The Product Manager vs. Product Owner
January 27, 2014

The Product Manager vs. Product Owner

Agile product companies have a hard time managing products. The product manager is charged with communicating the voice of the customer — achieving both customer and market success. Meanwhile, agile development teams demand that the product owner must articulate detailed user stories, participate in daily scrum rituals, and answer questions as the customer representative.

Prior to the moment that paying customers first use the product, a single product manager/product owner model is challenging for any one person to handle. The product lead must simultaneously focus externally and internally. It is hard but advisable.

The product lead is busy externally — formulating a product concept based on interviews and other market research. For internal engineering teams, they must capture the customer requirements as user stories and explain why they are important. And at the same time, the product lead also trains other teams on the core product value proposition and the problems the product solves.

As prototypes are built, it’s time to quickly reclaim external focus — continuing to engage real customers during each subsequent iteration to improve the product and drive adoption.

Being close to customers is fundamental to the success of an early-stage company, as the concept is developed and a winning product is built. And at the same time, the product manager must be the go-to person for engineering.

Yet while everyone rejoices as sales engages prospects and paying customers come on board, juggling the external and internal workload can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned product leaders.

If the product manager continues to spend the majority of their time externally, the development team suffers. Stories aren’t explained in enough detail. Developers wait for answers. Velocity suffers.

Alternately, if the product manager spends too much time being internally focused, the product loses alignment with customers and the market. Client visits are abandoned. Sales enablement materials are few and far between. The product manager does not participate in implementations to find the weak spots.

There comes a point when growing businesses benefit from having two product roles — externally focused product managers and internally focused product owners. And the people are happier too.

When companies achieve a meaningful level of customer success and the engineering team is larger than about 20, many companies split the product role in two. They decide to invest in a market-focused product manager who is externally focused and works on the long-term vision. And they recruit an internally focused product owner who supports the engineering team and manages the software development details.

This split relieves the pain of the overloaded individual. However, it could also introduce overlap and communication challenges that must be addressed in order for the product manager, product owner, and engineering team to be successful.

The good news is that there are a number of ways to address the potential for overlap and ensure the teams work well together.

Making the product manager/product owner relationship great

The following lessons and insights on how to get this relationship right come from my own experience and from pointers I’ve picked up over the years. My team recently decided to address the product management “external versus internal” challenge by hiring product owners to focus internally and allow the product managers to be more externally aligned.

We knew that to be successful, we needed to clearly delineate the respective roles and define how we were going to work together.

The following table is intended to cover the majority of the typical responsibilities of the externally facing product manager and the development-facing product owner.

It is not intended to cover all of the duties of either role, but it should provide a useful reference for how these two teammates work together at our company. And this model can be tailored to other companies.

Role

Responsibility

Product manager

Tracks the overall market and competitive dynamics.

Product manager

Manages the long-term roadmap, involving sales, marketing, implementations, clients, prospects, partners, and other groups. The ideas are expressed as epics.

Product manager

Attends iteration demos and some standups.

Product manager

Supports other non-technical teams (such as sales, marketing, and channel).

Product owner

Leads requirements gathering effort on the epics as needed — consulting with product management, implementations, clients, and other stakeholders.

Product owner

Documents story details based on the epics after reviewing with development.

Product owner

Attends scrum meetings including standups, retrospectives, and demos.

Product owner

Leads backlog grooming to decompose and estimate stories.

Product owner

Creates mockups and works with UX on design.

Product owner

Answer questions from developers and clarifies requirements.

Product owner

Documents the new feature for implementations and release notes.

Both

Write acceptance criteria.

Both

Demonstrate the latest iterations to customers (pre-release) and gathers feedback.

Our experience has also been that product managers and product owners need to meet at least twice a week to make sure they are on the same page. This allows them to fill in the gaps for each other when needed.

Has this relationship worked in your company?

Do you have experience in an organization with a product manager and product owner who worked especially well together? Or was it a total disaster? Share in the comments below.

This is a guest post by John Peltier. Do you hope to become a great product manager or owner? Want to create brilliant strategy and visual product roadmaps? Start a free 30-day trial of Aha!

John Peltier applies product and marketing spidey senses and user-centered design to solve business problems experienced by real users and buyers. His areas of concentration include B2B software, compliance, and healthcare. He has more than a passing interest in personal branding. John resides in Atlanta with his lovely wife, Phay. Follow John @johnpeltier

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