Product Owner or Product Manager in SAFe – Which Do We Really Need?

Some are confused by the terms “Product Owner” and “Product Manager” What are they, and why do we need them? Must we have both? The answers are directly related to the size and scope of your project, as well as the complexity of your domain.

If you have been working within or with a Scrum team, you are likely very familiar with the role of the Product Owner, who is the person ultimately responsible for the value delivered to the customer. The Product Owner role, which may be played by a variety of people within your organization, focuses on prioritizing the work for your Scrum team and ensuring that the expectations of customers and stakeholders are met consistently.

What is a Product Manager?

As more companies embark on the journey to adopt Scrum and Agile principles into their organizations, the role of the Product Owner has become less clear because of introducing scaling. Many organizations realize that a single Agile/Scrum team is insufficient in building a large, complex solution that the customers demand and expect. Hence, the practice of “scaling agile teams” has quickly become the norm in many organizations that demand sophisticated products and services. As a result, SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) has quickly risen to become the most popular scaling method in the world.

Within the SAFe approach, the role of the Product Owner remains relatively similar to the original definition outlined by the Scrum Guide. However, the concept of an ART (Agile Release Train) introduces a new role—the Product Manager—which may be challenging to understand for project teams that are new to SAFe. The rise of SAFe, fueled by a need for multiple Agile teams to collaborate on a single solution, requires the Product Manager to provide strategic insights into the customers’ needs.

While most ARTs will likely have a small number of teams, each having a dedicated Product Owner, the Product Manager is an essential role that will ensure the individual teams work together in a synchronized manner towards fulfillment of the greater vision. The Product Manager will help the teams stay aligned in terms of priorities and value delivered to the end customer by focusing at the Release Train level.

Do you need BOTH Product Manager and Product Owner?

One question that I have encountered many times is, “If I can only hire a Product Manager or a team of Product Owners, but not both, which should I choose?”

While launching the team with a Product Manager and no Product Owners is not ideal, it could be managed as an incremental step towards a mature, effective train. Most new ARTs have a tendency to launch without all the roles filled. One strategy is to assemble Agile/Scrum teams that are most critical to the overall solution first, so that they can deliver value as quickly as possible. Even if you have the financial resources to staff up the entire train, more than likely, recruiting and assembling the teams to support the train will require an incremental approach.

So, do you absolutely NEED both roles in order to operate an ART successfully? Yes, especially if your ART comprises five or more teams. Without effective Product Owners to manage the details, the train is at risk of fragmentation. Having skilled Product Owners and Product Managers will provide a cohesive, organized approach that gives your train the best chance for success.

Key Attributes Product Owner Product Manager
Scope Team ART (Agile Release Train)
Focus Area Team Backlog ART Backlog
Key Skills Customer engagement Market strategy, roadmap & vision
Peer Interactions Agile Team, Product Manager Business Owners, System Architect, Release Train Engineer

For help understanding and carrying out the roles of the Product Owner and Product Manager in a scaled Agile environment, reach out to our Agile product coaches.

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