Having Product Owners and Product Managers work together is crazy and ineffective

Product Management Feb 8, 2021

If you want a Product Puppet, then don't do Scrum

Countless articles have been written on the topic of ‘Product Manager vs. Product Owner’. This won’t be another one of those articles. However, when Product Managers and Product Owners join forces as separate roles, the appropriate response is to facepalm and utter a disappointing: “WTF?”.

It’s like someone telling you they want to be both a professional sumo wrestler and a professional ballerina — at the same time. It’s something incompatible that should leave you speechless and wondering what the hell they are trying to accomplish.

Picture by Asahi Shimbun (Public Domain)

Introducing a Product Manager when you already have a Product Owner is like telling a quarterback they can no longer throw the ball. It’s instructing a master barista to stop making espresso and only froth milk foam from now on. It’s like telling a developer they are no longer allowed to write code but only code review others.

Do I need to go on?

Does this all begin to sound absurd and crazy to you? Well, great! That means you’re getting the point. This is exactly how insane and outrageous it is to have Product Managers and Product Owners working together.

Product Owners are Product Managers

The Product Owner is a Product Manager. Working with Product Managers and Product Owners is like saying you need dihydrogen monoxide when you’re already holding a bottle of water in your hand.

The ‘Owner’ part is slapped on to indicate the high degree of authority and autonomy. The Product Owner is there to ‘own’ the product, not to be an order-following lackey at the mercy of someone else, like a Product Manager.

Adding a Product Manager to the mix dilutes the Product Owner role to that of a Product Puppet. Having a puppet is excellent if you want to entertain your kid, but not so great if you want to deliver value with Scrum.

Image by Fernando Latorre

When you have a Product Manager and Product Owner, you signal you don’t understand Scrum and Product Management. You are half-assing something you should whole-ass or not do at all.

You have to choose. Product Managers and Product Owners are incompatible in the Scrum process framework. When you do Scrum, you either have a real Product Owner who is a Product Management expert, or you don’t do Scrum. It won’t pay off.

The necessity of introducing a Product Manager means you are doing Scrum wrong, or you have an incompetent Product Owner. You should fix the root cause, not try to extinguish a fire by dousing it with gasoline. You’re only making things worse.

Like a sumo wrestler, the Product Owner role requires someone with weight. Doing Scrum and disempowering the Product Owner is like trying to sumo wrestle when you are too skinny to have a fighting chance in the ring.

In that case, you should decide not to do Scrum and try some pliés or pirouettes instead. Do something that might work for you instead of sabotaging yourself from the get-go.

Ask yourself the following question: ”Do you want to move the best information to those in authority or authority to those with the best information?”.

In the end, this discussion is about ownership. We should be allowing the people who know best and have the most information to make the right decision.

Do you want to make a vertical or horizontal slice of the Product Owner role? As we all know, horizontally slicing your features leads to dependencies, frustrations, rework, and problems. The same goes for horizontally slicing the Product Owner responsibilities by adding a Product Manager to the fray. The Owner label is there to specifically indicate this is a bad idea.

However, if you do have problems scaling the Product Owner role, look into how LeSS proposes to scale the responsibility. LeSS attempts to keep the ownership part intact.

With LeSS, the ownership of individual Product Owners will shrink, but without creating a weird symbiotic co-owning relationship that never pans out in practice. It also respects the core of what the Product Owner role is about, owning the delivery of value from start to finish, allowing you to benefit optimally from Scrum as a framework to deliver value.

This one is for all the Product Managers and Product Owners tasked with figuring out how to make the best of their ridiculous forced marriage. I feel sorry for you, as it must be frustrating trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

I hope your leaders will wake up and one day realize the folly of their ways.