Whenever we talk about building digital products and the roles people have in their organizations, I found a lot of confusion about what is a Product Manager, what is a Product Owner and what they actually should do.
In order to better understand those roles, we need to have in mind all the steps in the product lifecycle and see what the deliverables are for each of the two in any of them.
In the initial phase of discovery, where new ideas and concepts for products are developed, the Product Manager is the only one having a role. He is the one that leads the search for customer needs, gathers info about the market conditions, identifies a problem and a value proposition, discovers the right customer, proposes an innovative solution, tests assumptions with an MVP, gets to problem to solution fit and determines product to market fit.
He’s expected to use several ideation techniques, use lean methodology to determine problem/solution fit and ideally product to market fit, depending on the type of product or organization.
In the next step, the planning phase, the Product Manager is expected to use several strategy tools and gather the insights and knowledge needed to present a Business Case document, market needs, user personas, high-level requirements and a product roadmap. In some organizations, the product owner may also start to be involved at this stage.
When we get to the development stage of the product, the role of the Product Owner comes strongly into play. The main responsibility is to manage the backlog and to decompose stories. He is expected to document story details based on the epics, attends scrum meetings but also retrospectives and sprint demos. He’ll provide clarifications and answer questions from developers and depending on the organization, work on mockups and flows with the UX team.
A Product Manager will keep a focus on the customer and makes sure that the product will solve the right problem and deliver the right solution to the right market in order to maximize opportunity and profit.
A Product Owner will have the main focus on the Product backlog to make sure it’s clear, optimized and the development team understands all the items. He’s there to maximize the value of the product through the work of the development team.
The Product Manager will always be focused externally to analyze market, opportunities, problems, customers, he will be the market expert, the voice of the customer and will articulate the product vision. The Product Owner will be focused internally towards the engineering organization and will be the one that translates that vision into detailed specifications, making sure that the customer needs are being met with the product features.
Depending on the organization and if it’s a new or existing product, these two jobs can be accomplished by one and the same person or by two different persons.
It is very hard for one person to do both roles, but for new projects or until a certain size of the product or organization, it is advisable to have one person do both roles. The reason behind it is that there will be no loss of information and focus on customer needs when the Product Manager faces internally to the engineering organization to explain in detailed specifications all the features needed to accomplish the product vision.
But we need to make sure that regardless the stage of the product, the product Manager is having enough time to be focused externally on market conditions, competitors, customer research, strategy, planning the next product development. Having the best overview and keeping a product roadmap updated for more than the next release, is essential for a product to be successful.
However, if a previous version of the product is already launched, doing what I just described for a complex product is already a very hard challenge. If you add to this Product Owner attributes for the features currently developed, is hardly possible for the same person to accomplish this.
And that is because the Product Owner should have detailed specifications and a backlog planned for several sprints ahead of engineering. That means he would work on one feature for detailed specifications, on another one with UX and another one is most likely currently developed by the engineers that will have questions. Probably QA will be testing previous features and several corner cases will require more clarifications. Joggling with all this deep focus on various features/stories is undeniably a full-time job and a complex one.
So, if the stage of the product, the complexity of the product or the size of the team are such, the two roles should be carried by two separate individuals.
In this case, there are two big challenges for any organizations.
The first one is to make sure that the two roles are precisely defined and the expectations for the two roles are clearly defined. Since no two organizations nor products are the same, each organization should define their own best practices. These boundaries will be even harder to define if the organization also has Business Analyst, Product Marketing and User Research roles.
The second big challenge is to make sure that the Product Manager and Product Owner are perfectly aligned on who the customer is, what the problems to be solved are and how the product is expected to solve those problems. To achieve this, the two should have a constant connection and frequent information exchanges to make sure all issues are discussed. Also, it is very important that the Product Manager is very precise when writing the documents in the Discovery and Plan phase.
A clear user persona, well-defined problem scenarios, a precise positioning and messaging platform with well-understood customer needs, clear value proposition and key USPs, are essential to make sure that not just the Product Manager and the Product Owner are aligned, but also the whole organization is precisely oriented towards developing the right product for the right customer need.
The roles of both of them are quite complex and this is just a short description of how companies can define their internal processes.