Clearing the confusion: product manager vs. project manager vs. product owner vs. program manager

Product Manager, Project Manager, Product Owner, Program Manager: a lot of managers, a lot of words that start with the letters Pr. Maybe that is at the heart of why so many people seem to confuse the roles. They all sound similar.

Or maybe the reason for the ambiguity is that every company seems to define these roles differently. I am not even sure you can blame them. Universally accepted, well rounded definitions of the product manager, project manager, product owner, or program manager roles don’t seem to exist. 

The confusion often leads to inefficiencies and frustration. Expectations and theory of the role often don’t match lived reality. When switching companies but staying in the same role, the responsibilities might differ greatly. 

I want to try and bring some clarity and share my thoughts on these roles. I will explain the responsibilities, how they are similar, and where they differ.  

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What does the product manager do?

The product manager is responsible for the success of a specific product. She leads the product team and ideally ensures the product combines technology and design in such a way that customers’ problems are solved while simultaneously satisfying the strategic needs of the company.

The product manager ensures that the right product is built

The product manager guides all development efforts on the product. She is responsible for the product vision, strategy to achieve the vision, and the roadmap. In the end, she has the responsibility to make the decisions on what to build, on what the product will be. As such, the product manager greatly influences how effective the product development efforts are.

Just because the product manager has the responsibility doesn’t mean she does this on her own. She has to make sure the decisions are aligned with the rest of the company. Thus, she will heavily communicate with stakeholders and involve the team in the process. In the end, though, the product manager is accountable that the right decisions are made. She is accountable for the product’s success.

The product manager guides product discovery and delivery

In ensuring this, a big part of the product manager’s work is minimizing various types of risk (e.g. viability, value, feasibility, usability) through product discovery work. This means she is frequently talking to customers to gain a deep understanding of their needs, wants, and desires. Additionally, she has an overview of the competition and industry trends that might influence the product’s success.

In product delivery, the product manager needs to facilitate execution of the decisions and align the developments with the rest of the organization. The product manager is always in close cooperation with the product team, marketing, sales, and senior leadership to remove impediments and ensure the developments fit the broader organizational context.

Overall, the product manager role is crucial to product success. This is also true for a – in my view – very similar role, the product owner. 

What are the responsibilities of the product owner?

The product owner role is defined within the Scrum framework. According to the official Scrum Guide the Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Scrum Team.” While this may be the most agreed upon definition of all the roles discussed today, it is one that leaves ample room for interpretation.  

Product owner and product manager are very similar

In my view, the product owner must take on the same responsibilities as the product manager. In addition, within Scrum he is accountable for managing the product backlog. Regardless of Scrum, similarly to the product manager the product owner has an outsized influence on product success. He has the responsibility to make key product decisions and thus enable effective product development

The only true difference I see between product manager and product owner is the size of the organization they influence with their product decisions. Per default the product owner is part of a single Scrum team of less than 10 people. The product manager can be responsible for a product that an entire organization consisting of many teams and 100s to 1000s of people is working on. 

Nevertheless, the questions and issues that product owner and product manager deal with are similar. The scope may differ. 

Many don’t use the full potential of the product owner

Unfortunately, this is not always the case in practice. Many seem to interpret the product owner as a very tactical role focused solely on product delivery. He is often relegated to translating the organization’s wishes into user stories the team can implement. 

Thus, many product owners are part of feature or delivery teams. They unfortunately spend much of their time on administrative tasks. Their and the team’s capabilities are not used to the fullest potential. In the long run this will lead to less innovation for the customers.

How does the project manager differ from the product manager?

Having discussed two roles that should be very similar, let’s get to one that is actually different, the project manager. In comparison to a product, a project is an endeavor with a defined start and end. 

The project manager is responsible for achieving the specific goals of a project in time, in specification, and in budget. 

Often but by far not always, a project is initiated by the sponsor funding the efforts with a project charter. Amongst other things, it includes the project goals, a high level plan, a timeline, the organizational support, and often the business case justifying the work.

The project manager is then charged with planning the project in detail and, well…, managing it so that the aim is achieved. In practice, this means delegating work packages and following up on their progress, coordinating different parts of the organization, and communicating the project status to key stakeholders, often within a steering committee. 

Although the responsibilities differ, the skills needed to be a project manager are very similar to those of a product manager or product owner. Communication, decision making, and organizational skills are key. This is also true for the program manager.

Is the program manager the same as a project manager?

Full disclosure: I don’t have any experience working as a program manager, so this is very much based on theory. 

A program manager is responsible for ensuring a group of projects aligned on an objective are successful. The program manager is thus responsible for allocating resources to various projects within a single strategic initiative. 

The program manager is responsible for managing the dependencies between projects. He facilitates cross-project communication and collaboration between project teams and coordinates them so that all projects are moving towards the same goal.

Overall, the program manager role is very similar to being a project manager of a large project with many sub projects. Compared to a project manager focused very much on short-term execution, the program manager has a more strategic and long term view focused on coordination and alignment.  

Overall, similarly to product manager and product owner, the program manager and project manager roles require similar skills and seem very much alike, but differ in scope. 

(As a bonus, since we don’t already have enough roles that start with a P, the portfolio manager also exists. The relationship between portfolio and program manager is very similar to that of program and project manager. The portfolio manager has an even more high level view, making sure that various programs and projects are aligned along a goal.)

The two sentence summary for each role

In summary:

The product manager has the overall responsibility for making sure the product is successful. She chiefly does this by defining and deciding what the product should be.

The product owner has the same responsibilities as the product manager. Additionally, he is part of the Scrum framework and is responsible for the product backlog.

The project manager ensures that a specific project goal is achieved. She does this by coordinating various factions and helping where need be.

The program manager is responsible for several aligned projects. He coordinates them and assigns resources so that the overall objective is met. 

Let’s hope this clears up the confusion just a little bit 🙂