resources. Others can be brought in for optimizing user experience and interaction design.

        Having said that, while the product manager is out in the market, he can also be getting design feedback on prototypes; but the balance of time should be towards understanding problems rather than designing solutions.

        I wrote about my approach last year – see what you think!

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