Product Owner vs. Product Manager (vs. Project Manager) - What's the Difference?

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Last updated:
November 16, 2020
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10 minutes
Product Manager, Product Owner, Project Manager. Particularly in the tech industry, the three terms are regularly confused.we provide clarity and help you to get a complete picture.

For a long time, the Product Manager was the undisputed authority. First defined in writing in 1931 as "Brand Man" by Neil H. McElroy, this was the master of the product and everything related to it. Even back then, experimentation and customer discussions were recommended as activities of successful Brand Men.

As the name suggests, Brand Men were also responsible for the marketing of the product through promotions and discounts and were therefore close to marketing. Increasingly, product managers became more involved in development.

While IT was doing the work, PMs knew the market and customers better than anyone else.

When products were still physically packed and shipped, there was little doubt about this harmony.

But digitalization brought more complexity.

The ability to release product updates with minor changes after ever-faster cycles changed everything.

The agile movement as a new, more contemporary design provided for shorter development loops and more flexible adjustments in the development process.

As particularly prominent representatives of this movement, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber designed a modern methodology - today known as Scrum. The basic idea behind it is a concept for the collaborative development of sustainable and complex products.

The Product Owner was born.

The Scrum Guide provides for three roles - Scrum Master, Development Team and the Product Owner. The introduction of the new role still causes confusion today.

So is the Product Owner simply a product manager? The answer is no.

The Product Owner takes over important tasks within development sprints.

The most important tasks of Product Owners include...

  • Formulating goals for development projects
  • Communication with stakeholders of all teams, especially business managers and development
  • The writing of user stories
  • The creation and editing of the backlog
  • Prioritization of stories
  • Ticketing
  • Execution of iterations so that features are transferred to the production process.
  • "Day to day" development

If you are a Product Manager and these points seem familiar to you, then don't be surprised.

The role of the PM often includes these tasks as well: Product managers are responsible for the success of a product.

This includes leading teams from different backgrounds and developing and improving the product. Product Managers design the strategy, objectives and vision behind a product, as well as business aspects such as marketing, profit and loss calculation and forecasting.

A clear distinction between Product Managers and Product Owners depends on the individual company, as roles are interpreted slightly differently everywhere.

The above mentioned tasks of Owners are usually also part of the PM task catalogue. So depending on the interpretation, there are some additional activities:

  • More responsibilities within a company
  • Vision, future perspective and strategy
  • Competition and market
  • High-level perspective
  • User Research
  • User Interviews

On the whole, the role understanding of PMs is more strategic and holistic.

He/she has the long-term product vision in mind and translates this into appropriate strategies. This includes monetization, pricing and profitability.

He/she has a deep understanding of the market and the competitive environment.

He/she takes time outside of the day-to-day business to talk to real users and understand their needs.

These details suggest an assumption that is only partially correct, but is often assumed:

Product Manager = Product Owner + X

It is neglecting that the Product Owner is more deeply involved in the actual development. Another perspective sees the product manager closer to the market and the user - while the product owner is more involved in the company's internal development process.

Product manager vs product owner - PMs are closer to the user while POs are closer to the product/development
Product Owner vs. Product Manager - Differentiation by user and product closeness
"Product Owner is a role you play on a Scrum team. Product Manager is the job." - Melissa Perri

This would have brought us back to the actual origin of the product owner.

Usually the job description of the Product Owner is only available in companies that have implemented the agile framework Scrum.

What you should take with you from this article:


Not every product manager is a product owner. But a good product owner thinks like a product manager.

This includes an eye for business aspects. Also, regardless of the job description, it is advisable to keep the product vision in mind and stay close to the user.

Both roles are very similar - and yet very different.

In reality, however, the distinction between the two roles will always look different.

Especially in smaller companies, one person will rather take over all tasks. Only as the size of the company grows does the variety of tasks shrink - and the division into operational and strategic aspects grows. Rather, the company structure decides which aspects you should focus on in particular.

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Then, there is a very similar role, which does not exactly contribute to the end of the turmoil: The project manager.

Especially in the tech area there can be overlaps.

Project managers must also be organized.

Communication is an important part of their everyday life.

They juggle a variety of topics simultaneously and drive interdisciplinary teams forward.

They are involved in all aspects of product development and always keep an overview.

Neither project nor product manager necessarily have personnel responsibility.

However, the distinction here is definitely clearer than it was in the first comparison of this article:

As a Product Manager, you are the CEO of a product.

You have founded its vision and are consistently developing it further.

In constant exchange with the user you have the best understanding of his needs and potential for further features.

product managers vs. project managers: comparison
The most important differences between product and project managers

These points hardly apply to project managers:

The most important distinction is that you don't even necessarily build a product/software.

Start and end dates, deadlines and milestones are your most important points of reference. Your budget responsibility moves within the project. You always have an eye on whether the planned budget is sufficient or has to be exceeded. And you keep outsiders up to date with regular updates and project scorecards.

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