Product Manager or Product Owner? You decide!

I’ve been debating for several months now whether to publish my thoughts on the whole product manager vs product owner thing. Not because I don’t care about the subject, I do (probably too much) but because I wasn’t sure if other people did. So, like any good product manager, I sought validation through talking with some of my potential target audience first. Turns out the interest is especially high for aspiring product people looking for their first product role, and for some non-digital product people who are a bit confused too! This story is mainly for you.

Another input which pushed this story to the top of my backlog is the invaluable information I’ve gained from moving companies and starting a new job as a product practice lead (aka product coach). It’s the first time in my 16 year career in tech that I’ve been a people leader of product owners, rather than product managers. I now have a better understanding about why both these roles exist even if it still doesn’t seem quite right to me that they do.

Fact: Quite often digital product owners are doing the same job as digital product managers. You can’t get too caught up in the title.

In saying that, the two jobs are often very different. Let me try to explain. But, before I do, if you’re a complete newb to all of this you might want to read a bit about the origins of the product owner role here and product manager role here.

OK, there are three scenarios I’ve experienced first hand now:

Scenario 1: Product owners doing (digital) product management in a digital only company. Same responsibilities with a different title. I can’t think of a logical reason to use the product owner title in this scenario. It’s confusing and unnecessary. Just give them the product manager title they deserve and stop stifling their future career prospects.

Scenario 2: Product owners and product managers coexisting at a company but doing very different roles. Think of a traditional bank, historically non-digital but transforming into the digital world. The product manager has been there forever, looking after products like mortgages or credit cards. The digital age comes along with a requirement for digital products and digital ownership — enter the product owner role. While there is some logic to this model it’s not sustainable and arguably should be transformed into one digital product manager role over time as the business evolves, owning both business and customer outcomes alike.

Scenario 3: Product owners and product managers coexisting at a digital only company and sharing product management responsibilities. There is arguably some logic to this approach but I personally don’t support it, and here’s why — like Marty Cagan (one of the most influential people in product management) explains, the product owner responsibilities are a very minor part of true product management and the role shouldn’t be split in two. For example, I’ve seen scenarios where the PM is charged with thinking strategically while the PO is only thinking tactically — in the clouds vs in the weeds as I like to put it. I believe the most strategic thinking PM’s (comfortable floating in the clouds) are also the ones digging around in the weeds, being intimate with their customers, being intimate with the data and involved in day-to-day product discovery and delivery with product teams or squads.

I can’t stress enough just how important I think it is for product managers to be playing in the clouds and in the weeds. Tweet this.

From a capability point of view, an experienced PM will find it pretty easy to do product ownership related tasks using very little of their time (Marty suggests about 10%). However, a 2-day certified PO without all the necessary skills and experience in good product management will struggle — if this is you, give me a shout, I may be able to help with some coaching or mentoring in product management.

Being a good PM is a tough job with more to do than time permits. I get that, but oftentimes when we’re unable to keep our head above water, we think we need help from another ‘product person’ when in fact a more effective option could be to hand responsibility of some day-to-day sprint related stuff to a qualified and dedicated scrum master. Another option could be to reduce the number of 'products' you’re managing.

To put things into perspective, you can become a certified product owner in 2 days, but it takes years to become a fully capable product manager.

The moral of the story is that you’re likely to see jobs for both digital product managers and product owners for some time so it’s important to focus on the entire job description rather than just the job title.

Here’s a laundry list of key responsibilities and skills to look out for in a job description— if at least half of these are mentioned, you’re capable of doing them and the company sounds like a good fit for you, then it’s probably worth applying:

  • Has experience creating a product vision and strategy
  • Has conducted market and competitor analysis before
  • Is a dab hand at product ownership (e.g. backlog management)
  • Has created, owned and delivered business cases (e.g. lean canvas) and product roadmaps
  • Prioritisation comes naturally — can say no (or not now) to anyone and justify why
  • Has conducted customer research before or partnered with user experience specialists to do so
  • Knows what product discovery is and how to apply it to modern product management
  • Has designed experiments to test hypothesis and solutions
  • Is up with technology and how to apply its capabilities to building great products
  • Is data-informed (often referred to as data-driven)
  • Has financial understanding enough to know if return on investment is likely and sufficient
  • Has experience with people leadership (e.g. leading a product team or squad, rather than managing people)

Please use the comments section to agree or disagree, I’d love to hear about your own experiences or any thoughts on this subject.