This question has been causing debate for years, and with the rise of product roles in the UK, that debate will no doubt continue. If you haven’t spent much in tech focused companies, it might be a bit confusing. If you come from the corporate world of Business Analysts, Project Management and Development Managers, then getting your head around which product person is responsible for what can be tricky.

Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that there is no real consensus on the specific role of a Product Manager, and it varies from company to company. Product Owners, whilst tending to do similar things in most companies, can also vary widely in role and responsibility. There is no official job description, or list of differences, between the two. But we will do our best here to outline in broad terms the key areas of difference.

In companies where there are only Product Managers or Product Owners you will probably find that they do similar roles. In startups where there is only one product person you may see ‘Head of Product’ or sometimes ‘Chief Product Officer’ being assigned to the person who, in effect, will be operating as a Product Manager.

In organisations where there are both Product Managers and Product Owners then it may be possible to find some consensus by asking a few core questions about the nature of the role.

Outward-facing or inward-facing?

In organisations with both Product Managers and Product Owners, the Product Manager will usually have a more outward-facing role and the Product Owner will be more inward-facing. The Product Manager will look towards the customer or client, and focus on the market they are looking to serve. They will have a commercial focus and prioritise product-market fit, working towards creating requirements to give to the Product Owner.

The Product Owner will look inwards at the technology and development team, ensuring that the teams are building the correct product. They may spend a lot of time writing user stories and will probably manage the product backlog. Usually the Product Owner will gather requirements from the Product Manager and use these to write the user stories. Of course, it may be that to write these user stories, a certain amount of contact with the users is necessary – this is not an exact science!

Long-term strategic or short-term tactical?

Very few Product Management goals can be completed in a day or even a week. The Product Manager’s role is long-term and is focused on answering three key questions about the product: Does anyone want it? Can it be done? Will it make money? These questions work to establish what is known in Product Management circles as Desirability, Feasibility, and Viability. Answering these questions takes time, a deep knowledge of the market and an understanding of the technical requirements. Once answered, the Product Manager must detail what is to be built, perhaps where it is to be priced, and maybe even how it will be marketed.

The role of the Product Owner (in companies that have both positions) comes when Desirability, Feasibility and Viability have been established and requirements delivered. They take the requirements and make them a reality, working with technical and design teams to turn the Product Manager’s vision into a delivered product, often over a series of short-term development ‘sprints’.

Part of a Product team or part of a Scrum / agile team?

‘Product Owner’ is a defined role within the Scrum framework. This is probably the closest either of these job titles gets to an official job description, but it is not the only type of Product Owner out there. Although Scrum is only one of many methods of implementing the ‘agile’ approach, the two are regularly seen together and commonly associated with each other. As a result, in highly agile businesses you will often find Product Owners as part of a Scrum team.

A Product Manager will often sit outside of other formal or informal teams within a company. If they do sit within a larger team it will probably be specifically a product team.

The Product Owner will work closely with a number of cross-functional team members to deliver specific design and development goals. They will work with developers, UX and UI designers, QAs, possibly a Scrum Master and maybe even Business Analysts and a Project Manager.

Sometimes a Product Owner will own a couple of different products or features within a larger product and consequently sit within two or more Scrum teams. Product Managers on the other hand don’t have a formal role within the Scrum process. Their role being more strategic means they will often work in a team of Product Managers under a Head of Product or Chief Product Officer.

Conclusion

A Product Manager is outward-facing. They look at the wider market and make sure that the right product is being built. It will be desirable, feasible and viable. They operate over the long term from inception to delivery and think in months and years, not days and weeks.

A Product Owner is inward-facing. They rely on the Product Manager to tell them that a product must be built and what it should be, and then they work with the development and design teams to ensure that the right thing is built and in a timely manner.

All of this comes with a caveat: in many companies, none of the above applies. There is no widely accepted definition of these roles and there is widespread variation. But this should serve as a general guideline to the key differences between the two roles.