When 2 Become 1: The Roles of Product Manager and Product Owner

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By Jennifer Gridley – As we approach Valentine’s Day, some may be enjoying The Spice Girls’ 1996 hit for its romantic message. But since this is the BPMA, we’re thinking about the oft-merged roles of Product Manager (PM) and Product Owner (PO). And we’re not alone.

On January 23rd, Pragmatic Marketing hosted a webinar entitled “Six Ways Product Management’s Role Will Change in 2018.” In case you missed it, a full replay is available here.

During their presentation, Pragmatic Instructor and Product Coach Kirsten Butzow along with Pendo Chief Evangelist Eric Boduch emphasized the need to distinguish the PM role from the PO role. Since the Agile Manifesto first distinguished the roles in 2001, the same person has often been expected to serve as both PM and PO. But Butzow and Boduch posited that the PM and PO functions can rarely be performed by the same person effectively. In summary, here’s how they defined each role:

PM

  • Engages in market-sensing activities to determine the future of the product
  • Communicates the voice of the customer
    • Understands customers, the problems the product solves, why the product is winning or losing, competitive differentiation, etc.
  • Converts market data into requirements for engineering
  • Ultimately responsible for customer and market success

PO

  • A subject matter expert (SME) on the product, providing daily support to engineering
  • Helps engineering to ensure the product meets the market requirements identified by PM
  • Deals with release management, uses requirements to create detailed user stories, participates in scrums, etc.
  • Answers questions from customer representatives
  • Ultimately responsible for successful delivery of product that meets requirements

There are other points of view on how distinct these roles should be. For example, see Melissa Perri’s blog post from June of 2017 entitled “Product Manager vs. Product Owner”. Melissa highlights the risks of POs getting distanced from users and depending entirely on PMs for direction:

“When POs are entirely internal-facing, they] are disconnected from their users and incapable of creating effective solutions for them that really solve their problems, because they do not understand the problems well. The Product Managers are essentially waterfalling down the requirements to them and the teams are not allowed to prove if these are the right things to build or not. No one is doing validation work.”

Perri acknowledges many POs don’t have time to do much else aside from writing user stories, calling this The Build Trap. But, she argues that it is possible for one person to act as PM and PO successfully:

“With a good strategy framework in place and ruthless prioritization around a few key goals, one person can effectively talk to customers, understand their problems, and help to define the solutions with the team.”

Echoing this thought, Butzow and Boduch acknowledged that when PM and PO roles cannot be separated, leaders must carefully allocate their time and set expectations accordingly.

So, do you think that setting the PM and PO roles free is the only way to be?
Let’s talk about it – please comment below!

Jennifer Gridley, MBA is a business strategist, change agent and storyteller who has held a variety of corporate leadership roles, most recently in Product Marketing at athenahealth, Inc.  With 15 years of experience rooted in Investor Relations, she loves helping companies to grow and meaningfully improve product differentiation, customer understanding and go-to-market results.  She currently volunteers with the BPMA and is planning her next career adventure.

2 thoughts on “When 2 Become 1: The Roles of Product Manager and Product Owner

  1. Nailed it! Combining these roles is a train wreck waiting to happen! Back in the days of waterfall, most organizations combined the PM and business analyst role. Same bad result! Not only does each role have a different skill set, the goal of each role is very different. Product managers are like the surrogate department head in a customer organization focused on business goals and metrics while POs are the surrogate user focused on making people better at their job tasks.

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