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I have worked with dozens of customers who insist on adding a Product Manager to the team even though they already have a Product Owner.  I have never seen this work well.  Let’s start by explaining the difference between the Product Owner and Product Manager, and how we even got here in the first place.

Product Owner

Scrum was first to introduce the concept of a Product Owner to address challenges product development teams had with direction on what to build.  In Scrum, the Product Owner has ultimate responsibility for the product.  A good Product Owner brings a vision for the product to life through a deep understanding of customers, the marketplace, competitors, and trends.

The agile community then redefined the Product Owner within the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to be a subset of Scrum Product Owner responsibilities.  In SAFe, the Product Owner has three main responsibilities:

  • Define the product backlog and create user stories for the development teams.
  • Prioritize and order the work in the backlog.
  • Evaluate the work done by the development teams and provide constant feedback.

SAFe Product Owners do not have full ownership of the product.  The Product Owners can go through the motions of owning the product, but they are incapable of knowing what product to build because they are disconnected from customers.

It is possible that SAFe framework creators believed that Product Owners did not have time to do everything that Scrum Product Owners do, especially when scaling agile to larger companies and groups of people.  We will never know the reason why they changed the responsibilities for the role, but now we have a mess.  Are we talking about a Scrum Product Owner or a SAFe Product Owner?

The Scrum community, for their part, has tried to make it clear that a Scrum Product Owner is an Agile Product Manager, which we will talk about next.  In fact, those are exact words they use. That is going to confuse people.

Product Manager

Product Management has been around in one form or another for a long time. Product Managers in the tech world discover and validate customer and business value but also make sure to align the product’s development team with them.  The SAFe framework creators took their cue from traditional Product Management when defining the Product Manager role.  Product Managers in SAFe manage Product Owners, speak to customers, define the product vision, and communicate requirements to Product Owners. 

The primary cause of the schism between Product Managers and Product Owners is the dispute over who interacts with and owns the customer relationship.  And the truth is that Product Owners can never be successful in building products that create value without talking to customers and understanding their problems. 

Good product management in IT is a competitive advantage and continues to evolve.  As more companies shift into software organizations and begin to organize around products, it is good to look at where these terms and disciplines originated.  But in my experience, separating Product Owners from the customer is not a good idea because without a direct understanding of the customer they cannot effectively manage the direction of the product. 

And next time someone uses the term Product Owner, make sure to get clarification.  Is that a Scrum Product Owner or SAFe Product Owner?