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Have you ever wondered what exactly a Product Owner (PO) does and how it differs from a Project Manager (PM)? Is a Product Owner just a kind of agile Project Manager? Even though these roles may sound similar at first glance, and there are indeed some overlaps, their approaches, tasks, and goals are different. I'll share where these differences lie and my personal experiences in both roles in the following blog post.
Before starting software development projects, it's essential to clarify fundamental questions about collaboration mode and team setup with stakeholders. One of these questions is: Should we use a Product Owner or a Project Manager? This often leads to confusion, or the terms are used interchangeably. Therefore, it's even more important to sharpen our understanding of these roles and distinguish them from each other.
The goal of project managers is to complete projects within a specified scope, on time, and within a predetermined budget. From my perspective, the key areas of focus for this role include:
Project planning: Project managers develop a business case and project plan before the project begins to define the scope and boundaries. This includes capturing goals, structures, resources, processes, timelines, costs, risks, and required quality.
Project monitoring and control: Throughout the project, the project manager regularly checks if the planned parameters are being met or if corrective actions are needed.
Time and milestone management: Project managers create and manage project schedules, ensuring that no part of the process takes longer than necessary. Typically, this involves using a classic Gantt chart with milestones indicating when specific tasks should be completed, allowing for measurable project progress.
Team management: Tasks also include organizing team members' work by defining task packages, distributing them to project participants, and continuously monitoring their progress.
Budget Management: Regarding the budget, the project manager's responsibility is to identify and track expenses and costs at the project level. If an expenditure exceeds the budget, appropriate measures must be taken to keep the project on budget. Contract and invoicing tasks are often also part of the project management responsibilities.
Stakeholder Management & Communication: A project manager should be an effective communicator capable of leading cross-functional project participants toward a common goal. Engaging in regular exchanges with stakeholders involves gathering and disseminating information, managing expectations, and appropriately involving stakeholders. Additionally, project managers require strong negotiation skills to keep the project on track and address potential obstacles.
Documentation & Reporting: Project managers regularly document project progress, including interim results, and provide this information to relevant stakeholders such as clients or internal management.
In contrast, the product owner follows a different approach.
The overarching goal of the Product Owner role is to maximize the value of a product, and for this purpose, they are also accountable for outcomes within the agile Scrum framework. Product Owners always strive to prioritize the interests of end-users. The tasks include the following focal points:
Development of Product Vision & Strategy: The Product Owner develops the product vision, which is the ideal image of the product that guides the direction of development and informs product decisions. From the vision, a product strategy is crafted, outlining a high-level plan to achieve the envisioned goal. This strategy includes information about the target audience and the product's value proposition. The Product Vision and Strategy are regularly reviewed and communicated by the Product Owner to foster a shared understanding among all stakeholders.
Requirement Management & Prioritization: The way the Product Owner maximizes the value of a product involves continuously making decisions about what the product should and should not contain to align with the planned product vision. Product Owners clarify, define, articulate, and prioritize the requirements for the product.
Product Backlog Management: The Product Owner is responsible for managing the Product Backlog - a kind of list of all requirements for the product. This includes providing clear descriptions of the requirements, known as User Stories, and prioritizing elements in the Product Backlog to determine what should be worked on next. The PO can delegate these tasks to others but remains ultimately responsible for the outcomes. They ensure that the backlog is current, transparent, and understandable for all team members so that everyone knows what is next on the agenda.
Stakeholder Management & Communication: Regular engagement with all stakeholder groups is a vital aspect of the Product Owner's role. They serve as a crucial interface between the development team and other stakeholders or the customer. The PO collaborates with the SCRUM team to assess the feasibility of requirements, fosters a shared understanding of User Stories during refinement, facilitates joint decision-making, and addresses technical questions about the product during implementation. Additionally, POs maintain regular communication with other stakeholders to understand their expectations or interests, refine product requirements, and gather feedback.
Now that we've gained an initial overview of the focal points of a Project Manager and the tasks of a Product Owner, I've had the opportunity to accumulate experience in both roles throughout my career. In my opinion, the fundamental prerequisites one should possess to effectively fulfill both roles are quite similar: organizational skills, effective communication, and decisiveness. While some of the tasks described earlier may seem similar, the two roles also have significant differences.
The most significant deviation, in my opinion, is already evident from the two role titles: Project Managers plan and oversee a project, which is a time-bound endeavor with specific objectives, focusing on delivery (output). In contrast, Product Owners concentrate on the product and its value proposition (outcome). This entails different responsibilities and goals (PM: completing the project on time, within budget, and scope; PO: maximizing product value). Moreover, the working methods of the two roles differ based on my experience. Project Managers are typically utilized in waterfall projects and undertake comprehensive project planning in advance. They are often deeply involved in the minutiae of implementation, monitoring project parameters daily, and assigning tasks to specific team members. On the other hand, the Product Owner is an equal member of a self-organized, cross-functional SCRUM team that incrementally develops a product. The PO doesn't plan the entire path to achieving the product vision but rather plans iterations usually spanning a few weeks, determining the prioritization of user stories and scheduling those with the highest priority for upcoming sprints. In this process, a Product Owner doesn't manage tasks or the team; the self-organized development team commits to a realistic sprint scope, deciding who works on what topics during the current sprint and how they are technically implemented. Unlike the PM, the PO only defines the "what" but not the "how." Consequently, collaboration as a PO with the development team is much closer.
About 1.5 years ago, I decided to transition to the role of Product Owner, and since then, I've been working in SCRUM teams for various clients, which I thoroughly enjoy. There isn't just one path to adapting to this new role. The backgrounds of all the Product Owners I've met are completely different: Some come from development, others from communication or product organization, while others, like myself, have backgrounds in business administration. What's great is that my employer, AOE, has supported me every step of the way towards becoming a PO. I've been able to experiment, learn from mistakes, and attend further training. Some of these trainings took place internally (in our AOE Academy, where we share knowledge), and I've also had the opportunity to attend external conferences and workshops. AOE provides a dedicated training budget for each employee to utilize. In addition to soft skills such as mediating in conflict situations between departments, clients, and development teams, I've also been equipped with the necessary tools for the role, such as User Stories Mapping. I've also engaged in extensive exchanges with experienced Product Owners.
In summary, while Project Managers and Product Owners share some similarities, their general approach couldn't be more different. Project Managers pursue an organizational mindset, tracking and controlling project parameters. In contrast, Product Owners have a user-centric focus to create product value. Therefore, for me, a Product Owner is not an agile Project Manager.
Julia Bohlig works as a Product Owner for various clients at AOE in Wiesbaden. With a background in Media and Design Management, she brings years of experience in project and content management. After transitioning to AOE, she initially handled forecasting, reporting, analysis, and billing for software development projects before becoming a Product Owner in 2022.
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