Project Manager vs Product Owner: Role Comparison

Although product owners and project managers may have overlapping strengths and skills, these positions have significant differences. At a high level, a project manager ensures project elements, including the scope, schedule, budgets, risk, and more, usually functioning in a traditional project management capacity. Product owners, on the other hand, typically operate in an agile or hybrid project management environment, acting as the voice of the customer, developing the product vision, writing User Stories, and assisting in building the initial Product Backlog.

Understanding the commonalities and differences between the project manager and product owner positions can help you decide the next steps in your career.

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Project Managers in Project Management

A project manager is someone responsible for overseeing the successful completion of a project or program. This position can involve managing the delivery of all project components, such as its scope, timeline, budget, resources, and risks. The role must also consider quality assurance, communication, and stakeholder management – ultimately being accountable to ensure that all project elements are completed satisfactorily.

Project managers must be able to plan, coordinate and administer various tasks within time and budget constraints. They should also understand diverse business functions such as finance, marketing, operations, and human resources. Further responsibilities may include:

  • Negotiating contracts with external suppliers.
  • Leading change management initiatives.
  • Liaising with stakeholders both internally and externally.

Project managers must have strong organizational, problem-solving and leadership skills to be successful. They must also possess strong communication skills to manage expectations across multiple stakeholders effectively. Furthermore, they should be able to think strategically and identify opportunities for improvement while remaining focused on achieving the project goals.

Core Responsibilities of Project Managers

As mentioned above, project managers usually work in waterfall project management environments. The PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) Guide describes the Project manager position as responsible for successfully implementing a project through the five stages of a project lifecycle. A project manager must be an expert in project management principles and be able to apply this knowledge to ensure the project team successfully delivers on project goals.

Specifically, project managers have the following responsibilities:

  • Planning and developing the project ideas
  • Creating and leading the project team
  • Scheduling, including monitoring project progress and establishing deadlines
  • Solving issues as they arise
  • Change management
  • Quality control
  • Risk management
  • Cost estimation and budget development
  • Assure stakeholder satisfaction
  • Evaluate project performance

Conversely, there are many responsibilities that a Project Manager should refrain from assuming in their position in agile or hybrid environments. These include the following:

  • Taking accountability for the success or failure of the project
  • Deciding a project’s direction the project
  • Provide the resources and authorize the funds for the project
  • Handle communication within the project team and with external stakeholders
  • Define the needs of the Users that will use the project products
  • Gatekeep between the Project Management Team and the Users
  • Ensure the solution will meet the users’ needs

Product Owners in Project Management

A product owner in project management is a vital role that serves as the bridge between the customer and the development team in an agile or hybrid environment. This person represents the customer perspective throughout the development process, from initial research and idea generation to product launch.

The product owner is commonly associated with the Scrum framework, a popular form of agile project management. Rather than manage individual project tasks, they focus on driving product value to optimize stakeholder satisfaction.

The primary responsibilities of a product owner include:

  • Gathering requirements from stakeholders.
  • Prioritizing product features for development.
  • Setting deadlines.
  • Managing product strategy.

Product owners should have strong organizational and communication skills to effectively define and prioritize project requirements to ensure alignment of project objectives to organizational objectives.

In addition to communicating with stakeholders, product owners also need to understand the market landscape and customer needs to make informed decisions about the features and direction of the product. They must be able to anticipate customer needs and desires and provide feedback on how the product can be improved.

Product owners should also deeply understand their industry, its trends, and competitors to ensure that their product stays ahead of the competition. As such, they must stay informed about new technologies and product features and how they can be used to their advantage.

Finally, product owners should have an eye for design and user experience. This skill includes understanding how different aspects of the product interact with each other and having a good sense of what features appeal to customers. Product owners must also ensure the customer’s journey is efficient and enjoyable.

Taking on the product owner role can help create a successful product that meets customer needs and demands. You will be responsible for translating customer feedback into meaningful outcomes, ensuring that your team is organized and efficient, and keeping an eye on the competition to stay ahead.

Core Responsibilities of Product Owners

As the voice of the customer, product owners are first and foremost responsible for optimizing the business value of a project.

Specifically, product owners have the following responsibilities:

  • Managing stakeholders and driving value
  • Ensuring effective communication between the development team and project stakeholders
  • Supplying the product vision
  • Conflict resolution
  • Prioritizing items on the backlog
  • Ensuring Scrum Values, Principles, and Processes are Incorporated (This would be Scrum master/Agile Coach)
  • Helping Stakeholders Understand the Value of Scrum

Conversely, the product owner should not assume the following duties:

  • Project management, including scheduling, documenting, and tracking or measuring team progress.
  • Manage resources or personnel
  • Subject matter expertise
  • Act as the sole point of contact between the development team and customers

How are Product Owners and Project Managers similar?

There is plenty of overlap between the product owner and the project manager because they are both responsible for their product or project. They must ensure their projects are successful and that teams are kept organized and on track. The main difference is that the product owner is focused on creating a great product. In contrast, the project manager ensures the project is completed on time and within budget.

Here are several vital responsibilities where product owners and project managers are similar:

  • Both are responsible for completing projects on time and within budget.
  • They must be effective communicators capable of guiding cross-functional teams toward a common goal.
  • They are both involved in the complete life cycle of their projects.
  • Both create the product or project roadmap.
  • They ensure that priorities are aligned between stakeholders and the development team.
  • Both must deliver a return on investment .

There are also several skills that product owners and project managers both need to thrive in their roles. These include:

Communication

Both roles require regular communication with all the stakeholders in the business, including customers, management, project teams, users, vendors, and many others. Product owners and project managers must demonstrate practical communication skills for interacting with these parties.

Leadership

Although the requirements differ, product owners and project managers must demonstrate effective leadership. Product owners motivate development teams through storytelling, encouraging them to deliver the desired business outcomes using the product vision. On the other hand, project managers work closely with project teams and must guide them to success.

Organization

With countless moving parts in any project, attention to detail and organization skills are necessary for both roles. Not only do they need to prioritize and organize their own work, but they must be able to assess the state of a project at any time and adjust as necessary.

What’s the Difference Between Product Owners and Project Managers?

The main difference between a product owner and a project manager is that a product owner is focused on the product, while a project manager is focused on the project. The product owner is responsible for creating and managing the product vision, whereas the project manager usually oversees the project plan, timeline, budget, and resources. In some cases, the two roles may be combined into one person.

Several fundamental differences between project managers and product owners include:

Project Management Discipline

Project managers work in traditional project management environments, while product owners usually participate in agile or hybrid initiatives. The product owner plays an essential role in product-driven projects, especially Scrum, where it is one of three defined roles, along with the ScrumMaster and Team.

Product Vision

The product owner serves as the user’s voice and articulates customer needs regarding the product vision. A project manager ensures the product vision is adequately executed while representing the business stakeholders.

Responsibilities

The project manager’s primary responsibility is to monitor the schedule, budget, and scope to keep the project on track. The product owner is responsible for ensuring a project achieves maximum business value.

Additionally, project managers are logistical mavens with the utmost attention to detail. Being a project manager requires managing and assigning tasks to the project team. Because product owners are typically involved in agile projects, they are not responsible for managing and assigning project tasks. Instead, the product owner maintains the product backlog, which details the scope of work. In Scrum, development teams are self-organized and use the product backlog as a guide for completing project deliverables. 

Which is Right for You?

When deciding whether you should be a project manager or product owner, there are several criteria you should consider, including:

Skills and strengths: If you are more persuasive, assertive, and willing to make challenging decisions, you might make an excellent product owner. If you would instead focus on project planning and management while coaching others, project management is an ideal fit. 

Certifications: Do you already have one or more professional credentials related to project management or Scrum? Your knowledge of a particular discipline can guide you into the appropriate role. Researching and earning additional certifications can also provide meaningful insight into what position is the best fit for you.

Career goals: Are you eager to gain experience working in an agile environment, or would you prefer to gain a deeper understanding of traditional project management?

Salary: Project managers generally earn higher wages than product owners, although specific compensation varies depending on your experience, the organization, the industry, and location.

As you consider which option is best for your career, we recommend getting certified, as the proper credentials will introduce new opportunities while increasing your value to potential employers. The Project Management Professional Certification (PMP)® for Project Managers and the Certified Scrum Product Owner® (CSPO®) credential for Product Owners are ideal certifications for either role. Many product owners build their knowledge and skills with the CSPO certification, an interactive, 2-day training course offered by Project Management Academy.

Summary

While there is plenty of overlap between the project manager and product owner roles, there are significant differences that interested professionals should know. Product owners typically don’t have project management skills and instead focus on vision and communication, while project managers are responsible for seeing a project through to the end. Project managers lack the authority to make more significant decisions regarding a project but are much closer to the work, the people, and the resources.

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Erin Aldridge, PMP, PMI-ACP, & CSPO
Director of Product Development at