The Product Owner does not own the product

Product Manager and Product Owner are two separate roles; however, both roles are under the responsibility of the product manager.

In his well-known article, Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager, Ben Horowitz wrote: “Good product managers take full responsibility and measure themselves in terms of the success of the product”. That includes, of course, making sure that the product owner role is performed as required – the detailed user stories reflect the product manager feature definitions, the prioritization is aligned with the product goals, etc.

While the product owner’s duties can be performed by the product manager, it is not mandatory. When one person performs both roles, it may result in focusing on urgent matters on the account of delving into long-term, strategic activities. A product manager working closely with a product owner (rather than filling this role on their own) can focus on the big picture, without the risk of neglecting the detailed work with R&D – this work is  handled by the product owner, supervised by the product manager.

One challenge that arises when the product owner is NOT the product manager is that one of the product owner roles is to represent the voice of the customer to the technical team. If product owners get market inputs only from the product manager and do not have direct access to the market, their ability to represent the customer’s view to the R&D team is limited. This should be solved by involving product owners in customer meetings and other opportunities for direct access to the market. In such case it is important that the product owner’s understanding of the customers is in sync with that of the product manager, so that the message from the market to the organization is coherent.

When working this way, the product team’s interfaces with the rest of the organization are clear – the product owner is the principal point of contact for the R&D team, and the product manager is the principal point of contact for the marketing team, sales team, etc. There should be a well-defined working procedure between the product manager and the product owner to ensure that the product owner’s translation of requirements to user stories aligns with the product manager’s understanding of the requirements, and that they share the same, up-do-date understanding of the market.

A product owner can be of great help to the product manager, as long as the product manager maintains an end-to-end responsibility over the product, including the work done by the product owner. If a product manager thinks her responsibility ends when the product definition is delivered to the product owner for execution, she does not understand her role as a product manager and cripples her ability to build a successful product. Taking control over the two roles, even if one is performed by a different person, is a key element in the success of the product.

Stop the Press: The Product Owner is NOT the Product Manager

The Product Manager has end-to-end responsibility for the Product success. According to StarVision Product Methodology (SVPM), the Product Manager role includes the following dimensions – Product Strategy, Product Definition (from high level roadmap to requirement definitions), Product Achievement (working with technical teams to implement the product definition) and Product Marketing (in some cases Product Marketing is handled by a separate role, the Product Marketing Manager).

Agile SCRUM methodology introduced a new role, Product Owner, which overlaps the Product Manager role, but does not cover all Product Manager’ responsibilities. The Product Owner focus is internal – providing detailed requirements to the implementation team and work closely with them throughout the development process. The Product Owner represents the product in the implementation team, and therefore should be aware of the market and relevant stakeholders needs.

Two Separate Product Roles

Product Managers should focus on the market, and bring the outside world into the organization. They should be involved in the implementation process to ensure the developed product meets the market needs.

In SCRUM, the Product Owner is required to be available to the implementation team almost all the time – make sure detailed requirements are ready on time, reply to queries, attend all rituals and more. Under this pressure, it is very difficult to allocate enough time to be a market expert.

Furthermore, Product Owners are extremely busy with current sprint tasks, and at the same time preparing detailed requirements for the next sprint. They always lack time for longer term and more strategic activities involving various stakeholders like customers, partners, sales, marketing, delivery and more.

Therefore, my recommendation is to separate these two roles to two different people – a Product Manager, who is market-focused and responsible for longer-term activities, and a Product Owner, who is internal-focused and responsible for short-term activities.

This does not mean that Product Managers should not be involved at all in the implementation and that Product Owners should not be in touch with the market. On the contrary – Product Managers should ensure that the implementation serves the product long-term goals and Product Owners should have direct access to the market (e.g. meet customers and get their feedback) in order to represent the product point of view towards the implementation team – but the focus of each role should be clear.

Wait, what if we are too small for two roles?

In smaller companies, there is no budget for 2 product roles and the solution is one person responsible for both Product Manager and Product Owner roles. In such case, management should verify that long-term activities are not neglected (for example, using recurrent strategic meetings in which long term activities are discussed). This should be a treated as a temporary solution, and as soon as possible, this unified product position should be split to two (one Product Manager and one Product Owner).