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Monday, July 14, 2014

Product Management vs. Product Ownership: Who's on top?

First things first: Sorry for the provocative title. I used the potentially antagonistic "vs." because, although there seems to be massive overlap between most definitions of product management and product ownership, I sense a bit of something approximating rivalry in discussions of how they relate to each other. Perhaps it’s a product (no pun intended) of “old school” thinking vs. the relatively new Agile mindset. I say “relatively new” because product management in one form or another has been around since the 1930s, although obviously not in the realm of software. Regardless, the central question in some quarters seems to be “Is product management a subset of product ownership or is it the other way around?”.

For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced there’s a right answer to the question or that the answer, if one exists, really matters much in practice. To my way of thinking, there are certain functional accountabilities and proficiencies that must be covered for optimal, long-term product development and each organization can call it whatever they want. I’ve defined a simple model that describes SPM (or PO?) proficiency holistically along three dimensions: business leadership, product definition and product promotion. In my experience over the last 10 years or so, I’ve seen a tendency emerge that I thought might be interesting to share. Truth be told, this experience has led me form an opinion on the topic, but just barely. That makes this post nothing more than an elaboration on my two cents and an attempt to give those confused by the relationship of these terms some food for thought. For the record, I’ve been involved in the introduction of product management and the transition to Scrum on multiple occasions and I am a huge fan of Agile/Scrum and, by the way, Lean.

When I first started thinking about the distinctions between the two, I though maybe I should consider PM as a job title and product ownership as a role. However, if you do a quick search on job sites, you’ll see that the lines have been blurred into oblivion. The product owner job descriptions I read come right out of the Scrum play book but are posted as open positions with corresponding titles, just like PM positions.

Since product ownership is defined as part of Scrum, I find the key differentiator of this role is the close collaboration with a Scrum team (what we called “teams of ten”) based on the backlog and Scrum ceremonies. Much of the other responsibilities such as being ultimately accountable for the success of the product, defining the product vision etc. seem essentially identical between the two based on what I've read. 

I’m not sure if it’s due to the relative immaturity of some of the organizations I’ve been involved with, but my experience has shown that providing the team with what they need as a product owner, including participating in Scrum ceremonies, can be more than full time work. That left us with the situation in which a product manager was accountable for the product overall and retained that (or a similar) title, with multiple product owners reporting in a dotted line to them (in these cases, product owners continued formally reporting to development). In this arrangement, PMs spent most of their time on relatively strategic activities like defining the vision, managing stakeholder engagement (involving the POs of course!), defining release goals and managing requirements, but at a fairly high level of abstraction. POs spent most of their time decomposing requirements into consumable user stories in the product backlog and participating in Scrum ceremonies. They clearly collaborated heavily with the PM on strategic activities but weren't accountable for them.

So, in my mental model and my experience, product ownership is a subset of product management. More specififically, I see product ownership being focused on the Product Definition dimension in the competency model I mentioned earlier. SPMs would therefore tend to focus a bit more on the other two dimensions, Business Leadership and Product Promotion (although clearly continue to play a critical role in product definition, but at a higher level of abstraction). Regardless of the division of labor, tight collaboration between product managers and product owners is essential. I tend to consider PM a job title or an organizational position and product ownership (regardless of how related jobs are posted on Monster) as a role defined by the Scrum framework. In orgs that must create a hierarchy for functional product development accountabilities, the PM's center of professional gravity is around the more strategic aspects of the product while POs focus on the tactical work of giving the development team what they need to build the software and accepting their work. Does this distinction provide important organizational or operational guidance? I'm not sure. I'll be happy if my opinion generates some insight-producing discussion. For the record, the literature I’ve read on scaling Scrum and my experience shows that typically, the “product owner” moniker (or a close derivative) is retained at each level of the hierarchy.

A practical issue I find with considering product management a subset of product ownership is that it’s not clear to me that it makes sense to use Scrum-based terminology in organizations that haven't adopted it. Believe it or not, plenty of critical software is still developed by teams that don't use a backlog or develop in sprints. (I recently saw a survey indicating that the most popular development methodology is no development methodology at all!) Product management is also deeply entrenched outside of the software domain and I don't see Agile storming development of these other types of product as quickly as it did software. 

Another potential problem I see with claiming product ownership defines the superset is that Scrum claims to be not a methodology but a framework. In my interpretation of the term “framework” and based on what I’ve read in practice, frameworks define basic principals and leave much of the further detail to interpretation by the practitioner. I've read all kinds of additional commentary on what the product owner should/could do, but, to me, these are just opinions and guidance filling in the gaps in a framework. My question is: Can a framework ever define a detailed description of a role such that one can assess fully how it compares to what I consider more comprehensive, detailed definitions? I’ve seen very detailed descriptions for product management by organizations such as ISPMA. I’m also suspicious of attempts to rename something based on a “new” framework when I have trouble differentiating many of its basic tenets from the ideas or concepts that preceded it (clearly the overall approach to development is fundamentally different with Scrum, but as mentioned earlier, descriptions of the product owner role itself contain massive overlap with descriptions of traditional product management). Recasting traditional product management in its entirety as product ownership feels a bit like the proverbial old wine in a new bottle. Maybe it’s just me.

By the way, I previously mentioned organizations that “claim to have adopted” Scrum. Allow me to cite an obscure truism from one of my college business law professors: “Calling a cow a horse does not make it a horse” (or was it the other way around?). Some organizations that claim to be doing scrum don’t meet the bar in my opinion. More on this later.

1 comment:

  1. I would agree that Product Owner is a subset of Product management role. Also, to my experience, product owners rarely get involved into topics such as: strategy, budgets, financial forecasting, pricing strategy.
    While product managers are often regarded as product "mini CEO", which involves 360 degree overview of a product.