Definition ofProduct Owner vs Product Manager
There is not a tech industry-wide consensus on the difference between a Product Owner (PO) and a Product Manager (PM). Nor is there consensus as to what each of them mean.
Furthermore, if you peruse product job listings, you will often see the titles used interchangeably. This is especially common for immature technology teams, companies going through a digital transformation, and for companies that aren’t product-led or software centric.
However, among more mature technology organizations, product-led companies, and many software and tech-centric companies, there is little doubt as to the criticality and purpose of each role.
Still, it is probably more common to combine the roles into a hybrid. A notable exception to this is with companies practicing SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework), where the roles are strictly defined because of the layers of responsibility within the framework.
Regardless of having separate or hybrid roles, it’s important to understand the differences. Let’s consider each role individually.
Product Owner (PO)
- Very detail oriented
- Embedded with the engineering team
- Focuses on day-to-day activities
- May run daily stand-up (in the absence of a scrum master)
- Answers product questions from the team
- Facilitates communication with the PM, Scrum Master, other teams, and engineering leadership
- Compiles release notes
- Runs Sprint Planning and Backlog Refinement meetings
- Prioritizes user stories in the Sprint backlog (and product backlog, in coordination with the PM)
- Refines the product backlog with the PM and engineering leads to break down epics and features into user stories
- Acts as an advocate for the team
- Manages dependencies on the team or from other teams
- Collects and analyzes feedback from users, the team, and the company
- Gleans tactical insights from product analytics
Product Manager (PM)
- Very detail oriented
- Generally not embedded with the team if the PO role is separate
- Focuses on strategy and medium to long term objectives
- Prioritizes the product backlog (generally at the epic or feature level)
- Collects and analyzes feedback like the PO, but focused on more strategic insights
- Gleans strategic insights from product analytics
- Works with the PO to convey strategic intent and ensure mutual understanding
- Works with the PO to break down epics and features into user stories
- Attends Sprint Planning and Backlog Refinement meetings
- Attends product/sprint demos and provides feedback
- Builds and curates the product backlog
- Facilitates communication between the product team and company leadership
- Works with sales and marketing on the go-to-market strategy, pricing, product-market fit, and new feature education and adoption
As mentioned above, many companies—though they may recognize the important differences between PM and PO roles—opt to combine roles into a specializing product generalist. This is perhaps the most common role in the technology product field and is usually titled Product Manager.
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