What’s the difference between a Project Manager and a Product Owner?

The two approaches

When in the mid-1990s. Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland introduced their innovative approach to the project management they did not change a general conception of a project. The project management triangle stayed untouched and according to it, projects consist of a scope, a time and a budget. In contrary to the Waterfall approach Ken and Jeff presented the general idea, which is a flexible framework. They did not focus on a thorough explanation of every element and step of a project but discussed only the most important issues. Scrum guide has only 16 pages, when the PMBOK Guide, which was created by Project Management Institute, contains 589. Scrum recommends introducing the empiric process of transparency, inspection, and adaptation to your work. Schwaber and Sutherland were not trying to predict every situation or instruct how to react to it. Don’t understand me wrong, the old school is filled with useful knowledge, but as experience proves, in some situations, it simply does not work. In a complex world, when advanced products are developed, traditional models of managing organization are doomed to failure.

One of the fundamental difference between these projects management methodologies is the managers’ positions. Project Managers work with the Waterfall methodology, when in Scrum all team members share the duty of manager. In this article, I will focus mostly on Product Owner.

The perspective of a Project Manager - everything is under control!

Project Manager has the responsibility to deliver project scope within an established time and budget. Of course, the final product will be as good as it was described in the scope. Therefore to succeed Project Manager has a lot of things to take care of:

  • When the general concept is established, then Project Managers have to start the initiation of the project. It consists of few elements: a basic definition of the scope, identifying stakeholders and ensuring the access to all the necessary resources. Those are the essentials for the future success of the project.
  • The second phase is dedicated to planning. Project Managers have to form a transparent and complete plan. This document has to contain resources, a schedule, and a budget. Therefore Project Managers love to use Gantt chart, which is perfect for working on such tasks. You can use it to create a beautiful document with all details that are required to execute a project.
  • The next phase is the execution of the prepared plan when Project Managers have to ensure that everything is working properly. They have to work by estimated time and a budget as it was expected to fulfill a project specification. But that, of course, is not everything good Project Managers have to do because they also need to ensure that the project meets requirements. A team needs to have a leader, which can be found in a talented Project Manager. The methodology set him in that role. Motivation and guiding team members are an essential duty of a PM, as well as the communication between stakeholders and team members. If Project Managers don’t take care of that, then their projects are doomed to failure. They have to identify, analyze and prepare an appropriate response to that risk and any others.
  • Another task of Project Managers is monitoring and controlling. These processes demand to track, review and regulate the progress and performance of the project. Those tasks also require from Project Managers to constantly collects information and to assess measures. Because of that, they can make performance corrections in a work progress to ensure it matches a scope, a timeline, and a budget.
  • If the most of the previous phases went smoothly, then Project Managers can finalize their projects. It means ensuring that the final product is delivered, documentation is up to date and that all payments were processed.

The Project Management Institution defines ten areas of knowledge in a Waterfall project. The PRINCE2 methodology is based on the seven principles, the seven themes, and the seven processes. In short, Project Managers should always have control over the project and be aware of its every aspect. It is not the easiest position to be in because it requires really broad knowledge, having various skills, and maintaining a strong leadership. The problems start to appear only when the scope is not completed or when the final results are obsolete.

Product Owner: ” I am not sure what exactly it will be, but next month it’s going to work!”

Duties of a Project Managers are distributed between Product Owners, Scrum Masters and the rest of the Teams. The first group from this list is responsible for maximizing a value of a Sprint through a Development Team. But what are their main duties?

The most important aspect of being a Product Owner is the fact that they are the only people responsible for managing a product. It means that they are amenable for a product backlog. That consist of a few activities:

  • First of all, Product Owners have to know how the product is supposed to look. They are obligated to collect all requirements for a product, which means gathering information to create new functionalities and making changes in the already existing ones.
  • It’s not enough to know everything about the project because all of the collected information has to be given to the rest of the team. The key is to transmit items from a Backlog in a clear way. User Story, which displays items, is a convention of transfer requirements in Scrum. Each User Story should follow the INVEST model to make it as much valuable as possible. By following this model, you will make a Product Backlog transparent and clear to all involved parties.
  • When Product Owners have a clear plan of what should be done, then the next step is to choose an approach that is well suited for this particular project. This prioritization of tasks is a necessary part of achieving business goals - Product Owners have to maximize the business value of every element. Creating additional functionalities, which don’t have the business value, is a really wasteful and should be minimized. Only POs have the power to compose the items in the Product Backlog. They have to have the necessary trust of stakeholders to obtain an authorization and make decisions.
  • The last thing Project Owners have to do is ensuring the final product is compatible with User Stories. When issues are pulled to the sprint, they are required to be finished before the review. Only after a team finished this task, Product Owners have to evaluate the final effect. What is important, a team is the first one to judge whether their work is created according to the definition of done.

In projects managed in the Scrum, changes are not only natural but also encouraged. Therefore, Product Owners’ duty is to clarify and deliver other elements of a product Backlog "Just In Time". Postponement of the backlog items clarification allows making the most informed decision. Additionally, it helps to minimize Backlog changes, what is another way to reduce the waste. To carry out the project effectively in such conditions, POs have to constantly cooperate within the Scrum Team and communicate with stakeholders. Those are the essential elements of a successful interaction and customer collaboration. To fulfill that task, Produkt Owners have to perform a few activities, such as ensuring a Team understands items in the Product Backlog - cooperation with the team is a daily duty of a good POs. They are irreplaceable because they help a team to understand their tasks and support them throughout key decisions regarding the product. Product Owners are empowered to make any necessary decisions, and the lack of their presence can make the whole development process stop.

Constant communication with stakeholders is necessary for the successful realization of any project. Product Owners should act as the liaison between stakeholders and development team - they receive requirements and give elements of the product for evaluation. Collecting feedback from stakeholders it is the most efficient way to control whether the project is on the track.

What about the rest of PMs tasks?

They don’t disappear, they are distributed among other Scrum team members. As you can see, Product Owners have much less power and responsibility in a project than Project Managers. In Scrum all three roles: the Product Owner, the Scrum Master, and the Team have management positions. A team is self-managing. Therefore, each member has at least some responsibilities. Why is this a better way to work? Are two heads better than one? Well, not always. As research shows, (here and here) it is only suited to the problem solving, not decision making. Because of that, Product Owner is a single person and the only one who can make all of the critical decisions. POs should have the vision of the product and fulfill it, but it does not mean they are the only one with the responsibility.

There is the other side of the coin, where the group of people is better at solving problems. It means that Product Owner should bring an idea to the team and leaves it for them to solve. The research shows (here nad here) that final results are improved when the team can make decisions and organizes itself. They have knowledge, competencies and they perform better without hierarchic structure - having a manager can only slow them down. Teams play better because they do things together, can support each other and are able to see different points of view. The team is the core of Scrum and a great deal of the responsibility previously shouldered on a Project Manager is transferred to them. There is also an added bonus - according to the study from Stanford University, the control at work causes a high level of stress and emotional strain. The self-management team ensures that the degree of control over their daily work makes them healthier and less stressed. But it’s the topic for the other article.

What the Scrum Master does all day?

The last position defined in the Scrum Guide are Scrum Masters, who are the only ones not responsible for a product. They are also not responsible for controlling and motivation - those are managed by Scrum processes. It’s the same in the case of risk management, which is handled by trying out new ideas getting fast feedback. In the presence of high levels of uncertainty the rapid inspection and adaption are often less expensive than planning everything from the start. The whole team learns whether they made good decisions and worked properly or not. In Scrum, all those processes are designed to act more efficiently. Scrum Masters daily task is to check if everything goes according to Scrum, what helps them to deliver a product on time.


Implementing only parts of Scrum is possible, but it won’t be considered a Scrum. Although, it can be reasonable to use only the parts of it. Designing something for all situations and for every organization is impossible. Therefore, before we start Scrum implementation, we should consider its pros and cons. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, when a product is not very difficult, then there is no point to work in Scrum. Interaction with the events starts to be a waste of time. Project Managers are able to manage the project successfully without using Scrum, but when a product is complex, then benefits from the interactive process of production are going to be quite vast.

It is a frequent practice to implement only a part of Scrum. When it comes to mixing different roles from various methodologies, it is a mistake. Most of the time it will not be an obstacle at Project Manager’s work because it will improve such elements like communication in a team, product review and gathering feedback. But most important, not including this approach will not create a self-management environment, which can improve an effectiveness of work and minimize a pathology of a hierarchic structure. However, it not only improves the team’s work but also makes them happier and healthier. It can release a creative potential and in dividing the leadership role. It can implement the culture of innovation and improvement. For that, the current leaders have to trust their workers. Scrum helps to transfer that trust into dividing the responsibility, what causes a higher productivity. At the end let me quote Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

PS. Have I succeed and made this topic easier to understand? Please, write to me so we can discuss it more. :)


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