January 14, 2021   |   6min read

Product Owner vs. Project Manager—A Short Guide

There is an abundant amount of information about Project Managers and Product Owners, and the titles are, to some extent, self-explanatory. What needs to be highlighted is that the definitions of those positions are dependent on who defines them and the project itself. Of course, each role has key characteristics; however, as you will see, theory seldom reflects the reality found at our development studio.

Product Owner and Project Manager in theory

The definitions and characteristics of a Product Owner can be found in Agile methodologies. In Scrum, a Product Owner “is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Development Team” (source).

Importantly, Scrum does not foresee a Project Manager role. There is a Scrum Master who can be defined as a person “responsible for promoting and supporting Scrum. Scrum Masters do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory, practices, rules, and values” (source).

According to Scrum, the teams should be self-organized, and each team member should have interdisciplinary skills. In theory, each member can substitute any other member with any task, while the Scrum Master is responsible for facilitation and solving impediments—everything that keeps the development team from achieving the tasks. That is not a standard practice, in reality, to say the least.

That’s the theory. Let’s discuss how those definitions fare against reality.

Product Owner and Project Manager in practice

The definitions set in Scrum are clear. However, methodologies and frameworks usually look beautiful only on paper. In reality, every new project demands a tailored-made approach. For instance, the Project Managers will choose a methodology and adjust the processes they see fit for a specific project rather than following a framework step-by-step. They can choose to slightly alter the scrum process or only take from it what they need. For example, some of the ceremonies like daily meetings, demos, and retros.

In general, Product Owners are responsible for making a vision of a product a reality. They shape how the final product will look like by researching the market, setting priorities, and ensuring that the project is on the right track. Product Owners also answer to the product’s stakeholders—the value that a product brings falls within their job description. In short, Product Owners take ownership and responsibility of the end result of the product.

As for Project Managers, we can distinguish different types based on the scope of their responsibilities. One PM can be limited to handle tasks in Jira, and another will manage end-to-end digital product development. In a startup, a Project Manager might also code, do quality reviews, coordinate design works, and everything else necessary. As it usually happens, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On that note, check out our article on the best practices for managing the development and design teams in a single project.

Project Managers take care of communication and relations with the client and make sure that there is an agreement and understanding between all the particles involved. PMs assess the risk in the project and react in advance. In short, at Polidea, Project Managers take ownership of the development team’s work; however, it is not always the case.

Meeting of project managers

Understanding the need for Product Owner and Project Manager

To best illustrate the intertwined nature of the Project Manager and Product Owner roles, we’ll let you in on our practices and experiences.

At each and every kick-off meeting—the beginning of a project run by a PM—we decide on the decision-maker and the terminology. The important thing is to clearly establish the person having the last say. In most cases, it’s the clients.

At Polidea, we have Project Managers with the competencies to be Product Owners as well. Should those skills come into play depends on the client. If a client does not have a Product Owner on his or her team, a Project Manager on the development company’s side can assume that role. A client might seek such competencies of Product Owners and intentionally delegate the decision-making process to the Project Manager. Then, he or she, in fact, becomes the Product Owner as well.

Regardless of the scope of responsibilities, each Project Manager at Polidea treats each project as if it was his or her own. Having experience in different projects and having a day-to-day overview, PM can signal potential risks. It might be the timeline, the budget, or technology. For instance, the Project Manager’s experience in publishing mobile applications on Google Play or App Store can come in handy when scheduling works, including testing the apps. In such cases, Project Managers provide their expertise, but leave the final decision to the client.

Intertwined skills of Product Managers and Product Owners

As should be evident by now, these positions are intertwined. The same goes for the necessary skills. Both Product Managers and Product Owners should be empathetic. PMs’ empathy is directed to the development team and the client, while the POs approach also stretches to the product’s target audience.

Next up, communication! Product Owners need to convince the stakeholders that they’ll profit from the investment. However, at the same time, POs need to have the end-users in mind. And reconciling the—sometimes vastly different—interests of those two groups is not an easy feat.

On the other hand, the Project Manager must balance the needs of the developers and the client. Obviously, developers want to have interesting projects in which they can further their skill sets. Suppose a client comes with a project that has a strict deadline and scope; the developers might not be thrilled about compromising on the quality. But that art of compromise and going the extra mile should be very much in the Project Managers’ DNA.

Communication skills can also be extended to negotiation skills and assertiveness. Neither POs with the stakeholders nor PMs with the clients would go far without being assertive, understanding their own experience in the field.

What separates the two positions is fiscal responsibility and a more detailed understanding of the business aspects of the developed product. In other words, Product Owners are responsible for the commercial success of the product and setting up and delivering Return on Investment (ROI) for the stakeholders.

The cooperation between the Product Owner and Project Manager

In short, they should be best buddies. The cooperation between a PO and a PM will significantly impact both the success of the product, the happiness of the stakeholders, and the satisfaction of the development team.

Open communication is vital to always be on the same page. When a project involves both Project Managers and Product Owner, they can focus on their core responsibilities, which translates into better risk management.

How to know if I need a PO or a PM?

The need for a Project Manager is directly proportional to the amount and the complexity of a given project. It is next to impossible to run a fairly complex development project without a person who ties everything together, ensuring that the budget, the timeline, and the final product are delivered as agreed.

In our difficult, pandemic situation, it’s also important to consider the new reality of project management. Today, apart from all the skills and experiences that an ideal PM should have, there’s the remote management component. If that topic worries you or simply interests you, we recommend our guide to remote project management.

As for the Product Owner, suppose you don’t have the vision of the product thought out clear as day. A person with Product Owner skills can help you conduct workshops to clarify the strategy, research the market, and target audience. You don’t necessarily need a Product Owner right away; a competent and experienced Project Manager might help you just as well.

Sławomir Andrian

Director of Delivery

Kasia Zając

Product Owner

Tomasz Szymoński

Communication Specialist

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