Tomato, to-mah-toe, right? What’s the difference between a Product Manager and a Product Owner…or is it actually the same job?
Put simply, no, Product Manager and Product Owner are two distinct roles. Although they do share a common goal – delivering sticky products users love – the scope of their responsibilities is not identical.
Generally, a Product Manager is responsible for the why. They shape the product roadmap based on users’ needs and desires. They are focused on business metrics and on whether the product is going in the right direction on a larger scale.
The Product Owner, on the other hand, is responsible for creating and managing the product backlog. They are operational and on a deadline. For them, it’s all about Scrum, back and forth with developers, and getting stuff done.
However, the lines between the two do often blur. Depending on where you work, you might be used to a variety of setups. To help us wrap our heads more fully around the difference – and similarities – between these two jobs, we asked our very own Product Manager, Yoann Grange, for some clarification.
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What are Product Manager responsibilities? What are Product Owner responsibilities?
This is a question I’ve been grappling with for over 5 years. So much so that I made a series of 25 video interviews [in French] with POs, PMs, Heads of Product… back in 2016.
My short answer is: it depends.
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking ‘of course! Isn’t that true for everything?’
But in this case, it really does depend on a lot of different factors. A chunk of this article will go over them in detail:
When to consider a Product Managers vs Product Owner
Let’s not forget, there are products of all kinds: industrial products, agricultural products, services, chemical products, fashion products… and software products.
In the SaaS martech space, the thinking goes that all products are built the same way and that companies are all structured the same way. They tend to think there is always a Product Manager and a Product Owner behind each feature.
The reality is that sometimes there’s one, both, or even none. What factors determine the setup? Let’s look at a few.
The most important criteria is ‘the momentum of the company.’ What do I mean by that?
How new/old is the organization?
This question is an important one. It also is not directly related to the size of the company. It is not related to the number of clients, either. For instance, I know a company operated by 9 people with more than 200,000 paying customers. This company is “already” 6 years old. The product function is embodied by pretty much everybody in the company.
How far or close is the company in relation to a specific “key moment”?
What I mean by ‘key moment’ are key phases or events in the life cycle of a company. Some examples include:
- the creation of the company
- its sale
- new funding
- tax inspection
- a competitor’s release
- a crisis
- replacement of the CEO
- … you get the idea.
All these different key stages will have an impact on how the product development is executed.
And therefore, they affect what a Product Manager does and what a Product Owner does.
For example, just after a company is founded, the CEO is presumably the best person to take care of the product roles. They are very often (at least in scalable SaaS companies) the one who wears the hat of PO, PM, QA & Support. It is not a choice nor a strategy. It is just what the moment implies.
Also, in general, the way a company’s momentum is handled defines how “well” a company is doing.
Has the moment happening right now been anticipated, or is it just the consequence of the reaction of the last moment? The more a company reacts, the more “Agile” you can consider it to be. The more moments are anticipated, the more “visionary” you can consider the company. It’s challenging to be both.
2. Size matters
When I say size, I’m not only referring to the number of employees a company has. The size of a company also refers to the number of:
- price grids
- or markets they address.
Cutting the products in the right “dimensions” and deciding if we split per market, per range or per topic can be a lifelong job, because it changes very often and the faster the company evolves, the more it has to be changed.
Size can also be defined by the number of users, clients, partners, retailers, languages, unit systems… But also and more frequently, a combination of all the above will tell how many PMs, POs, and Heads of Product your organization will need.
For example, in many non-profits, Product Managers are based on the donor personas. You have a PM for small donation amounts (say $10 to $500), one for larger ones ($500 to $10,000) and one for those that are even bigger. Why? Because expectations from each persona type differ radically, and being able to cater to each will help the non-profit grow in the long run.
In short, the size of the company (its client portfolio, its product catalogue…) may define what the PM does, what the PO does, and how many of each there will be.
3. The remaining criteria
But these are not the only factors that define how many PMs, POs or any other product-facing people you will need. Many other factors can also be taken into account, including:
- number of developers
- number of designers
- shipping velocity
- technical stacks
- product lifecycle
- individual wishes
- growth potential
- existing need coverage ratio
- legacy ratio
- human resources policy
- the market you address
- Finally, there is also the level of politics installed in the company.
There is some kind of global agreement (at least in SaaS businesses) on the fact that the split between PM and PO is based on: vision vs. operations, projection vs. immediacy, value vs. metrics. But both are sides of the same coin…
Though differences can be drawn between the two roles, in the end, they’re two sides of the same coin.
In short, no two organizations are identical. There is therefore no one set answer to this question of what a PM vs. PO should do. You have to find your own way. Some organizations will need many, some will need none. Enabling people to work successfully together is hard enough. Copy and pasting a method won’t help – you have to find your own.
Now, If I have to reply to this question, I’d say that PMs tend to have the final yes/no on prioritization and are accountable for business metrics. POs are responsible for the calendar commitments of the team. But this is still too simplistic of an answer.
Can the Product Manager and Product Owner roles be done by the same person?
Yes. Definitely. I don’t mean it has to be like that, but it definitely can.
This is actually what happens in pretty much every early stage startup. Most of the time, you have at least two people: one tech-oriented and one business-oriented. Quite often the business one endorses the product function. However, the product function can be endorsed by both or by the tech one.
As I said previously, vision vs. operations, projection vs. immediacy, value vs. metrics are the two sides of three different coins that the product person must take into account for every decision.
It is more frequent to see one PM with several POs than 1 PO with several PMs but, in the end, why not? It depends on the many criteria stated above.
In your experience, is there a salary difference between Product Owner and Product Manager?
Yes, there is. Product Managers tend to earn more than Product Owners. Again, because there is some kind of default interpretation of each role, and the latter is perceived as being the less sophisticated one. Whereas they are just different roles (if you want them to be). Pure cognitive bias.
Research from Pendo’s 2020 The State of Product Leadership report surprisingly shows a negative correlation between ‘happiness’ and salary for the Product Managers they surveyed. It’s definitely not all about the benjamins.
What skills are needed to be a good Product Manager and/or Product Owner?
That’s my favorite question. Everyone has a different reply to it. But pretty much everybody agrees on the fact that the scope is rather large.
I hate it when job offers start with things like: “Engineering school or master’s degree in computer science…” When it comes to product people, having technical skills isn’t enough. The more straight-forward type people you have working on your product, the more straight-forward your product will be. And the more straight-forward it is, the faster adoption rises.
Zoom & focus
I would say that the first skill for a PM/PO is the capacity to zoom in and zoom out, depending on what is necessary to understand a problem from both a micro and macro point of view.
Sometimes, you have to dig in very tiny details and sometimes you have to understand the global problem that the larger product or feature is trying to resolve. Being able to adapt your zoom level at any moment is key. The macro point of view helps you understand the competition and the market when the micro point of view helps you understand the details of a component. You have to keep in mind why you do what you do at any moment.
Semantics & semiology
My background in foreign languages has helped me to make the link between developers and users / clients when I was just starting out. I still use it quite a lot today to make decisions on what is meaningful and what is not. It helps you concentrate on a specific comment during a user test and know this is the essential part of the 10 minute video. It also helps you understand why this icon is problematic and why the association between that label and that icon is not working, why both are necessary, why none would be better, but only for some users…
Languages, whether they are technical or functional, whether they are written or oral, visual or acoustic, it is all about transmitting sense. From one team to another, from a user to a machine, from a specification to a living feature, it is about understanding each other. Even with those so many years of evolution, this is not something that we got a lot much better at.
Design is part of that. Having abilities to draw wireframes or full mockups can be useful. Even if it’s not your role, it can speed up the process or open doors to different solutions.
What people put behind the word “communication” is also important as you will have to deal with users, third-parties, stakeholders of all kinds, sometimes media… So being able to make a presentation, a webinar, a training session is useful.
Finally, you’d better like writing and stories. People tend to like listening to stories, but not necessarily writing them.
Iteration & learning
The other key skill set is everything that can be included in the “test -> measure -> improve” loop.
The “test” part comes with doubting. Anyone too sure about what must be done is closer to failure than anything else. The capacity to formulate a hypothesis is important, too. And never taking anything for granted.
For the measurement part, an aptitude or an experience with the scientific approach is useful, as is the capacity to be lucid and clearly measure performance. That would include any analytics (quantitative) knowledge or behavioural analysis (qualitative) skills.
Finally, from a more philosophical standpoint, a successful Product Manager or Product Owner needs to accept failure before even trying. And they need to accept that at some point, they will need to stop improving when success is reached. True perfection is unattainable.
What KPIs are used to measure success for Product Owners? Product Managers?
I’ll try to stop answering each question with: it depends. But… it depends. IMHO, Product Managers’ KPIs should be based on business metrics: growth, revenue, churn, costs… Product owners should be based on delivery, quality, internal team satisfaction.
What training courses can you take if you want to become a (better) product manager?
As I mentioned, the required/minimal skillset is obnoxiously large. The good news? Learning something new will also make you a better person, and therefore a better product person.
Think of yourself as a person first. If you consider yourself as a product, you’ll tend to focus on missing stuff, wrong stuff. If you consider yourself as a person, then any new skill is interesting from a holistic point of view.
As our job is also to be the link between users and technical teams, getting minimalist (or advanced) technical knowledge to best, so you can understand the technical teams and their complexities.
Having worked in 17 organizations in the last 15 years, I would also recommend frequently changing companies. If by doing so, you can also change industries, even better.
What books would you recommend?
Most PMs, POs, VPs, Heads of product will recommend you a long list of best-sellers in the product management space. The typical “Lean UX”, “Lean Startup”, “How to become an efficient PM”… I will try to give you another list.
I tend to recommend classics because they focus on basics. Even if they’re classics, the chance that other Product Managers or Product Owners have read them is slim. Our world is changing faster and faster, but the fundamentals stay the same.
As product people, we work for Humans. Our job is to understand Humans so we can help them. We try to resolve real problems they are facing with the most ‘de-risked’ solutions. We are far from totally understanding Mankind’s complexity, but some have risen above the rest and have offered the world a few masterpieces:
- The Empire of Signs – Roland Barthes
- How to Win Friends & Influence People – Dale Carnegie
- A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis – Sigmund Freud
- Structural Anthropology – Claude Lévi-Strauss
- The Art of War – Sun Tzu
N.B.: Reading is good. Experimenting is better.