Product Owner vs Product Manager: pick the right role for your team?

Disclaimer: The following represents only my vision of the Product Manager’s job that has been implemented at Meilleurs Agents. Each context being different, do not necessarily try to replicate it!

The following article is a translation AND an update of a previous article written in french.

The “Product Owner or Product Manager” subject unleashes passion. Laure Nilles and I were previously interviewed in 2018 on that subject by Welcome to the Jungle. At that time we tried to clarify the gaps we found between these roles, particularly within the french market.

However, we felt frustrated: we didn’t treat this key topic as deeply as we wanted and sometimes caricatured the roles at Meilleurs Agents. The more we hear about Product Management, the more we see that the Product Owners (PO) are stuck into an executant role of the Sprint Scrum and the Product Managers (PM) as strategic thinkers, far from “the dirty work”: dealing with JIRA.

Extract:

[The Product Owner] has a particular mission to create and prioritize the Product Backlog, a to-do-list of features that the development team will have to develop.

For the Product Manager, the approach being more strategic, other types of skills will be valued.

Source: https://www.welcometothejungle.co/fr/articles/product-manager-product-owner-differences

Yet the Product Owner is supposed to alternate between a long-term vision and a short-term vision and be able to identify what features will drive the company towards this vision.(Source: Agile Product Ownership In A Nutshell).

I obviously do not criticize this effort to rationalize these new and complex positions. After years of “implementing agile” for big companies used to their organization (as for France “AMOA” or “AMOE”) and agile teams, it is not easy to take a stance. The first version of the job descriptions I published in Meilleurs Agents clearly differentiated PO and PM: it took us several months to get out of this pitfall.

Let’s look at the origin of these terms through their definitions, the possible reasons for the distinction, and the skills of the PO / PM.

A little reminder of the origin of these terms

According to the Scrum Guide, “the Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team”.

According to aha.io, “Product managers are responsible for guiding the success of a product and leading the cross-functional team that is responsible for improving it.”

It may seem strange that the result of the work of a good Product Owner and a Product Manager is exactly the same. So why two terminologies?

My first theory is that these are jobs that are particularly difficult to describe. The Product Owner working on tech, design, and marketing generates many parodies. Interesting point: these diagrams show how the PO / PM is in touch with the other members of the teams with whom he collaborates but absolutely not what are the skills and actions to achieve the goal of the team.

Some mock this Venn diagram here:

My second theory is that we find this deep distinction within the French market today. After four years of recruitments, and more than 150 applicants met, the majority of Product Owners profiles are either junior (recently graduated) or people very focused on Delivery Management versus the Product Managers that are sometimes very focused both on the discovery and understanding of the needs and much less in the daily life of the technical teams.

We often split the “Product” between Discovery (the comprehension of the users’ needs), and Delivery (achieving the right features and products with Agile methods). With this scheme, we can identify Product Managers as “thinkers and managing the Discovery” and Product Owners as “managing the Delivery”.

My third theory is that the lack of clear documentation of Discovery’s practices contributed to this distinction. If I tell you “progress on Delivery”, you will focus on Scrum or Kanban methods to learn. But if I tell you “progress on Discovery”, there are often no clues. This lack of documentation has, in my opinion, led to PO experienced in Delivery Management, but less experienced with not enough knowledge on users’ needs. With such an organization, we reduce the Time to Market but yet we do not learn to build better products.

For Meilleurs Agents, we also made our juniors begin with the “PO role” and offered the PM role for experienced profiles, with the idea of enhancing the POs to PMs’ skills. We’ll next focus on the skills to become a Product Manager and why we decided to change.

The Product Manager’s mission and the skills to achieve it

To be honest, the two definitions previously mentioned are correct. A third one I recently read was striking to me as it accentuated the fact that we maximize the product value by minimizing the risks associated.

“The goal for a product manager is that — reducing risk by focusing on learning.”, Melissa Perri, Escaping The Build Trap.

The CORE framework, documented in Product Management In Practice, helped a lot to better understand the expected skills of a PM in Meilleurs Agents. I share some of the skills below and I would detail those later in a future article.

Communication: all the skills (soft & hard) that enable product managers to engage their team, communicate with stakeholders and explain their decisions.

Organization: Huge organizational capacities are expected from PO / PMs to coordinate projects involving many people and to go beyond changes in the ongoing context. Remember that the PO is the champion of saying “no”, alternate long-term vision / short term, make strategic decisions but also to arbitrate with a developer of the positioning of a button … To caricature, we could say that good organizational skills are those of a good project manager.

Research: all the practices of the Discovery environment and the understanding of user needs. These are the same skills as UX Designers and Agile frameworks which sadly give no clue on how to conduct it.

Execution: the world of “agile methodologies”, Scrum or Kanban. The main idea is to scope and develop the solution found during the research phase.

Within Meilleur Agents, the career of a Product Manager was initially imagined like this:

  • Beginning with the role of Product Owner: we needed people progressing very quickly on Organization and Execution to be able to work independently with a development team …
  • Then get to the role of Product Manager with progress in Communication and Research to also be able to be autonomous on the achievement of a quantitative objective.

We finally decided not to talk about the role of just Product Owner but Junior Product Manager to materialize our expectations on all dimensions of the CORE Framework and not only on Delivery.

Our career path is publicly available in french here.

In short:

  • After starting out as Product Owner and Product Managers, we chose to only have Product Managers (Junior/Senior) positions at Meilleurs Agents.
  • Progress in Product Management at Meilleurs Agents is based on the CORE Framework
  • A Product Manager who manages the product from A to Z will have a greater track record and deliver the right product.

CPO @MeilleursAgents (part of Axel Springer). Product enthusiastic. Former-CEO of elCurator. Speaker on PM & CPO events.