Product owners vs. product managers in SaaS: how to work together successfully

Product owners vs. product managers in SaaS: how to work together successfully

Adelina Karpenkova
Adelina Karpenkova (Smartlook Team)  |  Last updated: Mar 13, 2023
16 mins read
Are PMs and POs the same? Understand the main differences, responsibilities, scope of work, and the role of each in the SaaS environment.

“A product owner is a product manager, says Maarten Dalmijn. On the contrary, Sareh Baca of Warner Bros. Discovery stresses there’s a huge difference between product owners and product managers. So, which opinion is correct? 

A lot of companies prefer to combine the roles of product owners and managers. It’s like having one person managing two roles. Although there’s clearly no ‘right side’ in this matter, you still have to make a choice. 

Depending on the size of your company and business objectives, you’ll need to decide whether your team requires a product owner, product manager, or both. 

In this article, we explain the difference between product owners and product managers, including how they can work together successfully. Together, we’ll take a close look at the following:

What does a product owner do? 

A product owner (PO) is an individual on a Scrum team whose responsible for managing and optimizing the product backlog to maximize product value.

What is Scrum? Scrum is a framework in the Agile project management methodology that splits the product lifecycle into iterative and incremental processes. In Scrum, projects are delivered in sprints — short, time-boxed periods during which product teams focus on completing a specific product action.

Scrum teams are cross-functional, self-organized, and continuously improving. Typically, they consist of a scrum master, a product owner, and a group of developers.

But let’s get back to product owners. This is a very tactical role compared to product management. Product owners are people who manage Scrum teams, organize sprints, and prioritize the backlog. They’re responsible for connecting Scrum team members and stakeholders and coordinating teamwork until the final product is delivered. Let’s talk about the responsibilities of product owners in more detail.

8 Responsibilities of a product owner

“Product owners manage software development teams— well said. But that could also fit the product manager description. What exactly do product owners do on a typical workday? 

Here are the 8 key responsibilities of a product owner.

1. Develop product goals and vision

A vision is a long-term mission or an ultimate reason for creating a product. On the other hand, a product goal is a measurable objective to be achieved within a timeframe. Both are defined by the product owner when they’re the sole manager of a team.

In addition to developing goals and a vision, a product owner’s task is to communicate them to the team and stakeholders. With clearly defined product goals, Scrum teams can work on their product backlog, prioritize items, and plan sprints.

“As a product owner, you must provide a clear understanding of:

1. Why are we doing this? What is the relevant context?

2. What are we trying to achieve? When teams don’t know the answers to these two questions, they cannot be empowered to make decisions.”
Maarten Dalmijn
ex-product onwer, product teams consultant at Dalmjin Consulting

2. Connect with customers

Even if they don’t connect with customers directly, product owners work with customer data to understand user needs and plan and prioritize the product backlog better.

Before they can develop a product goal and vision, the Scrum product owner needs to conduct user research to understand common pain points. This is a big part of their daily work.

By analyzing customer feedback, sales calls, the user journey, and other sources of truth regarding end users, product owners put the needs and desires of their customers at the heart of their strategy and increase the value of the product.

A perfect understanding of the market is paramount to becoming a good product owner. Only by anticipating customer needs can software development teams build products that solve end user problems. 

3. Communicate with stakeholders

Stakeholders are people who have a special interest in the development of a product — they include other teams, company management, and even investors. One of the main responsibilities of a product owner is to act as a “bridge” between stakeholders and developers.

Stakeholder management is a challenging product owner responsibility. Finding a balance between stakeholder requirements and their own product vision isn’t as easy as it sounds.

“As a PO, my daily activities include very regular communication with the clients, as well as with the teams executing the projects (Design and Engineering). Basically, I’m the bridge between the client and the team (although, at least at my company, they also could communicate directly), and I make sure there is a shared understanding of requirements and priorities.

It’s as if my team is the musicians, and I am the conductor.”
Diana Bernardo
Product Owner at Pixelmatters

4. Define user stories

In software development, a user story is a simple and easy-to-implement block of tasks designed to achieve a specific goal within a product. 

It’s a central concept in the agile methodology aimed at shifting focus from product features to the needs of real people. It’s usually written by a product owner, but developers and stakeholders may also contribute.
As you might have guessed, user stories are based on user needs and pain points. The primary objective of writing a user story is defining functionalities users would want to see in a product. As the product owner typically knows customers best, they take the lead in developing user stories.

5. Prioritize product backlog items

After defining user stories, the product owner should prioritize product backlog items.

A product backlog is essentially a list of previously defined user stories prioritized based on business value.

Product backlog management is a repetitive task in the product owner’s daily routine. They spend a lot of time coming up with tasks for their team, prioritizing them, and continuously updating the backlog. 

6. Plan sprints

During spring planning, product owners pick user stories from the backlog and turn them into more detailed tasks that should be accomplished to complete a project.

But the product owner can’t do everything on their own. When planning sprints, product owners host team meetings where team leaders exchange opinions and provide adequate estimates for upcoming sprints.

7. Evaluate product progress

Agile product owners are accountable for each stage of the development process, including product progress evaluation. They also keep a close eye on their teams as they complete sprints to ensure they follow guidelines and requirements.

8. Keep the backlog healthy

After each iteration and before the next, product owners should review the backlog to ensure it’s up-to-date and that the feedback from the last sprint has been incorporated. Regular backlog reviews and re-prioritization are critical for predictable and stable sprints.

What does a product manager do?

A product manager (PM) is a professional responsible for creating and managing a product development strategy in accordance with customer needs and business objectives.

Contrary to product owners, product managers aren’t related to any specific project management framework. Whether you follow the principles of Waterfall, Scrum, Kanban, or Six Sigma, you can hire a product manager to streamline product development. 

8 Responsibilities of a product manager

Before we dive deeper into the differences between a product manager and a product owner, let’s see what tasks product managers fill their workdays with.

Source: McKinsey

1. Monitor the market and competition

Product managers must understand the market in the first place. Market research allows PMs to gather information about customer demands and find a product-market fit.

That’s why monitoring competitive conditions, defining user persona, and analyzing market drivers are among the most repetitive activities in a PM’s schedule.

2. Engage with customers and stakeholders

Similar to product owners, product managers also collaborate with business stakeholders and design and development teams in an attempt to keep everyone on the same page.

“At Swarmia, we want to keep our product teams close to our customers. In practice, this means collaboration between product management, product design, and engineering.”
Lauri Ikonen
Product manager at Swarmia

To stay on top of end-user needs, PMs interact with customers and analyze user behavior, support tickets, survey results, and sales calls. Customer analysis allows product managers to understand the value their product provides end-users and helps them plan upcoming features.

“In my role, it’s important that I understand who our users are, how they’re using our platform, and what pain points they face, mainly through user interviews and surveys. I’m responsible for driving feature development, launches, ideation sessions, and process improvement for products across engineering, design, support, sales/success, and marketing teams.”
Raina Ahuja
Senior Product Manager at Scribe

Smartlook helps product managers dive into user behavior across various devices to build products customers love. Sign up for a full-featured, 30-day trial of Smartlook today.

3. Develop a vision

A product vision statement is a document that describes an overarching long-term product mission and precisely communicates where a product hopes to go. A product manager writes a vision statement to provide direction for product strategy and building a base for specific product goals.

“The primary role of the product manager is to make sure the team solves the right problems, which requires clarity regarding product vision, customer needs, and the resulting product priorities.” 
Lauri Ikonen
Product Manager at Swarmia

4. Defining product strategy and positioning

Product managers are responsible for developing the big-picture of a product. While a vision statement explains the “why” behind the product, a high-level strategy highlights what needs to be done and how.  

Strategic thinking is a must-have skill for any product manager. The ability to think strategically can turn industry and product knowledge into a long-term product development and positioning strategy. 

5. Create product requirements

Once a product strategy is in place, the PM can finally write product specifications outlining what should be built and why, how it contributes to product success, and how success should be measured. 

In a product requirements document, the PM outlines every detail, from the product’s purpose to its features and functionality.

6. Design the road map

The product manager is responsible for creating and updating the product roadmap. The resulting document should be a visual representation of how your team should go about achieving product goals and help you keep track of progress. Essentially, it’s an action plan that outlines the necessary steps and deadlines for reaching short-term and long-term business objectives based on product vision, direction, and priorities.

Depending on your project management framework, your PM will choose a specific type of roadmap from a variety of options. 

7. Supervise cross-functional collaboration

Although it’s usually the product owner who deals with internal stakeholders, product managers are perfectly capable of coordinating cross-functional collaboration within a company.

According to McKinsey, collaborating with designers and other teams involved in delivering a quality product makes up roughly 27% of a product manager’s day.

8. Measure product performance

Every product manager should collect and rely on data to understand how their product is performing and to make informed decisions regarding optimization. 

Product data includes every accessible piece of data related to product performance and user behavior. PMs use product monitoring tool like Smartlook to collect qualitative and quantitative insights to prioritize feature development, spot performance issues, and identify new opportunities for growth.

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The difference between a product owner and a product manager

Both product owners and product managers can develop product goals and a vision. Both roles also require a deep understanding of customer needs. Is there a difference between the two?

While they may perform similar functions, the responsibilities of product managers and product owners differ in many ways. 

First, the role of a product owner can exist only in the context of the Scrum methodology. The product manager role isn’t limited to any specific framework.

Moreover, product managers perform a more strategic role while product owners focus on tactics. 

“In my understanding, product managers think of a product from a product’s perspective (sorry for the redundancy). They don’t need to be aware of the daily activities of the team, or the nitty gritty details. They do market research (or someone like a Business Analyst does it for them), create a vision, and make more high-level decisions and actions to make that product vision come alive.”
Diana Bernardo
Product Owner at Pixelmatters

But at the end of the day, however hard we try to draw a line between the roles of product owners and product managers, their specific responsibilities depend on the size of the company. 

I have a very different, if somewhat controversial opinion on this.

From my experience working in South Africa, the roles of PM/PO are interchangeable, depending on our product at the time. In essence, for us, the only difference is the use of scrum.

But getting to Europe, I’m noticing a very different approach, where there is a very big distinction between the two.

From what I’ve seen, the distinction here is that the product manager focuses more on the strategy and business side, whereas the PO is focused exclusively on execution.”
Kim Kruger
Senior Product Owner at AND Digital

Can a product manager be a product owner, and vice versa?

In a small team, a product manager could very well be a product owner and vice versa. 

In small teams like Marble’s, product managers can shift their focus, balancing between strategic and tactical planning.

“As Head of Product, I’m in charge of creating product strategy, collecting and processing users’ feedback, and managing product teamwork. At the moment, we’re a team of three people — we used to be a team of five. We’re using some elements of the Scrum methodology: starting with roles and sprints and finishing with regular retros, and rebuilding our working flows ad hoc. As the team is relatively small, all its members are involved to some extent in all the product development processes.”
Alexey Sytnikov
Product Manager at Marble

Still, it’s best to avoid combining the roles, opting instead to have your employees perform the roles they were hired for. 

Who manages the product managers and owners?

In small companies, PMs and POs may be the most senior product people in the organization. In this case, they would report directly to a chief executive officer (CEO). 

But in larger organizations, there’s typically a chief product officer (CPO) that manages both product managers and product owners.

Do you need both?

The answer depends on two factors:

  • Whether or not your team applies the Scrum methodology
  • The size of your product team

If you have enough resources, your Scrum team will benefit from having both a PM and a PO. As these two roles work at different levels (conceptual vs. day-to-day activities), their synergy will help you achieve your business objectives much faster.

However, small agile teams can manage without a PM if a PO is ready to take on some key strategic tasks.  

Syncing product owners and product managers 

Large companies with agile product teams need more than a single product professional. As PMs already have enough responsibilities, the development team needs someone to give them direct instruction and supervise the processes. To maintain efficient workflows, you need both a PM and a PO on your team. And most importantly, you need to find a way to make them work together. 

Follow your product management methodology

What product management methodology do you follow? If you haven’t decided, it’s time to do so. 

But assuming that you have a PM and PO on your team, you clearly implemented the Scrum framework into your organization. If so, make sure to stick to the key principles of the methodology to prevent misalignment in your leadership. 

While the role of the product owner only exists in the Scrum methodology, not every product manager necessarily has experience with Scrum. Guide your team and outside leadership through the principles of the framework to create alignment among everyone involved.

Define roles and responsibilities

If you decide to have both a product manager and a product owner on your team, you must clearly define their roles and responsibilities. 

For instance, while product managers focus on developing product strategies, product owners could be responsible for taking these initiatives and breaking them down into actionable chunks to make it easier for engineering teams to implement.

Create a knowledge management system

Document everything. Literally. 

You need a centralized knowledge management system where your product owner and product manager can not only add information about their projects but actually collaborate on documents. 

The system — most likely an internal wiki or product management app — should include up-to-date information regarding product strategy, customer persona, user stories, sprints, backlogs, and other software development processes and workflows.

It’s not easy to create a knowledge-sharing culture, especially among software development teams. But you have to find a way to communicate the importance of effective knowledge management to your PM and PO if you want to create a synergy between the two roles.

Make them talk

Regular team meetings are a critical part of Scrum methodology. But do your PM and PO sync often?

Encourage product managers and product owners to schedule recurring meetings to tie high-level product strategy to the product development plan. When working together, your product leaders will align on the product vision and strategy and achieve desired outcomes faster.

Centralize product and behavior data with one powerful tool

Your product owner and product manager should use the same tools for monitoring product performance and other critical business data. Otherwise, they’ll approach the job from completely different perspectives and have trouble reaching a consensus.

Position your product analytics tool as a single source of truth for your entire product team. For example, in Smartlook, your PM and PO will get qualitative and quantitative insights regarding user behavior (Session Recordings), user engagement (Heatmaps), user actions (Events), and user paths (Funnels) across different devices (so you don’t have to worry about capturing mobile analytics!).

With Smartlook’s customer experience platform, your product manager and product owner can collaborate on customer and product performance to create and execute a consistent product strategy.

Sign up for a full-featured, 30-day trial of Smartlook (no credit card required) and start analyzing user behavior with session recordings, events, funnels, and heatmaps

Our platform is compatible with all sorts of websites, including those built with popular CMSs like WordPress, Joomla, and Shopify. Additionally, Smartlook features integration with widely-used A/B testing software like Google Optimize and Optimizely, as well as other analytics solutions like Google Analytics and Mixpanel.

For an in-depth presentation that’s tailored to your business, schedule a demo with our team.

Wrapping up

What skill set are you looking for? If you need someone to focus on the delivery side (e.g., developing features, managing the backlog, etc.), a product owner is the answer.

If you’re looking to find new opportunities for growth or build a new product, you definitely need a product manager. 

And if you need everything at once, it’s best to have a PM and PO that work together — but on different product aspects.

Adelina Karpenkova
Adelina Karpenkova

is a freelance writer with a background in SaaS marketing. She loves discovering new product marketing strategies, gaining insights for product experts, and turning her knowledge into helpful content. When she's not writing, she plays tennis or knits cozy sweaters.

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