March 12, 2020

Product Owner vs Project Manager

Project Manager VS Product Owner

What is a Product Owner? What are the differences between a Product Owner and Project Manager? Isn’t a Product Owner some kind of an Agile Project Manager? These are some of the questions we often get from people in our Scrum.org classes. Before we dive into an overview of the differences between a Product Owner and a Project Project Manager, let’s start with the conclusion first, which is: The Product Owner is not an Agile Project ManagerThere is some overlap between the role of Product Owner and the position of Project Manager, however, being a Product Owner is very different from being a Project Manager. In this blog, we’ll dive deeper into the topic: “Product Owner vs Project Manager”. If you’re having a similar question about the Scrum Master vs the Project Manager, then check out this blog.

What is a Product Owner?

The key responsibility, or the purpose of the Product Owner role is to “maximize the value of the Product”. The Product Owner is one person (not a committee) responsible in the Scrum Framework for maximizing the value. The way the Product Owner maximizes value, is by continuously making choices about what to built and what not to built in the Product. In order to do so, the Product Owner is also responsible for the product vision and for managing the Product Backlog and stakeholders.

What a Product Owner does

Some examples of what a Product Owner should do include:

  • To be accountable for the success or failure of the product;
  • To provide unified direction to the product;
  • To provide the resources and authorize the funds for the product;
  • To provide visible and sustained support for the product;
  • Maximizing the Value of the Product for customers, users and the organization. This means that a Product Owner actually owns the product. The Product Owner is the person who is responsible for making sure that the product delivers as much value as possible. This also means being responsible for the Return on Investment, Budget, Total Cost of Ownership and the defining, maintaining and sharing of the Product vision for example.
  • The Product Owner is also responsible for Product Backlog Management. This includes activities such as clearly expressing Product Backlog Items, ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions and ensuring the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next.
  • The Product Owner is responsible for Stakeholder Management, in order to align everybody around the product vision and (business) goals and objectives to achieve. This also includes inviting the right (key) stakeholders to the Sprint Review, discussing the current status of the Product Backlog, next targets and objectives, likely delivery dates and progress made, during the Sprint Review as well as tracking the total work remaining (at least every Sprint Review) for the Product, creating forecasts and making this information transparent for the stakeholders.

If you want to learn more about the tasks, accountabilities and authorities of the Scrum Master, then check out this article. In addition to stating what a Product Owner is, let’s also explore what the Product Owner is not.

What a Product Owner does not do

So, what a Product Owner should not do is:

  • Being a Clerk. Meaning that a Product Owner is not somebody who visits all the stakeholders, and asks everyone of them what they want. A Product Owner shouldn’t collect stakeholder orders. A Product Owner should have clear vision and gather feedback on that vision. Not collecting orders.
  • Being a Story Writer (all the time). Meaning that it is not the Product Owner’s day-job to write User Stories, acceptance criteria or Product Backlog Item (PBI) details all day long. Of course, coming up with PBIs is part of the job, but a Product Owner is not a Backlog secretary!
  • Being a Project Manager. Meaning that a Product Owner is not an Agile Project Manager. The Product Owner doesn’t create and manage (extensive) project plans such as the Project Initiation Document, Project Plan, Gantt Charts or others. The Product Owner also shouldn’t track and measure team progress. And the Product Owner shouldn’t manage people and resources or Development Team capacity for example. A Product Owner cares that a team has a velocity, yet he doesn’t care about the actual number or about “optimizing” it.
  • Being a Subject Matter Expert. Meaning that a Product Owner is not the most experienced, knowledgable proces or system expert in the company. A Product Owner is most of all an entrepreneur. Somebody who dares to take risks, make mistakes and take ownership. Having product, market, customer and domain knowledge is valuable, of course. But you don’t have to be the expert, knowing all the tiny details. And so, a Product Owner should not be concerned too much with all the tiny little details. That’s why a Product Owner works with experts, called the Development Team!
  • Being a Gatekeeper. Meaning that a Product Owner is not the single point of contact between the Development Team and the outside world. It benefits the development of products and services when Development Teams interact with customers and users directly. There is no need to a person “in between” them. So, a Product Owner should not be a single point of contact. A Product Owner is not a pigeon carrier.
  • Being a Manager. Meaning that a Product Owner is not responsible for team performance or HR-processes, such as performance management. Of course, a Product Owner can share feedback with team members, just like every other person in the company could. But a Product Owner is not a “team boss”, not a “manager” and not “HR-responsible”.

If you want to learn more about all kinds of misunderstood Product Owner stances, make sure to check out this page, which covers all the misunderstood stances of Product Owners, as well as the preferred stances of course.

What is a Project Manager?

Now that we have explored the Scrum Master role, let us move on to the “vs Project Manager” part of this blog. So, what is a Project Manager? And what are his/her responsibilities? Looking at some of the well-known Project Management methodologies, such as PM-Bok or PRINCE2, we find the following:

The Project Manager manages a project on a day-to-day basis and is the only one with this day-to-day focus on the project. As a result, this role can never be shared. The Project Manager runs the project on behalf of the Project Board within specified constraints and liaises throughout the project with the Project Board and Project Assurance . The Project Manager usually (preferred by PRINCE2) comes from the customer. They are responsible for all of the PRINCE2 processes except for the Directing a Project and Managing Product Delivery process.

Source: https://prince2.wiki/roles/project-manager/

In addition to the definition above, a Project Manager is also responsible for Project Support and Team Management, in case there are no team managers in the organization. This means that a Project Manager will manage (the work and performance of) individual team members on a daily basis.

What a Project Manager does

The role/job of being a Project Manager is a very broad one. There are many tasks and responsibilities related to the Project Manager role. Some of these include:

  • Creating and managing the business case;
  • Managing changes and change requests (to Scope, Time and Budget);
  • Managing the project organization;
  • Creating and managing project plans, including the Project Initiation Document, Project Plan, Gantt Charts and others;
  • Tracking and measuring project/team progress;
  • Managing quality;
  • Identifying, tracking and managing project risk;
  • Delivering administrative services for the project;
  • Advice and guidance on project management tools or configuration management;
  • Administering configuration management procedures of the Change Control Approach.

What a Project Manager does not do

In addition to all the accountabilities, responsibilities and work to do, there must be something that a Project Manager is not right? So, what a Project Manager should not do is:

  • To be accountable for the success or failure of the project (is done by the Project Board);
  • To provide unified direction to the project (is done by the Project Board);
  • To provide the resources and authorize the funds for the project (is done by the Project Board);
  • To provide visible and sustained support for the Project Manager (is done by the Project Board);
  • To ensure effective communication within the project team and with external stakeholders (is done by the Project Board);
  • Specifying the needs (requirements) of the Users that will use the project products (is done by the Senior User);
  • To liaise between the Project Management Team and the Users (is done by the Senior User);
  • To make sure the solution will meet the needs of the Users, especially in terms of quality and ease of use, and against requirements (is done by the Senior User);
  • To supply the benefits information for the Benefits Management Approach (is done by the Senior User);

If you want to learn more about the Project Manager role, then there are plenty of books and articles you could read. Based on what we covered so far though, we expect that you can already spot some big differences in the Product Owner vs Project Manager roles. Therefore, we would like to move on to the skills for both roles.

Shared Characteristics and skills for the Product Owner and the Project Manager

There are many relevant skills and characteristics that great Product Owners have. There are also many characteristics and skills that great Project Managers should have. Therefore, a more generic list of characteristics and skills for both of the roles is:

  1. Communication — Both Product Owners and Project Managers should be able to communicate well with all the stakeholders in the organization. They should be able to communicate effectively with customers, management, team members, users, suppliers and many others.
  2. Leadership — Leadership is an important skills for both roles as well, however, the type of leadership is different. A Product Owner may be taking a more inspirational, motivational leadership style. Using the product vision, strategy and story telling to inspire the teams and stakeholders. Typically, a Product Owner would lead and inspire people towards business results and outcomes. For a Project Manager, having great leadership skills is also important. For example for motivating teams, convincing people about the project approach, leading people in the project process, etc. A Project Manager would typically lead and inspire people in order to deliver output.
  3. Organization — Both Product Owners and Project Managers should be well-organized people. They should be quite good at organizing their own work, balancing work and private life, and also in seeing the bigger picture of where we are. In addition, they both should be able to see where we currently are, what our desired destination is and what our backlog of goals and work is in order to achieve that destination.

Characteristics or skills of a Product Owner

There are many relevant skills and characteristics that great Product Owners have. In order to not create an exhaustive list, we’ll share just our top-3 skills/ characteristics in this article.

  1. Entrepreneurial — Product Owners’ at their best are entrepreneurs. They’re full of ideas, see plenty of opportunities, take responsibility and ownership and take conscious decisions in order to minimize risks and to seize opportunities.
  2. Visionary — Great Product Owners have a clear vision. They know what they want for their customers and users and more importantly, why they want it! They’re focussed on the Products’ success and the longer term vision of the Product.
  3. Decisive — Product Owners need to be decisive. They have to make lots of choices, often including saying ‘no’ to people thereby disappointing them. They have to make sure to do the most important, most valuable things for the Product.

Characteristics or skills of a Project Manager

Like with the Product Owner role, there are many characteristics and skills of great Project Managers as well.

  1. Time management — Time management is a big part of project management. Project Managers should be able to bring their project in on time. They need to manage the project timelines. They therefore need to ensure that no part of the process takes longer than it should. Besides managing their own time as a project manager, they need to help their team to manage their days and get the most out of the nine to five.
  2. Negotiating — Project Managers need strong negotiating skills, which will help them keep the project on track and clear significant roadblocks. Project Managers should be able to negotiate effectively with the Project Board, teams, users, customers and suppliers for example.
  3. Risk management — Project Managers should be good at managing risks. They need the ability to identify, manage and address risks effectively.

Conclusion

As you may have noticed, there are quite some differences between the roles of Product Owner vs Project Manager. There is of course some overlap in the (more generic) characteristics and skills for both of them. Looking at the responsibilities, there is also some overlap between a Product Owner and Project Manager role. However, a Product Owner tends to be accountable, where a Project Manager is responsible, or only executing. Let us summarize with a top-3 overlapping and a top-3 differentiations between these two roles:

Top-3 responsibilities overlap Product Owner vs Project Manager:

  • Both a Product Owner and Project Manager are concerned with what to build. They both identify customer and user needs. They both manage and engage with stakeholders in order to see what to build and what not to build for the product. So the overlap here is that a Project Manager manages his “work breakdown structure” and “project plans”, and a Product Owner manages the Product Backlog. Both are however the wishlists or shopping lists for the product to build, so that is quite similar. A big difference here is though that a Project Manager manages somebody else’s wishlist, whilst a Product Owner manages his own wishlist. This means that a Product Owner has full control over the Product Backlog, whilst a Project Manager typically is told what to add to, or remove from, the wishlist.
  • Both a Product Owner and Project Manager have to deal with the Iron Triangle’s elements of Time, Budget and Scope. A Project Manager hypically has to manage a fixed scope, (pretty much) fixed Budget and (pretty much) fixed Time, on behalf of someone else. A Product Owner though, typically has a fixed Budget, a fixed Time and a flexible Scope. In addition, since the Product Owner owns the Budget, and decides on the Time (decide when to release), a Product Owner has much more control and ability to steer.
  • Both a Product Owner and Project Manager are concerned with the Return on Investment. A Project Manager typically works on creating a business case for the Project Sponsor at the start of a project. The Project Manager should regularly evaluate the Business Case together with the Steering Committee and see if it still makes sense to continue with the project. A Product Owner may also (have someone) create a business case. The Product Owner however is not just responsible for managing the business case, the Product Owner is also accountable for the business case generating enough value and outcomes. And so, a Product Owner could decide to stop a product (or project) if that would make sense to him.

Top-3 responsibility differences Scrum Master vs Project Manager:

  1. A Project Manager is not accountable for the success or failure of a product. He might be held accountable for the failure of the project, but that is in the sense of Scope, Budget and Time mostly. In a Scrum context however, a Product Owner would be ultimately accountable for the Products’ success. So a Product Owner is accountable for the success of a product, but also for the value and outcomes resulting from the execution of projects if that way-of-working would apply. In a projectsetting, the Project Board (the project Executive) would be accountable for the product and outcomes, not the project manager..
  2. The Project Manager creates, manages, devides and distributes work-packages amonst team members. The Project Manager also manages the scope for the stakeholders. So, the Project Manager has a requirements / content-related responsibility. A Product Owner doesn’t manage those details. A Product Owner does not manage work packages, people, resources, materials or others. He just makes sure there is an ordered and understandable list of work (Product Backlog), which the self-organizing Development Teams can use.
  3. It was mentioned earlier that both the Product Owner and the Scrum Master are responsible for the Iron Triangle’s elements of Time, Budget and Scope. This is true. A big difference we see though, is that Project Managers are mostly concerned with managing these elements in their day-to-day pratice. This is quite different from Product Owners though, because they are focused more on delivering value. Product Owners typically measure customer satisfaction, revenues, product usage, total cost of ownership, etc. So a huge difference between Product Owners and Project Managers, is that Product Owners focus on delivering value, whilst Project Managers focus on controlling Time, Budget and Scope.

Want to learn more?

Hopefully this article was useful for you. If you have any follow up questions or if you want to learn more about Professional Scrum, then please contact us.

One of the reasons that many Scrum implementations fail, or don’t offer the maximum possible advantages, is because there is a lot of misunderstanding about Scrum, and especially the Product Owner and Scrum Master roles. If you’re a Product Owner, Product Manager, Scrum Master or Agile Coach with about a year (or more) of experience under your belt, go and explore the Stances of the Product Owner in the Professional Scrum Product Owner-Advanced class. Find a trainer to your liking or in your area, and deepen and expand your Product Management knowledge and skills. And let us know what you think about the training! What did you like? What can be improved? Let’s collaborate to take the profession of Product Ownership to the next level.

If you’d like to experience the all-new Professional Scrum Product Owner-Advanced class, go to Scrum.org to find a class in your area. If you’d like to participate in one of our classes, check out our Xebia Academy page for more information or inquire for an in-house class via training@xebia.com.