In the modern Agile product organization, Product Owner is an essential role. But it confuses a lot of people, because it is usually not an established job title, like Product Manager. The Product Owner’s responsibilities can be assumed by different people. 

This often leads to confusion. Read on and never be confused about this again. 

Essentially, the Product Owner helps the Product Manager, concentrating on the details of the backlog and the near-term future. This allows the Product Manager to focus more on customer needs and the longer-term product vision and strategy.

But that’s only on the surface level. To help you confidently navigate a modern Agile organization, let’s dig one level deeper and resolve:

  • How do the roles of Product Owner and Product Manager differ from each other? 

  • Who is responsible for what? 

  • Why does the role carry the funny word “owner”? 

  • Isn’t the Product Manager responsible in the end?

It’s easy to see how not knowing this can cause confusion and conflict, so let’s get started.

The Product Manager is the best Product Owner

The Product Owner role means managing the backlog and prioritizing work so that the results of the team effort are optimal. It means owning the definition of details, as the team starts working on the item. 

The Product Owner also represents the customer on the team and therefore has the final say before a release. Does the feature work as is, or does it need changes? It’s the Product Owner’s call.

This means she needs to be in contact with customers, and truly understand them and other stakeholders. And who has the best customer understanding in the organization? The Product Manager! Therefore, at the beginning of a project or with a small team of developers, the Product Manager is the best Product Owner.

The Product Manager can become too busy to handle the details

As the product matures, the market for it grows. The business case becomes more complex, and the number of customers increases. This makes the Product Manager increasingly busy. Usually, the development organization also grows. Instead of a single team, there can now be multiple teams. 

Agile practices rely heavily on discussion. To refine work items before starting on them, you need a lot of personal interaction. This takes time, but it guarantees that the team understands the problem and the need before designing the optimal solution. If your Product Manager is too busy, the implementation teams may not get enough bandwidth. You are then at great risk to build the wrong thing.

How the Product Owner helps the Product Manager

Following the scenario above, you reach a point when it makes sense for the organization to consider splitting the responsibilities. And when you do, it typically looks like this: 

The Product Manager: 

  • starts to own the long-term roadmapping and product vision

  • remains the final authority on prioritization 

  • continues to own the opportunity portfolio planning and developing early ideas to feed to the product backlog 

  • hands over the planning of the details to a separate, dedicated Product Owner

The Product Owner: 

  • takes ownership of backlog management, refinement, and prioritization (of course in collaboration with the Product Manager) 

  • always tries to anticipate what the Product Manager would decide 

For a well-functioning Product Manager – Product Owner relationship, cooperation and personal chemistry must match seamlessly.

Different roles, different timescales

The Product Manager owns the product vision, strategy, and roadmap (the product plan for the coming 5 years. The Product Owner owns the short-term plan (usually 0-6 months), the backlog. 

The long-term plan, the roadmap, is full of ideas, potential features, and targets for the product. The items on the roadmap are not detailed and analyzed — they are full of assumptions. The commitment level is lower the further into the future the plan looks. A feature may be built 18 months from now, but you are not 100% certain — feature priorities live and change. 

Managing and communicating around the roadmap is totally different from managing the short-term backlog.

How an item moves from the roadmap to the backlog: Who does what in this important promise? 

When something moves from the roadmap to the backlog, the team must look at the uncertainties and assumptions, and start to split the work and add details. Meanwhile the commitment level starts to increase. 

It isn’t an instant decision, but a process of analysis. The Product Manager and Product Owner cooperate at this critical stage. Often the Product Owner is responsible for analysing the items that are considered for a move to the backlog. 

When the final “approved to backlog” decision is made, there is now a much stronger commitment to building the feature.

There are always more ideas and requests than what the team can deliver. This means that someone must have the final “yes or no” decision authority. The Product Owner understands the team velocity - what the team is able to deliver. She also guides the team through the analysis of an item, and the checking of uncertainties and assumptions. She makes the ”approved to backlog” decision. 

The Product Manager gives the final blessing for any decisions the Product Owner makes. The role of Product Owner is to make that delivery promise in an informed way, understanding the implications and risks involved.

The organization benefits from the promise-maker role

When the item lands in the backlog, a promise is made to deliver it. Being the “promise maker” in this decision, the role is called Product Owner, not Backlog Secretary. 

The organization benefits from having someone responsible for finding out the details of the need, acceptance criteria, risks, dependencies, and effort before making the final “yes” decision. When somebody owns digging into the details, you will prioritize better and be far less likely to build the wrong thing. 

“With great power comes great responsibility”

The true benefit of Product Ownership is to force the organization to consider what it does and does not do. That is why the role has the word “Owner” in it. Ownership means responsibility and power.

Published: Nov 22, 2022

Software developmentAgileProduct management