What's the Difference Between a Product Owner vs. a Product Manager?

November 15, 2023


ICAgile Team

Curious about the difference between a product owner and a product manager? Many organizations use the terms interchangeably, but there are key differences. As more companies embrace a product-centric approach, it's important to have an understanding of both roles. Here’s how these two roles differ, how they compliment each other, and how to decide which role might be the best fit for you.

What Is a Product Owner?

A product owner is responsible for the value delivered by a product. They prioritize the product backlog, collaborate with others to execute on the product roadmap and vision, and communicate with stakeholders to ensure alignment. The product owner is also responsible for understanding customer needs, feedback analysis and acceptance testing of feature releases.

What Is a Product Manager?

A product manager is responsible for overseeing the development, strategy, and performance of a product throughout its lifecycle. Product managers must have a deep understanding of the product, the customers, and the business strategy. They are responsible for defining and monitoring success metrics, creating product roadmaps, and collaborating with cross-functional teams to ensure successful market delivery.

What's the Difference Between a Product Owner vs. a Product Manager?

The roles of product owner and product manager differ in terms of their focus, scope, and responsibilities.

1. Focus

Product Ownership Focus:

product owner has a tactical role and is an integral part of a product delivery team. A product owner works with the delivery team to write user stories, ensure the backlog is prioritized and maintained, and bridge any communication gaps between the development teams and stakeholders.

Product Management Focus:

In contrast, a product manager takes a more strategic role. The product manager focuses on market research, product planning, aligning the product strategy with the organization’s goals, and ensuring the product's success in the market.

2. Scope

Product Ownership Scope:

A product owner has a more narrow scope of work, focusing on short- to medium-term product development.

Product Management Scope:

A product manager is responsible for a broader scope of work, focused on the entire product lifecycle and the big picture vision and strategy for the product.

3. Key Responsibilities

Product Ownership Responsibilities:

  • Understand customer needs

To succeed in a competitive market, a product owner must understand customer needs and ensure that the product development aligns with those needs.

  • Align with stakeholders

A product owner needs to communicate regularly with stakeholders to make sure the product development supports the company's objectives.

  • Manage and prioritize the team backlog

By continuously monitoring and updating the team backlog, the product owner can ensure that customer and stakeholder needs are being met.

  • Support the team in delivering value

Fostering clear communication, removing obstacles, and creating a collaborative and empowered work environment enables the team to deliver value on a continuous basis.

  • Collect and respond to feedback

In order to iteratively improve the product, the product owner needs to collect and respond to feedback from both customers and stakeholders.

Product Management Responsibilities:

  • Understand the market

In order to create a successful product, the product manager must have a deep understanding of user needs and market trends.

  • Develop the product vision

A product manager develops the product vision and seeks buy-in for that vision from a variety of stakeholders, including leadership, marketing and sales teams, and development teams.

  • Define the product strategy

After aligning stakeholders on the product vision, a product manager creates the product strategy. The strategy is built around the organizational ecosystem, business goals, and the approach for development.

  • Create the product roadmap

A product manager creates the product roadmap: a strategic, visual plan that shows how teams will develop a product that meets the desired outcomes.

  • Monitor performance

A product manager is responsible for identifying and tracking success metrics to support data-driven decision making.

Product Owner Role

1. Understand customer needs

By conducting market research, gathering customer feedback, and observing industry dynamics, a product owner can develop a nuanced understanding of the target audience. Understanding the customers’ needs helps a product owner prioritize product features that resonate with customers. This customer-centric approach is crucial for long-term product success.

2. Align with stakeholders

Stakeholders and customers are distinct groups. Stakeholders have a broader interest in the overall success of a product, while customers are primarily focused on obtaining value from a product. 

A product owner must communicate regularly with stakeholders, then coordinate with the development team to ensure that everyone is working toward the same goals.

3. Manage and prioritize the team backlog

A backlog is a prioritized list of tasks, features, or items that need to be addressed or completed within a project. A product owner is responsible for managing and prioritizing the backlog to ensure that the product development team knows what work to do.

4. Support the team in delivering value

Supporting the team requires that the product owner have a strong focus on teamwork, communication, and leadership. First, the product owner acts as the “voice of the customer,” ensuring that the development efforts align with customer needs. 

Throughout the development process, the product owner also answers questions, clarifies points of confusion, and removes impediments for the team. These efforts allow the team to focus on delivering features that meet customer needs, enhance the product's competitiveness, and contribute to the overall success of the business.

5. Collect and respond to feedback

Finally, in order to iteratively improve the product, the product owner needs to collect and respond to feedback from customers and stakeholders. A product owner can use customer surveys, feedback forms, and other tools and techniques to collect customer feedback. Incorporating analytics tools within the product can also provide insight into user behavior and preferences. After gathering feedback, a product owner will analyze it to identify common themes and prioritize issues or feature requests. 

Product Manager Role

1. Understand the market

To develop successful products, a product manager needs a deep understanding of the market. Identifying and anticipating customer needs helps the team develop, position, and market the product more effectively. Understanding the broader market helps a product manager ensure the product remains relevant and competitive.

2. Develop the product vision

The product vision provides a clear picture of the product’s purpose, value proposition, and long-term objectives. This vision unifies stakeholders, executives, and product teams around the product’s direction. In addition, the product vision provides a strategic framework that informs decision-making throughout the product lifecycle, ensuring that each feature, enhancement, or pivot contributes to the overall success of the product.

3. Define the product strategy

The product strategy is a high-level plan that outlines the overarching goals, direction, and approach for the product. Essentially, it defines the “what” and the “why” of the product. To create a product strategy, a product manager typically researches market trends, customer pain points and preferences, and the strengths and weaknesses of competitors. The product manager then defines clear goals, objectives, and key performance indicators (KPIs) that align with the product vision.

4. Create the product roadmap

The product roadmap is a more detailed, tactical plan that breaks down the product strategy into actionable steps. It details the “how” and the “when” of product development. As with the product vision and strategy, the product roadmap helps various stakeholders, including executives, sales and marketing teams, and development teams, stay aligned. The roadmap is a living document, and the product manager will continuously update it as the product evolves.

5. Monitor performance

The overarching goal of performance monitoring is to determine if the product is meeting the goals identified in the product strategy. Performance monitoring also gives the product manager data to inform decision-making and planning. To monitor performance, a product manager will first identify key success metrics and set up tracking tools. The product manager will review and analyze metrics regularly in order to iteratively improve the product.

Can a Product Owner Also Be a Product Manager?

In some organizations, especially in smaller companies, a single person may take on both the product owner and product manager roles.

In such cases, the individual must balance both the tactical aspects of managing the product development process (product owner role) and the strategic aspects of product planning (product manager role).

Do Organizations Need Both Roles?

The need for both product owners and product managers in an organization depends on various factors, including the size and complexity of the product and the organization's structure. In most cases, having both roles will benefit large organizations or products with complex development and market considerations.

In conclusion, the differences between a product owner and a product manager can be subtle, but both are integral to the success of a product. Together, these two roles can unlock innovation that will set products apart from the competition.

Want to learn more about product ownership or product management? Consider taking an ICAgile certification class. Developed by leaders in the field and focused on industry best practices, ICAgile's certifications give you knowledge and skills to help advance your career.

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Value Delivery, Product Ownership, Agile Product Ownership, Product Management

About the author

ICAgile Team