What do a peanut, a Panama hat, and a starfish have in common?

Stumped?

Well, they’re all misnomers. A word or term that suggests a meaning that is known to be wrong.

A peanut is not a nut, Panama hats come from Ecuador, not Panama and a starfish is not a fish.

Another misnomer is ‘Product Owner’. Does the Product Owner really own the product?

A Product Owner is a role defined by the Scrum Agile methodology. A Product Owner is part of the team working on the development of the product. A Product Owner prioritizes the requirements in the backlog, specifies requirements ready for the next sprint and answers questions from development about the requirements that are being built. The focus is on optimizing development and working with the Development team.

A Product Manager has a much broader role. From the long-term product strategy and roadmap to business cases, getting market insight, proposition development, sales support, product marketing, and fire-fighting. OK, other people in the business may do some of these activities but nevertheless, someone needs to have a joined-up and balanced view across all the different aspects of a product. Someone needs to be responsible for its success. That’s usually the Product Manager and they’re usually very busy.

So if anyone owns the product within the business it’s the Product Manager. It’s not the person managing the requirements – the Scrum ‘Product Owner’. No wonder people get confused.

Forget about job titles. In reality, we find that many Product Owners do parts of the product management role and many Product Managers work on requirements. In fact, according to our annual survey, 35% of Product Managers also do the Product Owner role.

I always ask Product Managers on our training courses – “If you do the Product Owner role, how much time does it take?” Of course, the answers vary but it seems to average out at just under 2 days a week. That’s 40% of a Product Managers’ time attending meetings with Development and working on requirements.

Nothing wrong with that. The work needs doing. But it gets at a big dilemma many Product Managers face. Should you be the Product Owner for your product? Is it the best use of your time?

Agile Cartoon

Sometimes you don’t have a choice. There is no-one else to do it. But it is another role to take on and means you’ve got less time for everything else.

Our preference is to try and get someone else to do the Product Owner role – someone who takes direction from you. Maybe a Business Analyst or Manager working in Development. They can focus on the detailed requirements and you can focus on the high-level roadmap, commercial aspects and making sure the product is a success.

What’s your view?

Ian Lunn
Director, Product Focus

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Depends on context. With a mature product in market that has paying customers, there’s no other way.

But during new product development, pre product/market fit, I find a team is less likely to deliver an effective solution if the roles are split. One person has to shepherd a vision into an (early) tangible thing.

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I agree with product management’s being a broader role. The potential conflict between PM and PO often ends up in practice as an opportunity to scale functional ownership of the product. In my experience, it’s common for POs to continue reporting to development as organizations “scale up”. I’ve seen this setup work well with the right role definitions and leadership support. I think the ever-broadening scope of the PO role in the literature is a direct result of a realization that gaps relative to the traditional definition of the PM position needing to be filled.

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Personally I have never been one for splitting the role as I think the Product Manager has the overall vision, and should be the one to share this with development. Anybody else in between can dilute the message. I think it’s only when you truly own the product that you can be the Product Manager – knowing it inside out.

It is difficult to balance the ‘doing’ with the ‘thinking’ but with an effective team around you it can be done.

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I agree that a Product Manager spending up to 40% of their time on stepping into the Product Owner role will compromise other important Product aspects. Substituting this role with someone like a BA makes sense. The BA skill set is tuned to understanding business impacts and opportunity, and if the Product Manager provides guidance on requirement priorities the Product Owner role can operate effectively with a BA. The Product Manager will still need to stay close though, set rules (and agree) as to how the BA should perform the role, and be consulted by exception

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I agree the roles and the context in which they operate are different. I follow a different approach. With very distinct PO and PM roles, often the responsibility and accountability gets mellowed. While PO(inbound) is in the solution space and PM is in the problem space (outbound), I mandate my PO’s to mandaorily allocate time in outbound activities to have the market perspective so as to define the product requirements in practical context. This also serves as the growth path for the PO’s to move into PM role as they move ahead. But the commercial success and the QCT sign off on developed product is the responsibility of the Product Manager

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I actually feel the seperation of PM and PO is easier to achieve when the product in question is of maturity, giving a BA direction on the maintenance of a mature product is much easier than trying to share with them the entire vision that a Product Manager has built up from all the neccessary sources. I feel it would be dificult to seperate these roles in a new product, having spent all that time in preperation and gathering market requirements the PM is in the best position to take on the PO role to begin with.

We have speerated out the Product Marketing role which allows more time for the PO role at my company and due to the nature of our business this works well

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I agree that ‘product owner’ is a much more narrowly defined role than ‘product manager’. I suspect that while developing the agile methodology the intention was that the product owner owned what the particular scrum team was producing, i.e. their product.

On the flip side, the term product manager is used over a very broad spectrum of activities. So much so that in the company where I used to do product management, it was split in 3 functions: commercial product manager, operational product manager and technical product manager (I was the latter).

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I think this is a very important distinction, in terms of roles although would agree that often the lines are blurred often by necessity. Even with the PO being an extension of the development team I would still have them reporting into Product Management function as prioritization of requirements still needs to be around market needs and hence the interlock with Product and Portfolio Management is absolutely key. I also see the distinction in roles being related to the persona focus too, where if the scale of the offering supports two roles then have the PM being buyer centric and the PO being user centric.

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From my experience, in a larger PM team, for larger products/portfolios, you will typically have “specialty” PM roles, and PO is one of them. To continuously reinforce the product vision to engineering and design, and to prioritize the backlog based on market- and business needs, the PO indeed needs to take direction from the senior Product Manager. In short, PO should spend a lot of their time with Engineering, but report up though PM.

What these different roles are and what they are called vary a lot, but here are some synonyms I’ve seen:

1. Inbound Product Manager = Technical Product Manager = Product Owner = Business Analyst (what we’re talking about in this thread)
2. Outbound Product Manager = Product Marketing Manager (works towards the field, i.e. sales, marketing, partners, eco-system)
3. Commercial Product Manager = Strategy Product Manager = Business Owner (usually a senior role, often portfolio-level, responsible for the business aspects)

I’m sure there are different ways you can organize it…

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