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Product Owner vs. Product Manager

December 22, 2016


By Dave West

As a Product Owner and the CEO of I was invited to speak at ProductTank NYC earlier this year about the conflict between the roles Product Owner and Product Manager. And how organizations need to consolidate on one overall decision maker for the product, and that person should be engaged with the delivery teams as a representative of the business / customer.

Who Is The Boss Anyway?

Scrum has become the de-facto standard for how teams deliver software with some 12+ Million people using Scrum every day1. In Scrum, the person who has the ultimate responsibility for the product is called the Product Owner. But, what happens in organizations that already have product managers? Who makes the ultimate decisions about the product?

There Can Only Be One Product Owner?

Scrum is very clear, there can only be one Product Owner. By having a single individual responsible for the product, that doesn’t mean they do all of the work, the Product Owner role removes a lot of inefficiencies that exist with group ownership. That doesn’t mean that a Product Owner is not influenced by different stakeholders, but ultimately they need to make the decisions. They decide what is the most valuable backlog items to deliver and they work with the team to shape the product.  And because it is Scrum, those decisions are quickly delivered into the product, which allows for transparency and adaption. The Product Owner is the ultimate decision maker, but because the product is delivered frequently, everyone involved has insight into the overall direction allowing for feedback and change.   The Product Owner however is not all knowing, if you find that person who knows all, hire them as it is very rare.  That is why they will rely on people like business analysts, product managers, etc. to help them with understanding the product direction and what needs to be delivered.  

And The Person Should Be?

The best Scrum Teams have a Product Owner that is available and empowered to make decisions without having to ask for permission.  That means that the Product Owner role should be performed by a business person, and for many organizations that means a product manager. Yes, this means more work for the product manager, who is often already drowning in a sea of external and internal requests, but if that person wants the right product delivered they MUST directly support the delivery team. This requires leadership, not doing all of the tasks that are required to build a great product, but instead empower and work with others in both the business and Scrum Development Team to do the work.  The Product Owner concentrates on defining the right product while the Scrum Development Team concentrates on building the product right.

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