Product Marty Cagan

Product Manager vs. Product Owner

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

All too often I run into companies that have resigned themselves to having two different people covering the product role.

Usually the way they split it is they have one person responsible for interacting with customers and stakeholders (which they often call the product manager), and another to interact with the development team and manage the backlog (which they usually call the product owner).

The reasoning is typically because they don’t have someone with either the skills or the time required to commit to covering both.

There are many “product managers” that are not technical enough to effectively engage with the developers, yet management hopes to utilize them.  And there are many “product owners” that show no inclination or ability to get out of the building and interact with customers, yet management knows this is critical.

As appealing as this strategy may sound, I want to use this article to try to explain why this approach typically yields very weak product and little innovation.

I have written earlier that this approach has two common negative consequences.  This first is that there is no clear owner (neither person takes responsibility for the product), and the second is a common lack of respect or understanding between the two (the “product manager” doesn’t appreciate the technical complexities, and the “product owner” doesn’t appreciate the customer’s pain).

However, this approach has an even more fundamental issue as well:

In order to make the many hundreds of large and small decisions a product owner makes every week, he needs to have deep understanding of the customers.  Deep customer knowledge is what informs the decisions.  It is actually the main thing a capable product owner brings to the party and it is what distinguishes him from the others on the team.

Similarly, when interacting with customers and identifying problems and opportunities, it is the knowledge of the technology and what is possible that informs the discussions and the potential solutions.  This is what distinguishes a product person from other roles such as marketing, user research or sales, and why it’s essential that the product person has the direct customer interaction.

It is precisely this combination of deep customer understanding with the ability to apply technology to solve customer problems that enables a strong product person.

I know this doesn’t make it any easier to find people that are willing and able to do both, but I do hope that more company leaders come to understand how essential it is to find product people that can cover both aspects of the role.