Product Manager vs. Product Owner: Roles explained

People often contact me wanting to learn more about product management. Either they want to be a product manager or they want to hire one. As someone who has been in the industry a long time, I am acutely aware as to how confusing the role can be for leaders, for teams and for those transitioning into the role. What does a product manager do? Why are they necessary? And what’s a product owner? Confounding the confusion is that sometimes people in the industry will often use several terms interchangeably even though they have unique meanings. Product manager, product owner, product strategist, product leader—what’s the difference? It’s nuanced, but by defining a few key priorities and responsibilities in each role, we can help clear up the confusion.

Product Manager

A product manager makes decisions about what a development team should be working on. They do that by:

  • listening to users to identify and understand their problems
  • learning about and digging into business goals
  • seeking out recommended approaches and solutions from their development teams

Product managers internalize all of that information, weigh the costs and benefits of moving in a particular direction, and then decide which way to head. People tend to see a product manager’s output as a product vision, focused user problems for the team to solve, and/or a roadmap.

Product managers are valuable because they don’t have an incentive which aligns them with any specific company department. Product managers want to solve user problems, they want their business to achieve its goals, and they want their development teams’ work to be feasible (and awesome). Their empathy is spread equally. It’s this lack of bias, or at least the attempt to squelch the bias, that allows them to make excellent decisions.

Product Owner

Originally, a product owner was a position on a Scrum team. This role would be filled by anyone in the organization who had a vested interest in the development and success of a product and could be the “voice of the customer” for the Scrum team. If the team, for instance, is building an app to accept customer lead information, a marketing professional could be the Product Owner. The marketer understands the needs of customers who complete a lead form, they understand the business requirements and, thus, they could help define the order of the tasks or projects for the development team.

In software companies, the role of product owner is often filled by product managers because teams need someone who is dedicated to helping them move work forward. If product managers take on this role, they tend to be focused more on the delivery aspects of software development than on the strategy or research functions of product management.

Product Strategist

Product strategist is a title often used in consulting. Because consulting or development agencies work with clients, they really need to have a product owner in the client company who can make the final decision and be the voice of the customer, particularly if the engagement is about simply delivering completed software.

These agencies often want to expand their reach and have more influence earlier in the process, so the role of strategist was created. This person will work with clients to help them become clearer about what they want to build. Sometimes that will involve talking to customers, but other times it will mean conducting workshops to help clients articulate what’s in their heads.

Product Leader

Some people—like me—use this term simply to avoid painting ourselves into a box. We like to say that we can do all the things in all the ways because we’re really flexible and can lead people down a certain path. I’ll admit, it’s kind of a made-up term. Sorry if we confuse you.

 

I hope that a more detailed explanation of each role has made a distinction. Remember: A lot of people use these terms interchangeably rather than being specific about what they want or need. So when you hear one of these terms, the best thing you can do is ask people what they mean or what they are hoping the person in the role will do. If they can’t clarify this for you, then use these explanations to ask them questions and help them narrow it down.