Project manager vs. product owner: Which role is a better fit for you? Which is more important to your organization? More foundational? More right for your company?
The titles don’t sound all that different on their own. They are both management roles, after all. Both oversee teams who work hard to bring projects across the finish line together.
But the path to that finish line diverges entirely from the beginning.
The underlying structure of a project guides a project manager or a product owner. The type of leader that will be most effective depends on what kind of philosophy the project is built on.
The product owner is the voice of the customer: your key stakeholder. An organization relies on a product owner to help the business crystalize its vision and then knowingly and confidently convey the vision to the team.
The project manager tends to operate at the team level. In scaled agile environments like SAFe, you may also find project managers who operate at the program level and maintain a keen eye on the big picture.
Let’s look at where the leadership methods overlap, and then we’ll dive into what makes each one unique.
Commonalities between project managers vs product owners
The project manager
A project manager’s job begins with a structured, straightforward plan with well-defined deadlines and goals. The project concept is drawn up at the very beginning, and the project manager is responsible for shepherding the team towards meeting those goals. When it comes to software, project managers often opt for portfolio management features where they can visualize company goals, track budgets, and make sure all their people are working on all the right things.
Keeping the project on schedule and the budget under control is a big part of the job. Project managers need to be highly organized because each step of the project follows from the one before it. If a step is mismanaged or a deadline passes, everything else is put on hold.
Project managers also need to know and understand the technical details of the project to help keep tasks flowing. If the team runs into roadblocks, the project manager is there to motivate the team and work through the problems.
If the project’s scope needs to change, whether it is a change being requested by a customer or a need that arises from the team, it is up to the project manager to adjust the timeline and relate it to the team. Project managers work directly with the team to make sure steps are being completed in order.
All along the way, the project manager tracks and reviews the project’s progress and course-corrects if things get off track. In that way, the project manager will eventually lead their team through the steps and all the way to the end.
Project manager responsibilities include:
- Acting as the key facilitator, empowering their team, and clearing potential roadblocks
- Project planning and governance
- Status reporting
- Change management: rallying the organization around Agile project management, ushering in new processes, and communicating with stakeholders
- Coaching and training teams on newest tools, workflows, and processes
The product owner
There are many desired competencies for a product owner, but for them to be true to the Agile philosophy, they should largely be able to communicate the needs of both business stakeholders and users, drive the vision of product development, and align strategy with vision, budget, and work development.
Product owners drive the vision of the product’s development. The team aligns with the vision and trusts that the product owner has a careful eye on not only what the business is asking for at the project’s start, but also the changes that are bound to arise during the product’s evolution.
A good product owner understands the industries and markets that their business operates in, and when needed can be relied upon to voice the details of the requirements and any changes to vision or direction that may occur.
Conveying and translating business concepts is a key ingredient needed for authorizing effective and functional user stories, not to mention prioritizing the important aspects of all products’ backlogged items. This awareness enables the product owner to act as a collaborative agent in planning and coordinating all product releases.
The product owner remains responsible for the business outcome of the product development backlog, and even in cases where architectural features and stories are written, they remain the key owner. They must understand the purpose, value, and intent of every requirement committed to by the team.
Product owners are:
- Makers of tough calls
Project manager vs product owner: it all comes down to the project
The root of the difference between a project manager and product owner can be found in the direction of the project that needs to be managed. Is it the kind of project that needs to build from a transparent, robust plan that lays out discrete, consecutive steps? A project manager will help you get there.
On the other hand, is it a project that has product in mind, but needs someone to develop the building blocks and implement them while making adjustments along the way? That is the kind of project where a product owner will thrive.
It is a difference of philosophies, and of finding the most efficient route to the finish line.
Do you recognize yourself more in the image of the product owner, but haven’t yet found the right powerful software to manage your projects? Read through our Agile Team eBook to become more familiar with the role, and discover the possibilities of Targetprocess with a free trial.