June 18

Product Owner vs Product Manager: 4 Main Differences

As more organizations approach work from a product perspective, there are a series of questions that arise regarding product owner vs product manager.

Should there be a product manager and product owner?

Should there be only one?

If both, who leads whom?

Is there a difference between an agile product manager and a scrum product owner?

Does it make a difference when you’re trying to build a great product?

I thought it’d be helpful to explore some basics about product owners and product managers and then explain their differences. Hopefully, this explanation will help you figure out the answers to the above questions for your organization.

Product owner vs product manager: the basics

The product owner vs product manager debate continues in part because arguments differ depending on if they are based on theory or practice.

In theory (at least according to many in the Scrum community) a product owner is a product manager for agile teams, especially when the organization is using Scrum, the most popular agile framework.

In practice, that’s rarely the case. More often than not, product owners focus on working with the team(s) to build a solution. Product managers work internally with the team, and also have externally focused responsibilities such as understanding customer’s needs, market research, and budgeting.

In practice, product ownership ends up being a subset of product management.

To understand these dynamics a bit more, let’s take a look at the responsibilities of the two roles.

Product owner roles and responsibilities

The term product owner was originally defined as part of Scrum, and as such, there is a clear definition of the role of the product owner.

Because the Scrum framework was created to guide the work of a software development team, the product owner role tends to focus on what a software development team and scrum master expects their product person to do. You can see this focus in the definition of product owner in the Scrum Guide.

As a result, if you’re a product owner, your focus is on the relationship with your team members. You’ll make prioritization decisions regarding which aspects of the solution your team will deliver.

You’ll find yourself spending most of your time writing user stories, refining the backlog, and acting as the voice of the customer.

There will be times when you interact with stakeholders outside the team or outside the organization, but these interactions are usually driven by the need to get information to answer developer questions or to provide clarity for the product development team.

Product manager roles and responsibilities

In contrast to the product owner, there are a variety of different ways to describe the responsibilities of a product manager.

For the purposes of exploring the differences between product owners and product managers, the following description may be the most helpful.

As a product manager, you understand customer’s needs and discover ways to satisfy those needs that are beneficial to your organization. You have to:

You are, in effect, deciding what problems your product team should solve.

In order to do that you have to build and maintain a direct, meaningful connection with your organization’s customers.

You refer to a product vision and product strategy to evaluate whether your team should solve specific problems. In many cases, you play a part in crafting the product vision and product strategy.

When you identify the problem to solve, you work with your product team to discover a solution and build it. You’ll establish metrics to indicate when you’ve solved that problem. You use a product roadmap to communicate what problems you’re intending to solve now, and in the future.

And you also work with product marketing and sales to sell your product and make it available to your organization’s customers. Hopefully, those functions are part of your product team as well.

When it’s all said and done, if you’re a product manager you’re paying attention to things outside the organization and within. Your responsibilities overlap with anything you’d expect a product person to do.

4 differences between product owner and product manager

Now that you’ve seen the responsibilities of product owners vs product managers, here’s a look at four key differences implied in those sets of responsibilities.

Internal Facing vs Customer-facing and Internal facing

When you’re a product owner, your responsibilities center around the team. Your team looks to you to determine the most valuable thing for them to build. Developers also expect you to provide them with a steady stream of well-defined, prioritized backlog items.

When you do interact with people outside the team, it’s for the purposes of clearing the path for the team. You interact with stakeholders to understand what they need and to clear barriers.

When you’re a product manager, your focus is broader. You certainly need to do the things that a product owner does. But the driving reason for doing that is broader than making sure the team produces value. Your focus is solving customer problems in a way that benefits both the customers and your organization.

Cliff Gilley takes a deeper look at how the role of product owner is defined entirely by their relationship with the Scrum team and hence narrows their focus.

Role vs Job

Product owner originally came about as one of the three main roles in the Scrum framework. That role is often filled by someone from the business unit for whom work is being done such as a manager, subject matter expert, or business analyst.

Product manager has been around for quite a while and more often than not when you’re hired to be a product manager, that is your main responsibility.

You could think of the difference between roles and jobs as follows:

  • A role is a function that you play in an organization or with respect to a product or specific initiative. Roles are often used as shorthand for a set of responsibilities you fulfill.
  • A job is something you were hired to do. Job titles and descriptions are often used as shorthand for the set of skills you have.

Melissa Perri provides a further explanation of how product owner is a role you play on a Scrum team while product manager is the job.

I should note that this difference may not be as distinct as it once was as more organizations are using agile approaches and creating product owner job titles.

Delivery vs Discovery and Delivery

Let’s face it, the product owner role is a developer’s version of the ideal product person.

It’s a good representation of what you should do when interacting with a software development team. It explains your responsibilities when it comes to delivery.

But most descriptions of the product owner role leave a lot unsaid when it comes to discovery.

On the other hand, if you’re a product manager approaching that job properly you’re doing both discovery and delivery.

You still need to interact with your product team to build the current solution. At the same time, you need to work with members of your team (usually a designer and an engineer or two) to discover additional insight into your customers’ problems.

You’ll also do some forward-looking discovery to identify the problem you’ll need to tackle next.

That may seem like it’s more than a full-time job for one person. Some organizations reach that conclusion and have people filling the product management role and the product ownership role. (More about that below).

There is a lot to do, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to add an additional role. Teresa Torres explains that if you use continuous discovery, you may be able to tackle discovery and delivery without adding an additional role.

Scrum Team vs Product Team

This last difference has more to do with the characteristics of the team you likely work with rather than your specific responsibilities.

If you’re a product owner chances are you work with a “Scrum team” or a delivery team. You and your team are handed a solution to deliver. It then falls to you to guide the team to deliver that solution by managing the product backlog, writing user stories and working with stakeholders to answer your team’s questions.

If however, you’re a product manager you’re given a problem to solve and you and your empowered product team work together to figure out the best solution.

Ok, I’ll admit it’s possible that you’re a product manager and are still given a solution to deliver.

This difference arises because product owners often come about because your organization is trying to follow an agile approach or a specific development process. Product managers tend to exist in organizations that aren’t as concerned about following a specific process as they are about achieving specific outcomes.

Marty Cagan provides a similar perspective on the difference between product teams and scrum teams and why that difference matters.

Should you hire product managers or product owners for your scrum teams?

It depends.

As mentioned above, if your organization explicitly has “Scrum teams” then there’s probably an investment in following the Scrum framework. If that’s the case you may find it best to hire people who recognize themselves as product owners as they’ll be familiar with the process.

In addition, if you expect your teams to build the solutions they are asked to build then a product owner is probably the best choice. Product managers who understand the role will find themselves underutilized in this situation.

If you’re looking for your teams to have more say in what they build based on the problems they are asked to solve, then you’re going to want to hire product managers. They are better positioned to understand your customer’s problems, identify the ones worth solving and work with a team to deliver a good solution.

Then there’s always the situation where the product you’re working on gets so complex that the product activity seems too much for one person. You may at that time choose to split the product responsibilities between a product manager and a product owner.

While this approach is not recommended by many in product management circles, it is a common approach that organizations dealing with large products use.

I explore the different models for organizing product people in this look at the roles product people play.

Product owner vs product manager salary differences

Even though product owner is often a role, there is an increasing number of product owner job listings. That said, there are about 10 times more product manager jobs listed than product owner jobs.

As of June 2021, Glassdoor.com determined the average salary for product owner jobs in the United States is almost $100,000 with a range of $70,000 – $142,000.

For comparison purposes, the average salary for product manager jobs in the United States is $112,000 with a range of $73,000 – $173,000.

The product manager’s salary range includes the entire product manager career path (Product Manager, Senior Product Manager, and Product Leader) so that may skew the numbers a little bit.

There are a few factors which impact the comparative salaries:

  • Entry-level product managers often share the same responsibilities as described for product owners so they may share similar salary ranges.
  • Product owners are more likely to be found in large enterprises which may drive salaries upward
  • If a startup has a product person, they are most likely to be a product manager. A higher proportion of startups may pull down the average product manager’s salary.

Of course with all other salary comparisons, you have to consider the organization you work at and the location at which you work.

Key takeaways

As you’re trying to decide whether your organization will have product owners, product managers, or both it’s important to keep a few things in mind:

  • Product owner is a role; product manager is a job.
  • The responsibilities of a product owner are a subset of the responsibilities of a product manager.
  • Your decision to have product owners, product managers, or both depends on the nature of your organization and how you expect your product teams to operate.

Whatever route you choose, it’s important to establish clear expectations with your product people and to make sure you’re not relying solely on what you call them to convey what you expect them to do.

FAQs

Here are a few additional questions that are frequently asked about the relationship between product owners and product managers.

Can a product manager be a product owner?

Yes.

As described above, the product owner role is a subset of the broader product management job.

In order to effectively solve customer problems in a way that benefits your organization, you are going to have to make sure your team is effective in building a solution.

Can a product owner fill a product manager role?

Sure.

But you need to be sure that the product owner understands that there is more to being a product manager than managing a backlog and attending standups. They need to understand product discovery and how to interact with sales and marketing.

As Marty Cagan explained, the mistaken notion that you can learn all you need from a CSPO class has led to some poor product management.

Is the product owner higher than the product manager?

Nope.

In organizations that have both product owners and product managers, the product owner job is often viewed as the first step on the product management career ladder.

Do product owners report to product managers?

It depends.

In many cases, product managers do not have any direct reports. However, as you climb the career ladder, you may coach, or even manage other product people with less experience and fewer responsibilities. This may start at the senior product manager level but definitely kicks in for directors of product management.

In those cases, you may see product owners reporting to a senior product manager or director of product management.

Ken Norton explored the product management career ladder and suggested that there should be dual career ladders for product people. One for those who want to manage people and one for those who do not.

Kent J McDonald

About the author

Kent J McDonald writes about and practices software product management. He has product development experience in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, nonprofit, and automotive. Kent practices his craft with a variety of product teams and provides just in time resources for product people at KBP.media and Product Collective. When not writing or product managing, Kent is his family’s #ubersherpa, listens to jazz and podcasts (but not necessarily podcasts about jazz), and collects national parks.


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