Why is it crucial to understand key differences between Product Management and Product Ownership

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

If you open Linkedin and search for a job in the product field, you are overwhelmed by the amount of product titles, specs, job descriptions, roles & responsibilities out there.

It spans from backlog coordinator to business analyst to product strategist to project manager to product evangelist and so on and so forth.

There are a couple of questions product people and product recruiters in Europe should ask themselves.

The most important is of course, WHY this is happening and why at this speed.

The answer is actually a very good one, someone said ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ AND in proven successful agile cultures, where product owners and product managers strive to just get job done, shift happens!

Therefore more and more companies are turning their preference to hire key product roles in order to take unified cross-functional care of strategy, marketing, sales, research and UX opposite to a bunch of different people located in ivory-tower departments, not spending a single minute interacting and collaborating.

That was the good news.

Ready for the bad one? We are by far not ready to accept (as product community and as companies) that the change of role comes with a change in mentality, processes, KPIs measurement and department set up, shaking the whole company structure to the ground.

Let me give you an example — if tomorrow a very large corporate would hire a bunch or junior and senior product managers, in a company where marketing, loyalty, retention and strategy are not synergised, poor Mr. PM would have a very bad time there.

This is unfortunately still the case for many many companies gasping around for direction and clarity in a world where successful enterprises are always 10 steps ahead. Leading us back to the question: why so much unclarity in the roles and what to do about it.

If we had to define a product manager by key deliverables he/she is responsible for, those would be mostly strategic ones:

Product evangelist and championProduct visionaryMarket research guruExternal and internal communication stakeholder

Looking at POs deliverables, he or she is considered the gate-keeper of all sort of product homework which needs to be accomplished on a more operational/tactical level

Defines the product backlog and creates actionable user storiesPrioritises the developmentElaborates customer problems into user stories, i.e., makes sure that the work fulfils the criteria

“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”
How do PM and PO work together? If at all

Now, if you go by the Scrum book, where the word Product Owner was originally shaped and defined, there is no mention of Product Manager. Product owner is therefore the only product person responsible for the team and product backlog, roadmap and potentially vision of total product.

Depending on the amount of products and sub products, each company can decide to slice up and split work amongst a team of product owners, typically led by a director of product ownership.

In reality though, the role of product manager, mentioned for the first time within SAFe framework (agile methodology at scale) is taking over in terms of strategic approach within product companies, compared to the more tactical, potentially more technical product owner role.

In this scenario (again, by far not going by Scrum book, but truly the reality of what is happening in Europe right now) rule of thumb usually contemplates a single person taking up both roles in a start-up scenario and throughout the first phases of the business growth cycle.

When companies are scaling up, it is wise to split the role into strategic and tactical/operational one, potentially vertically slicing the ‘product’ into sub-products depending on customer journey or phase or product feature.

How to wrap it all up

The principles and practices of the Agile movement have proven particularly compelling to organisations looking to keep pace with a fast-changing world. Without a doubt, breaking large and interdependent teams into small autonomous teams is likely to increase the speed at which each team can release improvements to the particular piece of the product for which it is responsible.

The problem, it turns out, is that the internal friction removed by small autonomous teams is still often felt by external customers. A 2013 (still relevant) Harvard Business Review article called “The Truth about Customer Experience” unlocks a critical, often overlooked point:

‘from a customer’s perspective, the most important part of a product is often not its individual features, but rather how those features come together to create a seamless and cohesive experience’

When people refer to the Spotify model, they’re usually talking about guilds, tribes, and chapters. But those are just rituals. Do we really assume that companies are shaken down and rebuilt simply by changing reporting lines?When you have a truly cross-functional team, those become irrelevant…. As one keeps going through your life and career, one realises what truly drives these changes is the culture.

Sono matter if you are a PM, a PO, a BA, a strategy lead - what matters is how you go past your role and focus on ‘job to be done’, outcome and customers overall experience in a truly cross-functional approach.