The Product Manager Is the Product Owner
February 21, 2014

The Product Manager Is the Product Owner

by Brian de Haaff

Have you worked with a great product manager? If so, you know that she led the product with pride and was at the epicenter of every major product decision. She knew customers like family, was the go-to source for everything product, and guided engineering and the rest of the non-technical team to greatness. So, why would you want to cut the product manager in half and force her to look only externally or internally?

The best product managers thrive in complex environments where they are responsible for leading the success of a product. And they do so with grace. They are effective externally because they are product experts, and they are trusted internally because they empathize with customers and are thought leaders in market. For these reasons, it is curious that companies want to split the role and have one person be the “external” product manager and one act as the internal “product owner.”

John Peltier recently wrote a strong blog post in support of separating the role of the product manager and the product owner and we were thrilled to publish his point of view. It’s obvious that some teams are thinking about product management in this way — especially at bigger companies.

The reasoning is simple for dividing product leadership, but we think it is all wrong. At the end of the day, there should be one product champion driving the business forward.

John is correct when he argues that it is a ton of work for one person to manage both the external and internal responsibilities for a product. He wrote, “Agile product companies have a hard time managing products. The product manager is charged with communicating the voice of the customer — and at the end of the day achieving customer and market success. Meanwhile, agile development teams demand that the customer representative (aka the product owner) must articulate detailed user stories, participate in daily scrum rituals, and answer questions at all times.” There is no doubt that great product managers need to do both and see the big picture while they manage the details.

Based on our own experience leading product in six software companies and talking with over 500 organizations in the last few months at Aha!, we think there are a number of compelling reasons to avoid cutting the product manager in half. Ultimately, when you do divide the role, individuals and the business suffer. Here are the two major reasons why:

Who’s in charge here? Authority is the ability to make decisions and responsibility is being held accountable for them. When you split any role it becomes less clear as to who has what authority. Even in the most functional organizations this leads to confusion and unnecessary pauses as it is not obvious who has the final word on complex decisions. And product management is all about making decisions when data is limited. Note that in John’s post the overlap in responsibilities are striking (e.g. both PM and PO can attend stand-ups). This overlap of responsibilities creates uncertainty for other team members and also diminishes from the responsibility that the product manager and product owner feel.

Expert no more Product managers should be humble but fearless. This confidence comes from being a master of their domain. When you separate the role, the externally facing product manager loses touch with the reality of the product and internal capabilities. Worse, the product manager very likely loses contact with engineering. And the same is true for the internal facing product owner. He becomes confined to the office — an engineering prisoner only to be punished by the same group for not really understanding what the customer wants.

The intersection of customer insight plus technical chops leads to innovation breakthroughs. And for this to happen, you need a product manager who speaks customer and engineering.

As a product manager, you are the CEO of your product and chief firefighter. It can be very rewarding in terms of having an impact, career growth, and financial achievement. But it also can be feel overwhelming and sometimes thankless.

However, splitting the product manager in half does not help her or the organization. It destroys both. With humility, hard work, and teamwork, product managers can own their entire product and lead with conviction. And when they are given the authority to do so and are held accountable, everyone wins.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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