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Product Manager vs Product Owner vs Project Manager

From the outside, you might see them as wearing the same mask, but are they really one and the same? The short answer is “No”. For the longer answer read on (and you will love the table at the end!).

This story is based on Marty Cagan’s view of the role of a Product Manager as he explains it in his book INSPIRED.

Photo by Mulyadi on Unsplash

You might think the differences are minimal, but you’d be wrong. While these three roles in today’s tech space sound similar, they have fundamental differences that set them apart. Yes, on some occasions they might end up doing similar things; but their motivations, scopes and strategies are so different that it would be unfair to people in these roles if you categorised them in the same way.

It seems like this is a common error, especially in the non-english-native-speaking-countries. Most recruiters often have difficulty distinguishing between them. Worse than that, even the people in these roles themselves sometimes think that they are doing a very similar job. That’s probably why there is a very low candidate-to-recruit ratio on product manager hirings in tech companies.

So, what’s so different about them? To understand that, first, let’s look into each of them separately and let’s try to frame them.

1. Project Manager

Definitions are key in the framing process. We’ll probably align easier on what a ‘manager’ is, but how would you define a ‘project’? It does get a bit tricky, but luckily we have the Project Management Institute (PMI), the leading authority when it comes to project management, to help us out. According to the PMI, a project is “a temporary effort to create value through a unique product, service or result. All projects have a beginning and an end. They have a team, a budget, a schedule and a set of expectations the team needs to meet. Each project is unique and differs from routine operations — the ongoing activities of an organisation — because projects reach a conclusion once the goal is achieved.” For the sake of making things easier to follow, I bolded some of the keywords in that definition. Let’s focus on these bolded words for a second:

  • Temporary: means that these efforts have a beginning and an end
  • Value: means that these efforts will create value for the company
  • Budget: means that there are limited resources
  • Schedule: means that there is an agreed timeline and an order of work to be done to get to the value
  • Expectations: means that the team has to deliver some certain elements along the way
  • Conclusion: means that all projects come to an end

How can we then come up with the definition of a project manager? PMI defines project managers as “change agents” since they “make project goals their own and use their skills and expertise to inspire a sense of shared purpose within the project team”. I will want to give more details and complicate that a bit, based on the mini-research above:

A Project Manager is someone in a temporary role, responsible for creating value for an organisation through a certain set of expectations. The Project Manager respects a schedule and a budget, and has control over the resources of the team which will deliver the expectations. Once the expectations are reached, the Project Manager’s job is concluded.

2. Product Owner

Moving on, let’s try to frame the definition of a Product Owner. For the sake of simplicity, let’s define an owner as someone who is accountable for something. Different from the manager, the owner is accountable for things and not people. In this case, the thing is a technology product.

What is a technology product though? Simply, we can call it a technological means (e.g. software application, web-site, mobile application, etc.) that generates value for business through customer needs or desires.

Bringing these two terms together in a simple way won’t do justice to the role though. This is because the Scrum framework has invented this role and the Scrum Guide authors defined this role in a much more specific way, just like the PMI did for project managers. According to the Scrum Guide, a Product Owner is “accountable for maximising the value of the product, [through] effective Product Backlog management”. The Scrum Guide emphasises that prioritisation of backlog management isn’t simply limited to a correct ordering of the developments to do, but also ensuring its transparency, communicating it effectively to all stakeholders, and ensuring that the product goal is reached.

It seems like the definition of Scrum Guide is clear and to the point. Let’s rephrase it to frame the Product Owner role:

A Product Owner is someone accountable for maximising the value of a technology product, through effective Product Backlog prioritisation, communication and execution. Product Owners are not constrained by time schedules, resources or temporary expectations.

3. Product Manager

Finally, let’s try to understand what the Product Manager role is about and who this profile is. The challenge in defining it though, is that there is no single authority or framework that could help us frame this one. Luckily, we have numerous experts and organisations who have given their view on what the Product Manager is, and what product management is about.

One of the companies that defines this role is Atlassian, the company that gave us JIRA, which is used by millions of developers, and product and project people around the world. Atlassian defines a Product Manager as someone who “identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfil, [defines] success… for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.” While this definition focuses on what the product manager intends to do, it seems to lack on some important points.

In order to fill out these missing points, we can refer to Marty Cagan, who is a product management guru from Silicon Valley. Instead of defining the product manager in a simple sentence, Cagan has chosen to focus on the complexity of a Product Manager’s job. He prefers to explain what a Product Manager is through their contributions and skills. Marty stresses that a Product Manager must have:

  • Deep knowledge of customers, data, business and the market/industry

and that the Product Manager must be:

  • Smart, creative, persistent and passionate

The term that coins best what a successful product is though, has probably been made famous by Marc Andreesen. He was one of the first to write about product-market fit, and it kind of sums up what product managers are striving for. He defines product-market fit as simply “being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” But things are not that simple. Product-market fit happens when your product is so good that you cannot keep up with the continuous high demand. A good example is the covid-era start-up Gorillas. They had such an amazing product <-> market fit (fast groceries delivered to your home <-> during a pandemic which forced everyone to stay as much as possible at their homes) that they couldn’t keep up with the demand. They had to constantly open new shops in new cities and countries around Europe (until the market trend changed and they lost the product <-> market fit, due to the end of the pandemic).

Since the product manager is trying to achieve product-market fit, it means that they have to satisfy both the customers and the company, and they can achieve this if and only if they have certain skills and knowledge. On top of that, the Product Manager is a manager, therefore they are responsible for the output that gets produced. It would be accurate then to define the Product Manager role as follows:

A Product Manager is someone responsible for creating value for customers through a technology product, while making their organisation reach its goals. Due to the complexity of this job description, the Product Manager has to be a resilient person that never ceases to learn more about the company, the industry, the market, and most importantly, about the customers.

4. Bonus: a table, because it makes things easier

Tables are a consultant’s dream, and any executive’s go-to tool when they need to see things with a certain level of detail but without over-complicating them. Tables let us see and compare things much more easily; they let us spot the differences.

That’s why I thought it would be best to recap the differences of these three roles in a tabular format. With this table, you can see clearly how these three roles that sound similar are in fact very different from one another.

Project Manager vs Product Owner vs Product Manager role differences simplified in a table.