Product Owner OR Product Manager?

Can one person be both a Product Owner and a Product Manager? After spending nearly three years combining the role, I have now come to the conclusion that the answer is no.  It is an “or” – you are either a Product Owner OR a Product Manager.  Now, that is not to say that one cannot grow from one role to the other, but trying to perform both functions at the same time can be counter-productive.  Here are the reasons that have led me to this conclusion.

Inward vs. Outward

The Product Owner needs to be inwardly focused and their highest priority is the success of the Scrum team that they are working with.  Ideally, they are co-located with the Scrum team, if not at the same table, then at least in the same building. The product owner needs to be accessible, engaged and integrated.

The Product Manager, on the other hand, needs to be outwardly facing.  The product manager is responsible for conducting client interviews, evaluating market trends and reviewing competitive activity.  Pragmatic Marketing takes is a step further to say, for the Product Manager: “The answer to most of your questions is not in the building.”

football_strategyTactical (and Technical) vs. Strategic

A great Product Owner is focused on the tactical deliverables of this sprint and the next few in queue.  Product Owners also tend to be fairly technical (sometimes very technical) in their knowledge of the product. They have to be able to collaborate with the IT teams on the best ways to deliver a desired feature. Of course, it is IT that ultimately owns the technology, but a strong Product Owner can banter about the technical alternatives and add significant value to the conversation.

By contrast, the Product Manager needs to be dialed into the strategic vision for the product and perhaps the portfolio of products.  The Product Manager should have a plan for where this product needs to be in two years or more.  Where is this product going? What is its place in the market? How do we differentiate ourselves today and how can we distance ourselves from the competition in the future? These are questions that the Product Manager needs to craft a strategy around.


The Product Owner and the Product Manager also vary in terms of the research, blogs and materials that they read and study.  Product Owners are likely reading about Agile best practices and studying how to write more effective user stories and conduct efficient grooming meetings and enhance communication between team members. Whereas Product Managers are likely spending time on the Forrester and Gartner websites, gleaning industry and market information about trends and adoption. Product Managers have Google Alerts set for updates from the competition and other trend-setters.

Levels of Client Engagement

It is common for Product Owners and Product Managers to have different contacts with existing clients and significantly different conversations with those clients.  The Product Owner might be deeply engaged with the user community of the software and discuss, in detail, the priorities of upcoming functionality. While the Product Manager is probably talking to the leadership of the existing client’s organization to discern their future business needs and how the product (or portfolio) needs to grow and adapt to the changing market.  Not that either conversation is more important, they are just different – different levels of detail at different levels within the organization.

Do they have any similarities? Of course! Both the Product Owner and the Product Manager are totally focused on the success of the product and driving the most business value for the company. Both are dedicated to the success of the IT teams and want to deliver a great product to the marketplace. Both are critical for the success of the product. By separating the roles between the Product Owner and the Product Manager, you can position both for success and create something to be proud of.

4 Responses to Product Owner OR Product Manager?

  1. Jeff Luzum says:

    I like the separation of the two roles, and I agree they should be held by two different individuals. Your approach of having one looking to the outside (end users & industry) and the other looking at the product itself for development, enhancements, and possibly efficiencies is great.

    Under Product Manager and Research – you mention looking through industry and market information, but nothing about leveraging analytics. The fast approaching world with volumes of data captured in IT today and available via outside resources could be a gold mine of information. Do you think you could introduce analytics into the equation for this role to look for business insights to help make both real-time and future decisions?

  2. John Peltier says:

    Nice writeup! I definitely think this is a challenge in many organizations, especially ones where staffing levels do not allow for multiple individuals 🙂

    Part of the challenge with this conversation is that the demands on the product manager change over the life cycle of a product. I’ve previously suggested that during initial development of a v1 product, in order to ensure the solution really hits the mark by getting *and responding to* regular input from prospective customers, the role should be a single person. This person is conducting regular demos and getting immediate feedback from users, and ensuring that input drives future direction. Upon release, once the solution has a basic shape, the product manager can leverage a development-focused product owner to spend more time in the market.

    I also think that Scrum itself makes this shared role difficult to pull off well. Moving to Scrumban is one way to lessen the administrative burden on the product owner, allowing a more favorable balance of time with customers/marketing/sales/etc. vs. time with the development team.

  3. […] I was a software product manager for a number of years, and I can fully appreciate the distinction that Kristin Runyan makes between the roles of product manager and product owner. […]

  4. Nice article. I can agree with everything you put in there. Trying to do it all requires a special person that is not easily found. I have seen it combined with success once, but I wouldn’t bank on it.

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