Just today @hmitsch asked a good question on the mindtheproduct Slack group:

What is the difference between a product manager and a product owner?

I thought I’d offer a brief answer, but as I typed, it soon became a more detailed response that I’d like to share with you here.

First, I’d like to point out that this is largely a theoretical debate. The role of a product manager has multiple dimensions to it and responsibilities of a PM differ across companies and industries, but here’s a high-level breakdown.

Product manager is the original title of someone responsible for understanding users and their needs, estimating market sizes, and advising R&D’s efforts throughout product conception and development. A PM was also historically responsible for bringing the product to market and was the one ultimately responsible for its business success. The retail industry has been perfecting this model since long before software even existed. CPG companies like P&G or Unilever are some of the best in that industry, perfecting if for decades in a highly competitive environment.

Historically, product managers were very outbound focused. They were experts in understanding the market and user problems. But they could also grasp the R&D aspect to a large extent because products were not that technically complicated/challenging like in the case of today’s software and high tech products. The challenge with tech/software is that it is very difficult to find people who are great at understanding the problems, estimating market demand, doing qualitative research, etc., as well as defining detailed solution specification/requirements. In the tech/software world, when agile and scrum methodologies were formalized, the market/user understanding was put on the plate of a product owner, who is on the scrum team and should be responsible for both understanding the problem as well as the solution.

So product owner is really the agile/scrum terminology and product manager is the traditional terminology. Again, the ideal of having one person responsible for both problem and solution is optimal, just hard to pull off. As a result, some companies separate the responsibilities between product managers (who are outbound/problem focused) and product owners (who are more technical and closer to the dev team).

Curious to hear what you think!

Cheers,

–Hubert