Product Manager vs Product Owner - What Separates Them

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    Home / Product / Product Manager vs Product Owner - What Separates Them

    Software company success is due in large part to team composition and flow -- who’s doing each important task, and how well they work cohesively within the overall scheme of things. 

    At their onset when the company is often shoestring-small and stakeholders need to don as many hats as possible, a Project Manager (PM) & Project Owner (PO) are typically one person.

    During initial expansion phases, however, teams often split them into two roles and everyone must adapt. Responsibilities can overlap and their titles can be used interchangeably, so these details really need to be ironed out early. 

    Inevitably there comes a juncture where blooming businesses benefit from two product roles: an externally-focused PM and an internally-focused PO.

    Turns out Roman Pichler agrees, arguing smaller younger startups in the software industry can bring in a PO to quickly establish a role for the product’s development without having to build out a product management team.

    But, longer-term, these organizations should create a separate PM role.

    As UserGuiding, our team went through this exact process, hence why we put together this article to help other startups feeling those growing pains!

    Let’s kick this off with some straightforward definitions. 

    Key Definitions: Product Manager vs. Product Owner

    There’s no reason why we need to try and recreate the wheel. 

    Product Plan’s great work on the subject is ideal to draw upon. 

    “Product management is the practice of strategically driving the development, market launch, and continual support and improvement of a company’s products.”

    Sounds like the role of a big-picture-level planner, a role that,

    “...focuses on long-term strategy, the product vision, market trends and the identification of new opportunities.”

    Whereas the PO is neck-deep in the weeds, so to speak. They’re much more at risk of missing the forest for the trees without the direct help of a PM. 

    In other words, their focus is to, 

    “...transform the high-level vision of the PM 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.”

    A neat little trick to differentiate, which you can see in their simple chart we included below, is to think about it like this:

    • PM = Strategic, Long-Term Planning, More Broader-Market & Future-Orientated
    • PO = Tactical, Short-Term Planning, More Situational & User-Specific

    Responsibilities: Product Manager vs. Product Owner

    All that being said, it’s easy to see how this could get confusing (especially for folks with minimal experience running and managing a software company). 

    How are responsibilities most successfully delineated? 

    If we were to crudely summarize the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) breakdown in their Introduction to Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD), responsibilities are doled out along these general lines:

    • PM = product-specific marketing, supporting sales, budgeting, customer care, and supporting the team in charge of delivering or implementing solutions. 
    • PO = More entangled in team meetings and coordination, organizing demos, involved with ongoing testing efforts, and doing the amount of analysis it takes to prep solutions for iteration.
    Product Manager vs Product Owner Responsibility Comparison chart
    Source: ProductPlan

    In her take on the subject for Hackermoon, looking at it from a ‘Who’s The Boss?” perspective, Anna Aria puts it this way,

    “So, the difference between the PM and the PO is that while the PM is out of the building doing market research, meeting potential customers and gathering feedback, the PO is at home in constant contact with the development team and making sure all the production processes are being carried out correctly.”

    Required Skill Sets These Positions Demand

    Obviously, both positions require an aptitude for collaboration and general project management. That much is abundantly clear, but, what else? What other skills do effective POs and PMs display?

    Building on Anna’s Hackermon article, let’s briefly look at a bullet-point perspective of both roles. 

    The Product Manager

    • A product cheerleader and core advocate.
    • A product-focused creative thinker and innovator.
    • A product-focused market researcher extraordinaire.
    • A gifted external and internal communicator.

    Here's more information on the key skills a product manager needs.

    The Product Owner

    • Responsible for designating the product backlog & building user stories.
    • Should ideally be focusing their energy on inter-team development.
    • Takes user stories and ensures criteria are fulfilled to the letter.
    • Exceptional analytical, technical, and presentation skills often come into play.

    Another skill we can appreciate is applying the power of No. For example, software company survival rates fall abruptly to zero once development teams try to tackle every single idea being thrown at them. You can’t jump on every single solitary piece of feedback. 

    It’s simply not possible.

    POs & PMs both need to be able to exercise the power of No without disrupting, derailing, or deriding the team. It takes finesse and a little help from technology. 

    Common Techstack Used In These Roles 

    We can only talk basics here. The question of what your average PO or PM is using in terms of tech tools is an interesting one! Answers vary wildly depending on a variety of traits like age and industry experience, but let’s look at the three main quasi-categories.

    product manager vs product owner tools

    Project Management Software - JIRA, Basecamp, Trello, etc.

    These solutions are focused on augmenting your workplace and work habits. Drawing on CareerAddict’s 9 Key Benefits of Project Management Software, here are a few highlights. 

    • More Efficient Communication
    • Better Scheduling
    • More Efficient Task Delegation
    • File & Document Sharing & Collaboration
    • Budgeting Management

    Product Roadmap Software - LucidChart, Dia, Freeplane, etc.

    These solutions are designed to enhance communication in its many forms for software companies in particular -- diagrams, flowcharts, data visualization, data architecture, processing, mind mapping, brainstorming, etc. 

    Here's more information on product roadmaps and their usage.

    Product Walkthrough & User Onboarding Software - UserGuiding

    We’ll try not to toot our own horn (too loudly), but we believe we have one of the very best, most lightweight tools in this department. Both POs and PMs find it rather useful. 

    With a no-code user onboarding software such as UserGuiding, you can...

    • Build product tours in minutes with a user-friendly ‘no coding necessary’ tool.
    • Quickly show new users, both internal and external, exactly how products work. 
    • Showcase or spotlight updates; walk users through features step by step.

    Here's why you need interactive product walkthroughs. And you can start your free-trial with UserGuiding right now without your credit card!

    Of course, this is only a drop in the bucket. Every committed PO or PM out there has their own tool system that’s a mix of what’s required of them and what they put together to boost output. 

    Wrapping Up

    Perhaps the easiest way to describe the relationship between these two roles is through Hollywood. 

    You’ve likely seen your share of movies, and understand the basics behind how they’re made. We appreciate the way Clint Fontanella describes the relationship in his HubSpot article on the subject,

    In short, a writer [PO] develops a compelling storyline and then finds a director [PM] to bring his or her vision to life on the big screen. This allows the writer to focus on building the best story possible and gives the director the tools needed to visualize the story to an audience.

    They’re both so close to the script, but their connection to it isn't the same. The writer, or PO, is focusing on the script itself, while the PM is focused on bringing it to life in the form of a final product -- the film. 

    One conceptualizes; the other executes. One sees that deadlines are met, while the other is focused on approving iterations and quality. 

    Frequently Asked Questions

    😎 Who is a Product Owner?

    A Product Owner is a person that comes up with the idea of a product and later gets involved mainly in business relations and team coordination.

    👽 Who is a Product Manager?

    A Product Manager is someone who is job is to manage every aspect of the product from development to customer service, ensuring the product's success.

    ❓What is the main difference between a Product Manager and a Product Owner?

    Their responsibilities make the line between them visible. A product manager is responsible for the success of the product while a product owner tries to keep the internal teams intact and act as the face of the company.‍

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