Product Owner or Product Manager?

Product Owner (PO) is a defined role in the Scrum framework, that does not mention the Product Manager position. Yet, the Product Manager (PM) is a key figure that leads product development efforts.

1.Product Owner is a Scrum role

PO is an official Scrum role focused on maximizing the value delivered by the product. The main tasks for this role are:

  1. to interface with stakeholders and learn about their needs and expectations for the product
  2. to organize the product backlog, writing and detailing user stories, and finally grooming them smaller, feasible items
  3. to order the work in the product backlog keeping the most valuable work on top
  4. to review and accept completed items delivered by the development team
  5. to present the product to stakeholders, adjusting language and focus according to the audience

2.Product Manager different meanings

Products don't exist in the vacuum, the company context is critical to understand how they are conceived and managed. The PM and PO both play key roles to manage the product lifecycle. Titles are very context-dependent but I usually meet Product Managers either as playing the role of Chief Product Owners or as product champions inside Marketing departments.

In the context of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) the Product Manager role exists to ensures that the product meets business goals and that it gets built, distributed and supported to create a continuous flow of value.

Product or Project?

Although Product and Project Management have common origins, in time they became different disciplines, taking different paths. Usually we understand the differences in three dimensions: focus, time horizon, and scope management.

Product Management focuses on the value delivered by the product while Project Management focuses on a set of characteristics that the "deliverable" must have. The difference in names (product versus deliverable) gives some clues.

Products must be managed during all their lifetimes, while projects start and finish at specific dates. The notion of a project as a temporary endeavor is cherished by Project Managers that work with an eye on the clock, running towards the next deadline. Products are released according to plans that have reference deadlines but the value of time is different, lower because value takes precedence.

Finally scope in a Product evolves with the perception of value, while in a Project we have to define scope upfront, translate it into a Work Breakdown Structure and run to complete it. A product scope is never complete as users needs and expectations evolve in time.

3.Substitutes or complements?

The PM develops the Product Vision, while the PO works on Product Roadmap. Product Managers usually identify opportunities and prepare the company to go after them by developing new products or adapting existing ones. Product Owners dig deep inside the minds of the potential customers and users to learn what will make them chose our product. While the PM is coordinating the efforts and budget inside the company, the PO is making the team focus on delivering value as fast as possible to test assumptions, speed-up or pivot to another direction.

4.Differences between the two roles

The different focuses show that these two roles are complements to each other. They may serve as temporary substitutes, as they know about what is cooking, but, ideally, they are different persons with rather diverse backgrounds. As a PO I used the knowledge and market experience of the PM to decide on the direction to travel, but it was up to me to detail the next steps on that particular road, selecting the customers more aligned to our objectives. If the PM is a senior, top level executive, the natural way is for the PO to approach for guidance, bringing the data collected in preparation. Chances get better when the PO can count on an experienced Product Manager to light up the path.


Although the titles are rather similar, Product Manager and Product Owner have clearly different scopes of action. In a startup it is common to find the CEO playing the role of the Product Manager and hiring someone else as Product Owner to run the day-to-day tasks required to deliver the product with as much value as possible to the market. I urge the reader to avoid mixing them up: pay attention to the subtle differences and note that both roles are necessary and should be taken by different persons to balance long and short-term decisions.