The Agile Mindset Blog

How to Choose the Right Product Owner: Part 2

How to Choose the Right Product Owner: Part 2

Part 2 – Product Manager to Product Owner

In Part 1 of this blog, we looked at the pros and cons of transitioning your business analysts into the Product Owner role.  Another common role transition is from product manager to product owner.  When my clients do this, their reasoning goes like so: “We want a product owner who understands and has accountability for the success of the product.  Product managers are a natural choice.”

Again, this one goes wrong more often than it goes right. 

For a moment, think of the leadership in your own organization.  Now envision the people at the very top – your most senior leaders.  We might call them “40,000-foot people”, meaning they spend their days thinking almost exclusively about strategy.  Growing market share, entering new markets, hitting revenue targets – these are the issues that have their attention.

While those people are 40,000 feet in the air, a typical Scrum development team is right on the ground, meaning they are almost completely tactical in their thinking.  Their concerns are issues like, “What should we do today?  What should we commit to in each sprint?” 

Between these two extremes, a good product owner is a “10,000-foot person”.  Product owners are definitely closer to the tactical, but they also have an element of connection to higher-level, strategic thinking.

Where do product managers fit into our analogy?  They are often “30,000-foot people”, meaning they have a much more strategic mindset than the typical Product Owner.  The day-to-day work of the Product Owner role—writing user stories, meeting with stakeholders, grooming the product backlog—is often tedious to them.  It is not how their minds work—these activities are too far down in the weeds for their skillset.  An experienced product owner can reasonably be expected to groom his/her product backlog and plan releases about 4 – 6 months out in the future, at a maximum.  An experienced product manager, on the other hand, might think in terms of 18-month product roadmaps. 

For some of my clients (especially smaller companies where people tend to be generalists by necessity), product managers often successfully take on the Product Owner role.  But it is rarely a good fit in larger companies.  If you are considering putting your product managers in the Product Owner role, make sure they know what they are getting into by signing up for the job.  There is a fair amount of “grunt work” involved in being a product owner.  It is not the right job for someone whose eyes are forever fixed on the distant horizon.


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