Should the product manager and product owner be the same person?

I recently read the question on the difference between the product manager and product owner on Quora and ended up sharing my opinion – at length. So I’ve decided to publish it here for posterity. Needless to say, there are other answers and other opinions, all equally valid.

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. Should this be the same person?

There is no absolute answer to this question – as with many things in life it entirely depends on many factors including (for starters):

  • the size and complexity of your organisation (it would be entirely reasonable for a 6-person startup not to want to hire any more staff than the bare minimum required);
  • the complexity of your products (a simple web app would not require as much attention as a complex platform); and
  • how you define the roles and responsibilities of ‘product manager’ and ‘product owner’.

This last point is particularly contentious, however, rather than arguing about the semantics or being caught up in the pseudo-religious debate of whether the One True Role is to be a product manager or a product owner, why not think instead about what needs to be done and who should be doing it.

If it makes sense in your organisation for one person to be responsible for all aspects of the product, then that’s cool. If that’s too much work for one person and needs to be divided up, then that’s fine also.

The situation of committee ownership of a product, in which it is not clear who the one person is that is ultimately responsible (and empowered to execute that responsibility) for the product, is NOT good.

Note also that ‘responsible’ doesn’t equal ‘person doing all the things’. Product management (or ownership) necessitates working with specialists to make the product happen. To take the example of user stories, as the question mentioned it, it’s a good idea for the whole development team (in the Scrum sense) to collaborate with the product owner to create them, providing the product owner has been able to provide sufficient context to the team on the problem: who has it, when, where, how often, and why it matters.

Similarly, taking the example of daily stand-ups, it can be helpful if the product owner is present, but given the purpose of the meeting is simply for the development team to answer the three questions, “What was I doing yesterday?”, “What am I working on today?”, and “Do I have any obstacles I need the team to help me unblock?” – and not to have lengthy discussions – it’s not necessary that the product owner is there for each one. (In the strict Scrum sense, the product owner is not actually a member of the development team.) Clarification or guidance questions can easily wait until the product owner is available, and if not, there are plenty of other items on the backlog that could be worked on if an item is genuinely and completely blocked until the product owner’s input. That’s why the development team is “self-organising”.

If you want to know at a textbook level what a product owner should be doing, start by reading the official Scrum Guide at scrumguides.org.  You’ll find the product owner role is a lot less demanding than it’s often portrayed – as it is in the question above! But it’s also important to remember that the process is there to serve the people, not the other way round.  If you need to tweak how you do things from the textbook definition, then do so – what’s stopping you? That’s the point of the retrospective each sprint, after all.

To see how the role can be adapted, watch the short video by the immensely instructive Henrik Kniberg at wp.me/p1otXW-tv. Roman Pichler’s book on Agile Product Management is also worth a read.

A product manager is always pulled in many different directions because he or she tends to be the one person in the organisation with a truly holistic view of the product and the market problem it’s solving. Product managers have always needed to devote time to each set of people needed to make the product a success, whether development, sales, marketing, finance, legal, not forgetting the time spent out of the office to meet with, and understand the needs of, the target market.

Product managers have always needed to ensure that the development team has the information they need to solve the problem identified in a way that will be usable for the target users and practical for the organisation. The fact that this relationship with the development team is now called ‘product owner’ in Scrum doesn’t (or shouldn’t) really change things. A product manager still needs to balance their time between the development team and everyone else involved in the product.


Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management by Jock Busuttil

“This book has been a genuine game changer for me”
– pb (Amazon)

“I wish this book was published when I started out in product management”
– KejiA (Amazon)

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