Project Management

Product Owners vs. Product Managers

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A common question that we get is what is the difference between Product Owners (POs) and Product Managers? From a Disciplined Agile (DA) perspective, it’s a matter of strategy vs. tactics:

    • Product Owners are more tactical in practice.  POs work closely with delivery teams to ensure they build the right functionality in a timely manner. POs will transform the high-level vision of the Product Manager into detailed requirements. To do this they work closely with a range of stakeholders for the product, including non-customer stakeholders such as finance, security, operations, support, audit, and others.  Tactical activities such as attending team coordination meetings, organizing demos, doing sufficient analysis to ensure that requirements are ready to be worked on, and being involved with ongoing testing efforts easily add up to a full-time job.
    • Product Managers are more strategic in practice. They should be focused on the long-term vision for the product, on observing trends in the marketplace, on identifying new potential outcomes or themes to be supported by the product, on supporting the sales/adoption of the product, and on ensuring the product meets the needs of the value stream(s) the product is involved with. Effective Product Managers tend to be very customer focused, although recognize that this needs to be tempered by the constraints and capabilities of your organization. The activities that Product Managers are responsible for – product marketing, supporting product sales/adoption, budgeting, long-term envisioning, customer care, and of course supporting the solution delivery team(s) – can easily add up to a full time job.


We Need to Collaborate

As you can see in the following diagram, the role of Product Manager is different, yet overlapping, with that of a Product Owner (PO).  The PO will spend the majority of their time on tactical activities, including working with the team to communicate stakeholder needs to them and working with stakeholders to elicit and prioritize their needs. The Product Manager, on the other hand, spends most of their time on more strategic issues, collaborating closely with customers (and potential customers) to identify their potential needs.

Figure 1. Example of rolling wave planning for product functionality (click on image for larger version).Product Owners and Product Managers

There is clearly overlap between strategic, long-term thinking and tactical, short-term implementation.  Product Owners are responsible for the Product Backlog in Scrum, what Disciplined Agile DAD (DAD) teams might refer to as a Work Item List or in the case of teams who have adopted one of the lean lifecycles a Work Item Pool, and some of the items in the backlog/list/pool might be several months away from being implemented (if ever).  In Figure 1, these are items that fall into the yellow or red timing areas, or even the grey area.  Product Managers, being responsible for strategic thinking, will be focused on high-level outcomes or themes for the product.  They may even be focused on more concrete, yet still high level, epics or features.  So we see overlap in the Product Manager’s high-level strategic focus and the Product Owner’s tactical focus, indicating the need for collaboration between the two roles so that the tactical decisions reflect the overall strategy, and the overall strategy is informed by the realities faced on the ground by the delivery team.

Please note that the timing of “short term” and “long term” will vary by product.  In the case of Figure 1 the long-term planning horizon is around the three month point (where the diagram shifts from yellow to red).  That’s just an example, from one team.  We’ve worked with some teams where the long-term planning horizon was anything more than a month.  We’ve also worked with other teams where the long-term planning horizon was closer to a year (they’ve since shortened that considerably).


Shouldn’t Product Owners Also Address Strategic Issues?

Here are a few thoughts to help answer this question:

  1. Everyone should consider strategic issues.  Some people, particularly those focused on Scrum, will tell you that Product Owners should also be focused on strategic issues.  It’s certainly good for POs to understand the long-term strategy for the product that they are focused on. In short, POs, like everyone else, should be Enterprise Aware.
  2. Each role requires a different, and comprehensive, skillset.  Each of these roles are challenging enough by itself. You’ll have a much better chance of finding someone with the skills to work tactically, and someone with the skills to work strategically, than finding a single person with both skillsets (or the time and inclination to pick up both).
  3. There is often too much work for one person.  As we argued earlier, the day-to-day tactical work tends to be a full-time job (and often more) as does the strategic Product Management work.  As a result, you are often motivated to tease these two roles out into separate positions.
  4. These are roles, not positions. In straightforward, non-scaled situations, it is common to see a single person taking on both of these roles.  This is common in start-up organizations where the company simply can’t afford to have two people to do this work.  It’s also common with new products in general because it isn’t yet obvious whether the product will be sufficiently successful in the marketplace to warrant much investment in long-term strategic thinking around it.

So, as usual, the answer is “it depends.”  As we like to say in DA, context counts which is why choice is good.


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Posted by Scott Ambler on: February 10, 2018 09:44 AM | Permalink

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