Product Managers & Product Owners: What’s The Difference?
Product managers and product owners are some of the fastest-growing positions in product, and for good reason.
These are the roles that think about not just what a product does, but why the product exists. It’s through product managers and product owners that products are continuously tested, analyzed, and encouraged to reach their full potential.
But product managers and product owners are responsible for distinct parts of a product’s journey. Today, we’re going to walk through the core differences between each position and how both roles play a part in bringing a product to life. We’ll also explore how the roles might intersect with other product positions—product design, product marketing, and brand.
Who Are Product Managers?
Product managers are your visionaries. They’re most concerned with our first principle for creating better products, which is to not just build the thing right—you have to build the right thing. Beyond that, product managers have to persuasively show the business stakeholders most invested in the product’s success that they’re on the right path.
With their insights on what drives the product itself, product managers are primed to work across other product disciplines. Because of this, if you don’t have a full product team, your company at the very least needs leadership from a product manager.
Product managers are future-forward. They have to anticipate what’s ahead and determine the best trajectory for your product. They’re always two steps ahead while balancing the many perspectives from your product’s stakeholders. For example, if company leaders want to see a new feature because it might be profitable, but you know the ask isn’t feasible for your development team, product managers must bring everyone to a compromise.
Product managers must examine the business side, the development side, and the user side to make changes happen.
Who Are Product Owners?
Product owners introduce what their name implies to your product: ownership. While the definition of the role can vary by company, it’s through product owners that a roadmap goes from a plan to a full app or feature. They are the ones who translate the goals embedded in your idea into detailed, actionable next steps.
Importantly, you won’t find product owners everywhere. They tend to show up more in larger enterprise organizations, particularly in ones that use agile scrum methodology. Additionally, if your organization has a product owner, you’ll almost always find product managers working with them.
Product owners live in the present and ask, how can we maximize what is being done today to help our product reach its full potential? They embrace the belief that processes can be structured in a way that prioritizes the next best step for the product.
Cleaning Up The Messy Middle
While product managers and product owners serve distinct roles, there are moments of overlap. The perception of how each contributes to product isn’t always clear.
One common (but wrong) perception we’ve seen in the industry is that product managers have more of a stake in the product’s development than product owners. It’s a common belief, for example, that product manager opinions have more weight than those from product owners.
This perspective is dangerous. Product owners and managers are in partnership with one another, and to think otherwise can hinder your product’s growth.
The responsibilities of your product owner are table stakes. If someone isn’t writing user stories, prioritizing the roadmap, and answering dev questions—nothing will be built (at least in the way you want it to be built). Without product owners, you can end up with a product you didn’t intend.
Intersections With Other Product Roles
Since our community touches all of the product disciplines, we like to think about how product managers and product owners intersect not just with each other, but also with other areas of product.
New features start with product managers. The inputs they receive from the many stakeholders around them lead to ideas, and then—if those ideas are right for the product—strategy.
Once a strategy is born and handed to the product design team, product owners may step in to answer the technical questions. They are the ones who’ll represent the interests of your developers and ask “what’s next?” as product designs are implemented.
Product Marketing & Brand
Because of their keen understanding of the product roadmap, product managers are usually the most equipped to support your product marketing team. Product marketers and product managers can work together to align on accurate & compelling positioning and then translate that work into messaging that anchors your audience as they interact with the product. Then, your product owners will ensure those decisions manifest in the product as it’s built.
Not all organizations will have product managers and product owners. But knowing the role each serves will help you better navigate the product industry; it might even shift your perception to see how products can evolve faster and better when we sustain great partnerships between them.