In the world of product development, we often hear the terms "product owner" and "product manager," but we seldom stop to think about what these titles mean. Even less frequently do we consider what happens when one person takes on both roles.

In this blog post, I address overlooked areas when trying to combine these multifaceted roles.

Product managers vs. product owners

A product manager has all the capabilities of performing the role of a product owner—a subset of the wide responsibilities of a product manager. However, in many organizations, the person in the product manager position is far too busy to handle the tasks and responsibilities of the product owner.

This can lead to development teams feeling a vacuum of prioritization, backlog management, and refinement, which, in many cases, can be helped by hiring a product owner.

The focus of product owners

The primary task of a product owner is often to manage and prioritize the product backlog for a Scrum team. However, it goes far beyond that. The product owner serves as a critical link between the development team and stakeholders.

They work closely with the development team to understand technical challenges and opportunities and communicate continuously with customers and the business to gain insights into market needs.

The product owner juggles business requirements, customer needs, and technical constraints, making quick decisions in changing circumstances.

A challenge faced by product owners is distancing from important but not “urgent” tasks, such as market and competitor research, and reaching out to customers, which subsequently suffer.

The focus of product managers

Unlike the product owner, the product manager looks at things from a bird's eye view. They are responsible for the overall product strategy, market analysis, and competitor tracking. Their role is multifaceted, encompassing everything from customer interviews to business model development and launch strategies.

The product manager focuses on making the product business as profitable as possible. In this role, it's easy to focus on adding features. The challenge often lies in distancing too much from the team and technology, and there's a risk of overemphasizing features while neglecting technical debt or future-supporting architectural work.

Challenges and compromises in combining product ownership with management

Sometimes, organizations use the title “product owner” without considering a product manager position. In these cases, the product owner often takes on the responsibility.

When these positions are split between two or more people, it becomes necessary to agree on who is responsible for what. What does the product manager do, and what does the product owner do? Which tasks will be completed together? Failing to agree on this can lead to misunderstandings and conflict later down the line.

If, however, the two roles are combined and fulfilled by one person, other challenges can appear. In such cases, many important aspects may be overlooked:

  1. Marketing and customer understanding: The product owner focuses on technical details, which means that marketing strategies and customer understanding may take a backseat.
  2. Product strategy and vision: When urgent development tasks take up a large portion of time, long-term planning and vision may be forgotten.
  3. Competitor monitoring: Monitoring competitors and the market situation are core responsibilities of the product manager, but these may be overlooked when the same person is focused on product owner tasks.
  4. Product life cycle management: The product manager looks at the product from a broader perspective, which includes managing the product's life cycle. When roles are combined, this area may get less attention.
  5. Stakeholder collaboration: The product manager's tasks include wide-ranging collaboration with other stakeholders. This may be limited when the same person also performs the product owner's tasks.
  6. Metrics and KPIs: The product manager monitors product performance through various metrics and KPIs. These may go unmonitored if the roles are combined.

Combining roles isn't always a bad idea

In small companies and teams with limited resources, it's not always a bad idea to combine these roles. The key is to recognize what compromises are being made and how to ensure that all necessary areas are covered.

Training programs

We've developed a comprehensive product management model designed for today's challenges. If you're interested in deepening your expertise, we offer two different programs.

World-class product owner: This focuses specifically on product planning for product owners. You will learn how to manage and prioritize the product backlog effectively, understand customer needs, and collaborate with a cross-functional development team.

World-class product leader: This training focuses on important areas for product managers, such as product strategy, marketing, and market opportunities. The training, however, illuminates the entire product management model, providing a broad understanding of how product managers can make products a success.

Both training programs offer a comprehensive overview of our product management model and provide concrete tools and skills that you will need in different areas of product development.

Published: Oct 23, 2023

AgileProduct management