Product Management Marty Cagan

Product Manager vs. Product Owner Revisited

UPDATE: There is a new article that expands on this important topic: Two in a Box PM

Five years ago I wrote an article arguing that it is essential that the product manager is also the product owner.  My motivation, which I made no secret of, was that I was worried about this point because more than a few companies were using the relatively new role of the product owner as an excuse to once again separate “the business person” from the “the person that talks with the developers.”

This causes serious problems, which I covered in the article so I won’t repeat here, and I absolutely still believe it’s critical to be a single person rather than two, but I realize now that I also made a serious mistake in my strategy for how I encouraged this.

Starting about a decade ago, there were many people calling themselves “product owners,” and rather than add another person to the team, I was fine just treating “product manager” and “product owner” largely synonymously.   I didn’t really care what the person was called, so long as it was one person.

Today I realize that was a significant mistake.

What happened was that many people would go to a short and simple CSPO training, and come out of that understandably considering themselves product owners. Nothing wrong with that if they just realized that this prepared them only for the Agile rituals the product owner has to perform, but for many, that’s not what happened. For many product owners, they actually thought this meant they were trained as product managers.

The result of this is that countless people with just product owner training – but the product manager title or responsibilities – to put it bluntly, have absolutely no clue what they’re doing.  They don’t actually understand the full scope of their responsibilities, and they don’t know how to go about succeeding in their job.

I see this directly with many of the product managers I meet, but mostly I hear it indirectly from the countless CEO’s, developers and designers that are frustrated or confused as the skill level has in many cases fallen.

This was one of the motivations for my recent “Behind Every Great Product” article. I wanted to remind people what a product manager is actually responsible for, and how the product owner responsibility is just a very minor part.  Please read this if you haven’t yet because I consider it one of the most important articles I’ve ever published.

By all means product managers should get trained on their role in whatever development process their team is using.  Just as it’s important to get trained on using whatever analytics tools their team is using.  Or whatever software management system their team is using.

But just as learning Scrum or Kanban doesn’t teach a developer how to actually craft scalable software, it doesn’t teach a product manager how to actually lead a product.

So going forward, I promise to be more rigorous about this.  If you tell me you’re the product manager, I’ll double check that you’re also the product owner, but if you tell me that you are the “product owner” then I will ask you if you are also the product manager?  Are you just administering the backlog, or are you actually tackling and solving difficult problems for your customers and your business?