Being a product owner and a product manager are two very different things.  What are the responsibilities that differentiate them? Well, there are several. And what are the results when one is thrust into the role of another? It varies, but there are a few classic issues we see.

Product Owner

A product owner owns the responsibility for all aspects of the product. This is a more strategic than tactic role –think, “what are we going to work on next?”.  The product owner owns the vision of the product.  Where it is and where it is going.  This includes all avenues from marketing to customer and sales input to their own expertise.  Think about the role like this: if they make the wrong decision, the product is doomed. If they do the right thing they’ve got more life in the product. Products don’t finish. Projects do.  This is because a product continues to evolve and adapt to stay relevant.  Think Microsoft Word. Although projects within the product have a start and end date –the product itself is always open to changes and adaptation.

The product owner is coming up with the ideas and delegating out what needs to be done.  You can think of this like the role of a colonel.  Because they are ultimately responsible for everything, people may not directly report to them –but they work with their teams all day every day to make sure the teams are getting the things they need to get the job done.

So, if you’re a product owner and you’re not thinking about all those things, you’re not doing your job right. Everything is about the team.  You may hear product owners that say things like, “development didn’t get that done”. Well, that means the product owner didn’t get it done. If you’re going to have ownership, you have to have accountability. When I take on a role of a product owner, it becomes my responsibility to straighten that out. If I see there’s something wrong, I need to bring light to it. If something goes wrong, if development doesn’t deliver, it’s my fault. I wasn’t writing the code, I didn’t get sick, but it’s still my fault. The owner owns the responsibility. Teams usually respond better to leaders who lead like that rather than people who throw people under the bus.

Think of it as a group project. You succeed together or you fail together.

Product Manager

This is a much less strategic role, but equally important. The product manager is in charge of the product from a development standpoint .  Meaning some business person has said that they have a need and it’s the product manager’s role to come up with a solution. “We have to put in X because I was told to; let’s figure out how to get that done.”  A product manager’s job eventually ends.  You can think of a product manager as a sergeant. A colonel has told them to take the hill, so they do.  They don’t care why.  It’s the product owner’s responsibility to see the big picture and care about the why.

It’s the product manager’s job to execute the plan that the product owner has come up with.  They have to have accountability and responsibility for their individual tasks and teams, but the responsibility of the entire product does not fall on their shoulders.

Switching Roles

So what happens when a product manager is promoted to a role of a product owner?

Well, it can be a real struggle for people who have been promoted to let go of the every day. They’re not answering every call and question anymore -they’re training teams to do that.  This is a hard transition because they used to be the sergeant and now they’re the colonel.  This is a totally different mindset. The thought process has to be: what are we doing, where are we going, do we have the right people, can we dominate the market? They should be looking up and seeing what’s coming; not down at the inner workings. That’s what good directors and product managers are for.  Product owners need to see where everything is going.

This doesn’t mean that product managers can’t successfully be promoted to product owners.  It just means that the transition is just that –a transition.  It will take getting used to.  There is an adjustment period.

What are your thoughts on product managers vs product owners? Do you think the differences are so big?  Do you think that they can be interchangeable? What would some of the difficulties be? Comment below!