Product Owner – the Product Manager’s Tenant or Owner of the Product?

30 Jan 2018

Product Owner – the Product Manager’s Tenant or Owner of the Product?

Jan 30, 2018

One question that we encounter often at Contribyte is: what is a functional division of responsibilities between the Product Manager and Product Owner?  In many organizations, the areas of responsibility of these roles overlap to a great extent, and very few organizations have them written down in detail somewhere. Both the Product Owner and Product Manager are in principle responsible for the product’s features, release plan, roadmap, and ensuring that every release of the product maximizes the benefit to the company. When the responsibilities are this similar, there is a risk that the tasks will become so unclear that something essential is left undone.

Another risk is that poor cooperation between the Product Manager and Product Owner may result in them pulling in opposite directions. With the Product Manager often being the “bigger honcho” in the company, these situations may result in the Product Owner feeling like they are only an assistant to the Product Manager or a “tenant,” rather than the real owner.


Cooperation Is Power!

The roles and responsibilities of both the Product Manager and Product Owner are so complex (Contribyte’s introductory training on the topic lasts a whole day) that it is impossible to give an exhaustive definition of them in this blog. However, I can mention a few main things that clearly fall within the purview of one or the other. But cooperation is even more important than the division of responsibilities!

Smooth cooperation is the number one thing. If the cooperation and communication between the Product Manager and Product Owner function well, closely defined areas of responsibility are less important: two colleagues can continually agree upon who does what on a daily and weekly basis. Of course, defining the responsibilities helps even a good pair of fighters work more efficiently. On the other hand, if there is anything in their personal chemistry that hinders the cooperation, or if the cooperation involves other challenges attributable to another organization or a time difference, for example, the situation becomes significantly more difficult. In such a situation, defining the responsibilities becomes more important.


Chamber of Wisdom

The Product Manager’s office should be viewed as an oracle’s chamber of wisdom.

I have advised Product Owners that they should view the Product Manager’s office as an oracle’s chamber of wisdom: they can enter the office (with a sacrificial offering?) and ask the Product Manager’s opinion if they encounter a tricky problem that they cannot immediately figure out a good solution to themselves.

The clearest and largest difference between the Product Manager and Product Owner is the distance to the team. If the differences between the roles were to be compared using army terminology, the Product Owner, who is closer to the team and details, is like a platoon or group leader, whereas the Product Manager, who takes care of the bigger picture and resources and is further away from the team, is like a company commander.


Product Ownership – What Exactly Does It Mean?

The word “owner” is a part of the name of the role of Product Owner. What exactly is intended with this ownership? In my view, the word owner is used here because “the devil is in the details” – defining the details and keeping the daily business rolling has that significant of an impact on the product development team’s ability to produce a functional high-quality product.

The word owner is included in the title of Product Owner to create a sense that this person is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the team does valuable things and produces results at the desired pace. Another metaphor that I have sometimes heard being used for the role of Product Owner is that everything should work like the engine of a vehicle: the Product Owner should simultaneously be the lubricant that streamlines the engine’s operation as well as the fuel injection system that supplies the engine with fuel (i.e. user stories). If we try to find a metaphor for the role of Product Manager in the automotive industry, would this mean that the Product Manager would sit in the driver’s seat, with the customer relaxing in the backseat?


Responsibility Is Not Given; It Is Taken!

If it feels like things are not moving forward, the Product Owner is responsible for making them progress.

Ownership also means that if it feels like things are not moving forward, the Product Owner is responsible for making them progress. The first problem encountered by a product development organization is that if things are not being taken care of or decided upon, the intended releases will not come out. Because keeping the release machine operational is the main responsibility of the Product Owner, they must take action if the necessary decisions are not being made.

During my time at Nokia, a more worldly-wise R & D Director taught me that responsibility is not given; it is taken. A Product Owner should also keep this in mind – if it feels like things are not moving forward, the Product Owner is responsible for making them progress. Of course, they should not step on anyone’s toes (at least with force), but neither should the Product Owner take everything lying down.

In a situation in which no one takes responsibility, the Product Owner must take it. Another way I have thought of this is that a lack of a responsible party expands the Product Owner’s responsibility like a balloon to fill the space that is given to it. But remember to be diplomatic! In such cases of “expanding responsibility,” I would recommend excessive communication, i.e. making sure that everyone knows what is happening and who plays what role.


Main Responsibilities of Both Roles

Earlier on, I promised to list the most important responsibilities of the Product Owner and Product Manager and which things they should have joint responsibility for. Here is my view on the subject:

The three main responsibilities of the Product Owner:

  1. The well-being of the team: The Product Owner is closer to the team, so they have a greater responsibility for the team’s well-being. In contrast, the Product Manager has almost no such responsibility. The Product Owner must take the team’s well-being into account, as it materially affects the team’s efficiency (in addition to the fact that a good mood makes it more comfortable for the Product Owner to come to work every day).
  2. Being available to the team at all times – availability: This includes making any necessary decisions quickly and ensuring that the team works efficiently in the right direction. The Product Owner must sometimes make quick decisions and, of course, take the product in the direction that they think the Product Manager wants. In a certain sense, the Product Owner is the Product Manager’s “substitute” in the team.
  3. Definition of details and the related innovation: The Product Manager thinks about things on a higher level and is less often writing user stories or specifying the details of a user interface. The day-to-day discussions with the development team also often bring up matters that require the Product Owner to decide upon details. These discussions sometimes introduce smaller or larger ideas and innovations that are the spice of the Product Owner’s role.

The three main responsibilities of the Product Manager:

  1. The business model, business drivers: The Product Owner’s key area of responsibility is considering how to combine the created features into packages that can be offered to customers and with what type of business models these packages can be made to generate profit for the company. In this task, the Product Owner’s role is only to support the Product Manager so that the necessary features are added to the backlog. This responsibility belongs fully to the Product Manager.
  2. Long-term roadmap (1–3 years): In my opinion, responsibility for the roadmap extending beyond one year falls fully to the Product Manager. The Product Owner helps out with things planned for the next year ahead, but the Product Manager is fully responsible for looking beyond that.
  3. Visions for the product and releases (all releases). Unlike the above, the Product Manager is fully responsible for the product and releases. In other words, the Product Manager is also fully responsible for the vision for the release that is currently being built.

Their main joint responsibilities:

  1. The short-term release plan (the release currently underway and the next major release, roughly within a one-year scope): This release plan is prepared together because the Product Owner’s view of and influence over the operations in the near future are significantly better than the Product Manager’s.
  2. Understanding and taking care of customers: Having a good understanding of customers’ needs is such an essential requirement in both roles that I don’t think it can be left as the express responsibility of only one party. It must be a matter of the heart for both the Product Manager and Product Owner.


Neither of Them Is a Land Owner

The organizations to succeed the best in future product development are the ones with seamless cooperation between product management and Product Owners.

The Product Owner should keep in mind that the Product Manager is not involved in the daily hustle and bustle, so the Product Manager must be provided with an accurate picture of the situation. The Product Owner also bears the main responsibility for the team’s well-being, specifying details and delivering the current release. For their part, the Product Manager should keep in mind that the Product Owner can only make the right decisions if they have an up-to-date understanding of the vision and goals as well as a correct understanding of the customers’ needs.

The organizations to succeed the best in future product development are the ones with seamless cooperation between product management and Product Owners. Although the name of one role features the word “owner” and the other may more often be a step above the other in the company hierarchy, neither of them is the land owner or tenant. Farmers the both of them, I would say. Get your hands dirty!


Contribyte is one of the leading Finnish experts in product management, product development and product ownership. We can help you and your organization make your operating methods more efficient. Contact us so that we can determine your situation!


Arto Kiiskinen

Arto Kiiskinen

Senior Consultant

In his career, Arto has worked in product development as a Product Owner, Scrum Master and Product Development Manager. The operating methods of both large and small companies have become familiar. Arto loves to improve organizational learning and product owner know-how, and write blogs on different topics. Because retrospectives are one of Arto’s favorite topics, some of his customers have given him the nickname “Retroman”. During his free time, Arto tries to live healthy, buy as many cars as possible, rewatch the Star Gate series and study to become a Personal Trainer. Arto has also written the book “OWN IT – 8 Simple Secrets of Product Owner Success”


Tuotepäällikkö aloitti kirjoittamisen jo 2011, josta myös löydät vanhimman  kirjoitukset. Blogi käsittelee laajasti tuotejohtamisen ja -kehityksen aiheita. Myös vieraskirjoitukset ovat tervetulleita.

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