Product Managers and Product Owners

Product Manager Dec 15, 2021

Roles in big companies can get confusing, right? Perhaps you come from a smaller organization where one person did the corresponding work for what in a corporation would belong to three different people, and that can be a little mind bending. Or maybe you are changing careers and would like to really know your options in different industries. Well, in the product field, you might encounter positions for Product Managers and Product Owners, for example, which might ignite some questions. The first one being what differentiates the two of them? Are they even different at all?

The short answer is yes, they are different roles. How so? Ok, now that’s where we have to expand a little.

Product Managers and Product Owners are indeed two different positions working towards the same goal. It is important to make the disclaimer that even when this is true, you may find overlap between the two roles, especially in smaller companies. That being said, let’s start talking about what actually makes them different.

Product Managers & Technical Product Managers
A variation of the role has become popular: The Technical Product Manager. But what is really the difference between one and the other?

What actually makes them different

Generally speaking, Product Managers tend to be more focused on strategy and long-term. They take care of the vision of the product, the maintenance of it, and they look for opportunities that might be beneficial. Product Owners, on the other hand, are normally more focused on the tactical. They should transform that PM’s vision into actionable requirements for the delivery team, and create the best path towards the execution of whatever is needed for the product.

The Debate

What we just said might be true for some companies, and it is certainly true on paper. But as we all know, reality is much more complex than what we expect sometimes, and definitions can get blurry. This is especially true when talking about two roles with overlaps and a virtually infinite amount of companies of all sizes and backgrounds.

So, while it is generally true that Product Managers are more strategic, and Product Owners are more tactical, some might say this is an outdated way to configure roles, as it separates planning and execution as if they were two independent activities and not a constant back-and-forth between both.

You could also make the case for one of them being one or a couple levels above the other, and you could find testimony for both: the Product Manager role being a level above the Product Owner, and vice versa.

And of course, there’s the debate on whether the roles should be as they are because both make up for full-time positions, or if they can be smushed into only one of them (which then can turn the debate into which would be the actual position name).

In the end, like with your product, it’s all a matter of trial and error. Your organization has both positions and it’s all smooth sailing? Great. Your startup only works with a Product Owner and is getting the results you expected? Awesome. You were a PM in your last job and now got a new fulfilling job as a PO? Sounds good. As long as it works as you want it to, you shouldn’t worry too much about the semantics, but if there is too much friction, or delays, or simply not the results you need, it’s good to know there are other organizational options.