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The Difference Between a Product Owner and a Project Manager

It is safe to say, that most business savvy people know what a Project Manager does. But these days, especially in IT, it is a very probable scenario for you to be introduced to a Product Owner instead of a good old PM. There often seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the two positions.

What are the differences?

How can each aid your business goals?

Let’s take a look at the key areas in which PM and PO will most probably approach your needs in vastly different ways.

The ecosystem

The fundamental difference, from which all other discrepancies stem is the origin of the two positions.

Modern Project Manager is a position that stems from military contract control. The success it led to, impacted how the role is perceived in various types of projects, entailing that a Project Manager naturally thrives in structured, straightforward environments, such as organizations working with Waterfall method.

The Product Owner role is a much younger one, born from the Agile approach. That gives a good Product Owner an advantage in flexible and complex systems. He is used to acting based on changing conditions and current requirements, instead of set goals and long-term plans.

Learn more about the Product Owner’s ecosystem here.

In short:
Project Managers thrive in pre-planned, organized systems, while Product Owners work best in constantly changing environments.

The cornerstone

Both PM and PO are management roles – the difference is to what they manage. And this, at its core, is the most prominent difference.

Project Managers manage resources. They are primarily responsible for delivering the product in a timely and cost-effective manner, which sets their focus on keeping to a set budget, schedule, and scope.

Traditionally, even though they keep huge responsibilities, they have far less influence on the project’s concept. In their hands, they hold the decisions on how to deliver in an orderly fashion.

In opposition, a Product Owner focuses on the project’s vision. Their authority during the development is based on trust from the project’s Stakeholders, that the PO will help the development team understand the business needs and expectations for what they want to get.

Based on these needs, the development team is to deliver the best value in a self-organized manner. Because of that, the PO becomes a proxy between the Business and the Development, keeping in mind requirements of both sides.

In short:

Project Owners build the vision. Project Managers build the execution of a vision.

The insight

All decision-making derives from facts and conclusions.

Since they often work with complex and risk-rich processes, Product Owners base their decisions on business analysis, which help them to lead the development team towards the fulfillment of current requirements. Of course, don’t put him in the same bag as a Business Analyst – there are differences.

The PO’s focus is on delivering the best value, so they are heavily dependent on how well they can set priorities based on their understanding of business needs.

Project Managers seemingly get the better end of the deal – mostly, they need to be able to analyze the scope, resources and current conditions to plan deliverables. In reality, it takes both experience and great foresight to be able to plan a flawless process execution.

In short:

A PO looks for insight in business analysis, while a PM bases decisions on technical analysis.

The key skill

At the end of the day, both PO and PM are responsible for what is being delivered. Both are responsible for the team’s efforts in bringing value to the Stakeholders. The Difference can be explained by a moviemaking allegory – If an IT project were a movie production, the PM would be a Producer, while the PO would be the Director.

A Project Manager bases the success of his own input on hard data – they have a plan that the development team sticks to, a set budget that helps them to distribute resources and a timeframe that keeps everything transparent. If their plans regarding the data fail, there is no increment to deliver. That is why they need to be a highly organized individual with solid knowledge and experience in terms of the technical side of project execution.

On the other hand, a Product Owner, even though he should be technically savvy (he does need to know the project through and through), has a stronger need for communication skills. He works both with Business Stakeholders and Development Team, thus having to be able to relay information in a way that both sides understand and can build upon.

He also needs to be able to negotiate requirements in accordance with current business and technical conditions, making his him a peacemaker between what should be done and what can be done.

Of course, nothing is ever only black or white. A PO still can’t be a disorganized klutz. A Project Manager that doesn’t know how to talk to his subordinates is not much help to anyone either. Some skills are universal for all executive positions and should not be treated as exclusive to a single line of work. The most prominent ones can be put into a simple apportionment:

In short:

A Project Manager needs more of organizational skills, while a Product Owner needs more of communication skills but they share many qualities.

The teamplay

A successful Project Manager does not have to be heavily involved with a team’s day-to-day workflow – if everything is executed as planned, there is no real need for interference outside of keeping tabs on the project metrics. This makes him more flexible regarding his time, often allowing him to work on multiple projects at a time or from a remote location.

Of course, the better his relations with the team are, the better – leadership and communication skills are as relevant for him, as for any other management position. But, if coupled with an authoritative leadership style, his goal-oriented approach might also be a huge help for international teams working in linear, structured project management methodologies.

Contrarily, a Product Owner should be as close to his team, as they need him to be – since the PO’s basic role is to help the developers understand what they should be building, he needs to be readily available to aid their efforts with his insight.

Without his involvement, the self-organizing teams might miss their marks while meeting the end-goals. Even though it seems like a difficult task in complex environments, a good PO will be the cornerstone of efficient teamwork.

In short:

A Project Manager doesn’t necessarily have to constantly keep in touch with the team, even if it’s a good thing if he does. A Product Owner is encouraged to do so.

Which one is better for me?

The answer is as old as decision making itself – it depends.

If you have a very well thought-out project plan (or need one, based upon your vision), that should be perfectly executed in accordance with your specifications, you probably might want to look for a company that offers services supported by a traditional Project Manager.

If you have a need that you don’t know what to do with, an Agile team led by a Product Owner visionary might help you bring it to life.

See also: How to Choose a Software Development Company?

Maja Janowska

Maja Janowska is a Process Manager with ten years of experience in working with people, Internet technologies and a mix of both. She's an enthusiast of all things Agile by day, an aspiring illustrator by night.

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