A dog collar with a tag that says product. Represents the product owner.
The Product Owner: Who They Are and What They Do
A dog collar with a tag that says product. Represents the product owner.

The Product Owner: Who They Are and What They Do

Maybe you first heard the term in a meeting. Maybe you first saw it in a job posting your organization released recently. Either way, you’re now sitting opposite of someone who calls themselves a product owner, and you have no idea what they do. The short answer? Quite a bit.

The responsibilities of the product owner are often misunderstood or even unknown. Not everyone works closely with them, but most people in an organization see their work affected by them. Read on to learn more about the role of a product owner, their responsibilities, and how they differ from project managers.

What is a product owner? 

Within the Scrum framework, a product owner is responsible for ensuring the products created by a development team reach their maximum value. They establish the direction and vision for the product alongside the Scrum team and relevant stakeholders within the organization.

Product owners can wear many hats, from analyzing market trends to interviewing potential customers and sitting in on important meetings with partners. Despite this, the role of product owner is always filled by an individual rather than a team of people. This person manages the product backlog — essentially a list of all of the work the development team needs to complete.

Product owner responsibilities 

No matter the slight differences that exist across organizations, some common responsibilities are core to the role of a product owner.

Manage the product backlog

The product backlog is a sort of master list of the work a development team is responsible for. However, it’s not simply a to-do list. The product owner is responsible for prioritizing tasks according to the business’ roadmap and vision.

Part of effectively managing a product backlog is streamlining the workflows it’s a part of. That might involve the way support tickets are escalated to your developers or how other teams collaborate with them. That often means a product owner is managing the different channels requests can come through (email, Slack chats, other meetings, Wrike comments, etc.), and they’re often leading the charge when it comes to integrating a company’s work management tool into their process.

Define the direction of a product

Ever been involved in frustrating projects that don’t seem to have a clear vision or an established end goal? This is where the product owner comes in. Using their high-level perspective, product owners make sure that there’s a clearly established direction for their product. This includes the overall vision, key project goals, and the product roadmap

When it comes to sprints, the product owner basically acts as the captain of the ship. They help steer each project and ensure it’s clear to all members of the team — and that the project ultimately contributes to a product’s overall direction.

Stakeholder management

The best product owners are experts at listening to and understanding the needs of a product’s stakeholders. They act as a liaison between stakeholders and the development team, and work to make sure that there are no miscommunications when it comes to product direction and how individual sprints contribute to it.

A product owner will provide transparency into the product backlog for stakeholders and update them on the status of ongoing work. They also act as a sort of filter, standing in for stakeholders in most meetings while ensuring stakeholders are present for any key meetings such as the sprint review — the working session the results of a previous sprint are reviewed.

Product owner vs. project manager 

While both a product owner and a project manager help teams bring projects across the finish line, the two roles have key differences. 

Project management is defined as “the application of processes, expertise, and tools in order to meet project goals and requirements within a specific timeframe.” The roles of a project manager (or PM) include making sure projects get completed by a certain deadline, facilitating communication between internal teams and stakeholders, planning projects and scope, implementing structures and processes, resource management, risk analysis, and running project retrospectives

While it might not sound all that different from what a product owner does, here are some of the core differences. 

Project approach 

One of the key differences between a project manager and a product owner is the types of projects they work with. A project manager helps plan and execute individual projects. They’re usually working with teams to plot out every step of a project’s journey, and they help teams rebound when things don’t go according to plan.

A product owner doesn’t really have that set plan in place. They’re determining goals and product direction, but they’re far more focused on the big picture than a project manager might be. They’re not executing on individual projects, they’re making sure all the pieces contribute to the greater puzzle of the product.

Scope and vision 

While a project manager might just see a few components of a project, a product owner will see the development of the product from beginning to end. The product owner, well, owns every aspect of the product, while the project manager is responsible only for those components they’re managing. 

Within this, the product owners create the vision and direction for the project, while the project manager is responsible for executing, often following specific requests from stakeholders. An organization’s customer service director, for example, could ask for a new feature for an app. The Product Owner would be responsible for creating and conceiving a vision for the end product, prioritizing this request, and seeing it through to completion (with any necessary iterations). A project manager, however, might focus more on who will do the actual work, figuring out deadlines, and making sure the feature gets delivered.

Structure and communications

Product owners follow the Agile framework within a business’s software development Scrum team. Project managers can work with any team across an organization, and on any project. 

When it comes to communication, product owners are in constant contact with their teams and stakeholders. They continuously provide transparency for both sides and work to find solutions for any blockers as well as ways of addressing feedback or necessary iterations. 

Project managers work in a structure that assumes all team members know exactly what they should be doing, and within what timeline. Once a project kickoff takes place, the PM is responsible for monitoring progress and ensuring team members adhere to the deadlines. However, they aren’t required to work alongside the team to develop the actual products. 

Who owns this?

An integral part of any Scrum team, a good product owner can make all the difference when it comes to the success of an organization. Able to bring a vision to life through collaboration and strategic business insights, product owners have many responsibilities — and need tools and solutions that work as hard as they do.