What’s the difference between a Product Owner and a Project Manager?
It’s a constant struggle to define clearly the role of the Product Owner within organizations. Even amongst my friends and family who ask me what I do for a living? It’s sometimes hard to explain that I work as a Product Owner…I am often left with a longing gaze of like “Product what now…”. To which I reply “PRODUCT OWNER” then I get the puzzled look and their inevitable correction “Oh you mean Project Manager”. Sigh!
For many years the role of Project Manager is very well understood and carries a sort of prestige to it. The Project Manager role has its place in organisations no doubt. After all, organisations have projects that they need to complete on time, in full and on a budget.
The role of the Product Owner is relatively new in comparison and it’s still making its way in the company vernacular. Having said that, it's often that those 2 roles are misunderstood. In most cases it’s easy to lump together the Product Owner as a Project Manager. However, this is not accurate and does both roles no justice at all. Let’s take a look at the main differences between them.
Project Managers get called into a Project for a company, typically they are handed a Project by the organisation. They begin by framing up the Charter, pulling up all the Requirements and then a project plan is put together, for the life of the project with milestones and gates to check on progress and updates to stakeholders. The scope is known and the budget is set. And off you go...see you at the gate review in a few weeks!
Now this is tried and tested and works well for many projects and initiatives that organisations have. Traditionally for task oriented step by step initiatives/projects. Whether you are building a house or if you are arranging an event - this is the way to go. Even so, how often does building a home or arranging an event come on time and to budget? Still it feels like you have the element (at times illusion) of being in control.
Product Owners are typically assigned a Product and from there on out they pretty much control the destiny of that Product, along with their team. They look at the Vision, Value and Validation of the Product. Product Owners look into the future of the Product they are constantly looking to enhance, improve or transform. To bring real value to the customers or stakeholders of the Product, they don't just deliver, they look beyond that.
Using a framework such as Scrum, Product Owners are regularly engaging with their Stakeholders as well as their customers, due to the need to Plan, Review and Retro on a regular cadence (mostly bi-weekly). They always demonstrate their progress and look for feedback to incorporate that in their Backlog for the next Iteration. This Iterative approach is one of the key differences between a Project Manager and a Product Owner.
Most importantly it's the mindset that you bring as a Product Owner that really distinguishes Product Owners who are driven by the desire to continuously improve and collaborate delivering small shippable pieces of value incrementally.
Project Managers have their place in organisations. They are still needed and are essential for actual projects fully scoped with an end date that are task oriented and have overall less complexity or more known information that doesn't require too many assumptions that need to be made. Not only that, they can compliment Product Owners with some of these larger company projects. For example, in my company we typically require Product Owners and Project Managers to work together on big change initiatives that bring together parts of the organisation like Legal, Sales, Order Management and others to prepare for the new fiscal year when we need people and our technology to be aligned towards a common goal like contract renewals.The technology being the most complex part requires the tool set to be enhanced by the Product Owner (although it can be argued the people component is just as hard too).
Product Owners are needed when things start to get complex and assumptions need to be tested. Typically most organisations are moving to places of real complexity where so much is unknown. For this, Product Owners are required and they will need to bring the Product Owner mindset that is testing assumptions proactively and frequently and getting the feedback to continue to maximise the value for their organisation.