Product Owner Manager – Alone Together

thumbnail of venn diagram

Product owners and product managers.  Two roles, often done by one person.  Together, the product people need to take an organization’s strategy, figure out the appropriate product strategy, and convert that into actionable work for the delivery teams to create the right product.  What does the product manager own, and for what is the product owner responsible?

Product Management Overlaps

A month ago, I was asked how to think about splitting the product owner and product manager roles and responsibilities by one of my students.  I drew a Venn diagram on the whiteboard and talked through my thinking on the subject.  This was a sidebar conversation, then we returned to the lecture topic, and I moved on.

Yesterday, I was reading an article about the overlap between product management and user experience, by Melissa Perri, who has feet in both worlds.  She drew a Venn diagram showing the unique and shared areas of responsibility and interests.  As an example, she shows customer problems as a shared responsibility.  I agree and incorporate the same perspective in my models of software development.

More specifically, the way I frame the collaboration between UX and product management – specifically for customer problems – is that I believe

  1. The user experience person is responsible for developing the point of view of which problems are most important to our customers.  They develop the deepest understanding of context, motivation, and capabilities; as well as user goals.
  2. The product manager is responsible for prioritizing the user goals in the context of all of the other goals that manifest as product strategy.  The product manager is bringing in the perspectives of competitive positioning, additional stakeholders and ecosystems, organizational capabilities, etc., and folding user goals into the bigger picture.

Melissa’s article is a good one, you should go read it.  She also talks about the challenges that arise from wanting to be a multi-disciplinary player on a team with rigid boundaries.  In addition to enjoying her article, and thinking more about the overlap of product with UX – and seeing her Venn diagram – I was reminded of a similar diagram I drew in March.

Product Manager and Product Owner

product manager and product owner Venn diagram[larger version]

[Ed: Product Manager is on the left, Product Owner is on the right]

The way I positioned these two roles was to acknowledge two “truths.”

  1. These are both (more than) full time jobs.  A product manager never runs out of valuable work to do – the market is always changing, there is always more to learn – and more to do based on what she’s learned.  A product owner never runs out of valuable work to do either.  Being downstream of continual learning means being the recipient of change – and that doesn’t even touch on the full time job of collaborating with the engineering and quality teams.  The two jobs cannot be done exceptionally well without two people sharing the work.
  2. Most companies only staff a single person to do the work.

We all commiserated a bit about this – and agreed that the survivable approach is triage – spend the limited time you have on the most important things.  A product manger or product owner must thrive in ambiguity and make the right calls about when “good enough” is, or isn’t, good enough.

A T-Shaped Team

The letter T

I generally find that the most effective individuals are the ones who are T-shaped.  They have breadth of perspective, knowledge, and context (the horizontal of the T).  They also have depth of insight, experience, and expertise (the vertical of the T).

In the product space (much easier to type than “the product management and product ownership space”), we can extend the metaphor to be three dimensional – and what is required is a balance of three perspectives

  1. A time horizon that looks out beyond the next few releases.  How will we manifest our organization’s strategy through product?  What role should (this) product play as part of a comprehensive strategy?
  2. A breadth of understanding of the market. Understanding the context in which the product has to compete to be successful.  What problems are most important to be solved, for whom?  How do we differentiate?  What is our strategy for right now?
  3. A depth of insight and excellence at execution.  What precisely does it mean to solve this problem, for this customer.  How will the team know that what they built is actually what is needed?

While it is possible to find someone who has strengths in all three areas, I believe the best chance for success is to have two T-shaped people, who share an understanding of the market, and divide and conquer in the ways they apply this understanding.  The product manager leverages an understanding of the market to develop hypotheses and strategy for the future.  The product owner leverages an understanding of the market to drive effective specificity in the product of the present.

When I’ve been responsible for doing both, I try and subconsciously change hats when I change perspectives.  It might be a waste of cognitive effort, but it seems to help me. YMMV.

Shared Space Ownership

product manager and product owner Venn diagram[larger version]

In the diagram above, there are a couple items squarely in the product manager side of the Venn diagram.  The decision about which market(s) in which to compete, is a decision made on the longer time horizon.  It isn’t something that would change sprint-by-sprint, or release-to-release.  Adding incremental markets, in sequential releases, as an intentional strategy can make sense.

Perhaps to greater benefit, a product manager can drive focus by specifying where the product will not compete. Focus is the glue that binds products together.

At the same time, there are items particularly suited for product ownership – as a practice and aptitude, regardless of role or title.  Transforming metrics of user success into measures of product requires melding insight of what and how with understanding of why.

Understanding how a customer defines success is something both product manager and product owner must know.  After working with many teams over the last few years, I believe there is only one right answer about who should own this, and who should participate.  And the answer is…

Given two people, one of them will be more available or more able than the other.  That person should do it.

Sorry there isn’t a silver bullet – if there is a silver bullet, it is to base your decision on the specific people involved, and not some formula spouted by a well-meaning organizational designer.  This is, of course, the approach to apply to all the items you might do, not just the 7 I included in the diagram.

While we’re at it – user experience is heavily involved in understanding how a customer defines success at solving a problem.  Perhaps we should work with Melissa to develop a three-lobed Venn diagram.  Did your employer staff UX, product management and product ownership on your agile team?

3 thoughts on “Product Owner Manager – Alone Together

  1. Great post as always. Alas, your truth #2 has been the case wherever I have been, and the product owner is just added on to the product manager’s responsibility, and sadly, often not given the attention it needs.

    Thanks for the point to Melissa’s great, thought provoking post. Now I need to dig through her body of work too ;-)

  2. Great Explanation, it talks about a thin layer which has a major impact on role responsibility. One more great article to series.

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