Moving to Agile: What's the difference between a project manager and a product owner?

When making the decision to adopt an agile method like Scrum, invariably the question about existing roles arises. In particular, I find that the question of “where do my project managers fit in” is one asked most often.

Comparing Project Manager and Product Owner/Product Manager roles

While the Project Management and Product Owner roles are quite different in their focus, there are many similarities between them.

Project Manager Product Owner/
Product Manager
Primary concern Create “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result” [1] Create a framework built on the need for a product to “satisfy a want or a need” [2]
Focus When will it be delivered? ·Why are we delivering it and to whom?
  Schedule driven ·Value driven
  Plan creates the cost, schedule, estimates Valued features drive estimates and then schedule
  Try to predict what users need Find out what users want and adapt to their evolving needs
  Optimise utilisation of team members through phase based and sequential activities Team self-organises to optimise its work Sprint to Sprint supported by a Scrum Master
Tasks
  • Risk and issue management
  • Resource management
  • Scope management and change management
  • Stakeholder management
  • Communications management
  • Balance time, cost and quality
  • Manage the product delivery until its handed over to its business owner
  • Product vision
  • Delivery roadmap
  • Benefits/outcomes realisation
  • Understand user needs
  • Understand stakeholder needs
  • Scope management and change management
  • Stakeholder management
  • Communications management
  • Deliver the product
  • Manage the product and improve upon it until it is no longer needed

The function of good project management doesn’t go away

In Scrum, the gaps between a Project Manager and a Product Owner are filled by other roles.

Scrum projects eliminate the role of the project manager, but that doesn’t mean a team can get rid of the work and responsibilities of that role. Since self-organizing teams are at the core of Scrum, a great deal of the responsibility previously shouldered by the project manager is transferred to the Scrum team.
Without a project manager to assign tasks to individuals, team members assume the responsibility of selecting tasks themselves.
– Mike Cohn [3]

The tasks of project management don't disappear, they're just done by other Scrum roles
The tasks of project management don’t disappear, they’re just done by other Scrum roles

Conclusions

Whether you’re title is Project Manager or Program Manager the tasks you normally do day-to-day don’t go away when your organisation transitions to Scrum, but the focus of why the project is being done does change. Suddenly, delivery becomes about continuous delivery of value. For business, stakeholders and end-users this transformation provides better outcomes for everyone.
M
– – –
[1] Project Management Institute (2004). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge: PMBOK Guide. 3rd Edition. Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, Project Management Institute, p. 5.
[2] Kotler, P., Armstrong, G., Brown, L., and Adam, S. (2006) Marketing, 7th Ed. Pearson Education Australia/Prentice Hall.
[3] Cohn, M (2016) Which course is right for me? Online at: https://www.mountaingoatsoftware.com/training/roles/project-manager

2 thoughts on “Moving to Agile: What's the difference between a project manager and a product owner?

  1. Very clear explanation on the difference between PM and PO. Thanks for sharing.

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