Product Owner And Product Manager, Brothers In Arms

A lot of words have been spoken, written or recorded about the role of Product Owner (PO). So many that it’s hard to imagine that there is an empty spot for a new word or thought. However, when I interview people for the PO position more often than not, I’m faced with solid knowledge of Scrum roles, artefacts and ceremonies, skills in Jira or other tools, but very limited to none experience in product creation and management.

Is that how things should be?

The common denominator for terms “Product Owner”, “Product Manager”, “Product Developer” is the word “Product”, so let’s look at the life of one product.

Similar to a living creature, each product has a moment of “birth” or moment when it meets this world, it develops, grows, gives fruits and finally it goes into retirement.

So, who is nurturing product over its lifetime?

In general it is a Product Manager, a person whose main job is to take care of the product, from the idea of what the product should do or what problem it should solve, via its testing with users, pivoting or refining till its launch on the market. Product Manager role doesn’t end there, they are responsible for introducing product to the market, follow its growth, decide on communication and promotion of the product. They listen to users’ feedback and refines the product to be more in line with users’ wishes. At the same time Product Manager is aware of business expectations from the product and they shape the product to meet those expectations. Finally, Product Manager is the one who makes the decision on the moment product should be retired and prepare all necessary steps so that users are as little as possible disturbed by the product being withdrawn from the market.

Along with this role, there’s a Product Developer (or Product Designer). This person is focused on the first part of the product life cycle, that is its ideation, exploration of the product and its first development. So, Product Developer is the person focused on one part of product life cycle, unlike Product Manager, who’s responsible for the product throughout its entire life.

Where does the Product Owner fit?

To answer that question, let’s look at what the Scrum says about the role of Product Owner.

Looking at the definition of Product Owner (PO) role, as defined by the Scrum Guide :

The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.

Likewise, Scrum Alliance says that:

 The Product Owner is expected to incorporate stakeholder feedback to create the highest value product increments each and every sprint. Product Owners maintain the product backlog and ensures that everyone knows the priorities.

At a first glance one might say that a PO’s main concern is to prioritize backlog items and inform the team on those priorities. Taking those definitions literally explains why I have the impression from the interviews as said above.

However, although not explicitly said, both definitions assume that PO is making right decisions in order to lead the product to its market success. But making such decisions and successfully leading the product go beyond reordering backlog items or taking part in Scrum ceremonies.

Having said that we can conclude that Product Owner has to be involved into product throughout its lifetime. This practically puts equals sign between the term Product Owner and Product Manager. This should not come as a surprise, as you can understand from the term itself – the Owner. If we take a small company, or a start-up for example, the owner is the sole responsible person, the one that makes a difference between success and bust. Same should be with the Product Owner, this is the person that should take care of the product since the ideation and first prototypes all the way through to its retirement, and withdrawal from the market.

You can find posts showing differences between Product Manager and Product Owner role sometimes. Usually, PO is there focused on backlog and tactical decisions. But what type of Owner behaves like that? Is that the owner or just a clerk?

Why, then, do we need both Product Manager and Product Owner role, one might ask? As Melissa Perry puts it nicely in her post, “Product Owner is a role you play on a Scrum team. Product Manager is the job.”.

Coming back to my initial thought, if Product Owner should go beyond backlog, then how do I keep talking to people who are tactically focused? I’d say that Product Owners that I’m talking to are coming with strong Scrum background, but Scrum is a framework that helps people to organize and be good in software (or other products) production. It doesn’t offer guidelines on how to talk to users or how to ideate the product. There’s nothing wrong in that. Scrum is doing exactly what it is meant to do. On the other hand, it doesn’t stop anyone from performing the PO role as they like, what’s more, the definition from Scrum guide, even states this explicitly.

This is why I will offer, to all those that see themselves as Product Managers performing the role of Product Owner, a toolbox that will, hopefully, help them find technique they need at particular phase of product discovery and improve themselves in this pre-backlog phase of product delivery.


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