As a new grad I was eager to perform when I started my job in recruitment. I spent my last summer days reading around my new market (ok, maybe not all my days) which is Product. I read countless articles on all the different roles I would be recruiting for and many articles on what the Agile methodology is. However, when I began speaking to those who work in these roles I was confused.

Countless times I heard people tell me they did a mix of the two, Product Manager and Product Owner or they wouldn’t care if their next role was a Product Manager or Owner because it’s “just a title”. So my quest to understand if there was a difference in any organisation was born, and does anyone who actually works in this field believe there is a difference.

In short people do believe there is a difference but companies don’t fully understand this yet.

The difference
To me a Product Manager is much more the voice of the customer. Their role is more strategic and broader than a Product Owner; they oversee the product, understand the market, the users and often help create the product from a blank slate. They look after what is to be delivered. A Product Owner, however, is more, tactical. They are much more involved in how the product will be delivered and hold responsibility for the backlog.

The above isn’t just from reading around, I started to ask many Head of Products in my network what they thought the difference was and they answered very much like the above. So why wasn’t this being transferred down? Why weren’t organisations separating the two?

The answers I got was size. A small company will only employ one person, often neither the funds nor the work load to warrant two, and often the Product wasn’t evolved enough to bring in two. So I guess it makes sense to have one employee owning Product and performing the two; it’s tactful, strategic and manageable. Also BA role can be aligned with a product owner and responsibilities shared that way.

Complexity of projects was another point raised in a discussion. I guess this is similar to size. If the project isn’t that complex does it really warrant a Product Owner and Manager when someone could take on responsibility for both and not be maxed out? The definition of a product as well was suggested as another factor in a company’s ability to separate the two roles.

Another point raised within a discussion that may help answer this question is that not all companies are fully agile yet and some (in my eyes) just don’t get it. Buy in from all stakeholders and departments is key for a fully agile environment and not all companies are there yet. So why would we expect them to implement all the roles correctly? It’s unsurprising the roles are blurred when really the overall concept isn’t implemented correctly.

On the other hand though, Product Owner is just a term that has emerged from the Scrum methodology. Therefore, if a company doesn’t use scrum there is no need for a Product Owner. If the company is small maybe it would benefit from a Product Manager playing both roles in a Scrum set up.

I guess my next question will be, is it necessary to differentiate the two roles or simply let the companies do it how they want? There are many roles that have vastly different names in different companies should this be an exception?

To sum up the discussion, bottom line for me is: job title matters a lot less than what a company puts in the job spec. So, to really understand what you’re recruiting for looking into the company structure and their process is vital.

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