Project Manager -> Product Owner

I’ve been in a lot of organizations that in their adoption of Scrum, they transition project managers to becoming product owners. This is a trend I continue to see, and I thought I’d explore some of those common trends here.

The heart of a project manager

I’ve never been a project manager, so I may be a bit wrong as I boil things down and generalize, if I do too much, please contact me and tell me what you think.

At the heart of project management is resource management. The challenge is in solving a puzzle of available resources, a number of constraints, and completing a project. The resources are money, people, and other various materials. The constraints are also money, people, materials, and probably most importantly time (The dreaded arbitrary deadlines). The goals is to make all of these things fit in such a way that the project that has been given, is completed.

This sounds pretty nightmarish to me. The nature of this job is impersonal, yet the only flexible resource that you have literally is personal. This puts most people at odds, as the people being configured and manipulated in a way where all too often, the ends justify the means. Really good project managers realize this problem and do a good job of working with the people to unite them all towards completing a project.

The heart of a product owner

If I were going to very quickly define the role of a product owner it would be, “To tell the story of the most valuable problems to solve.” This is super loaded. It assumes we all understand value, what would be a good priority, and how best to tell a story. This is all pretty challenging stuff.

So lets talk about value very briefly. Value is a matter of perspective, what is valuable to a customer isn’t always what will be valuable to a developer, designer, or a product owner. So, whose perspective matters the most? Broadly speaking, a product owner wants to focus on a customer or user’s perspective more often than not. However, there will be legitimate times where the most valuable thing for a business will be to ignore the customer’s perspective in favor of completing some goals of cutting costs, improving security, or any other number of important things. Product owners have a hard job.

The gap

So, hopefully its obvious that there is a gap between these two roles. One is figuring out how to complete a defined project using resources and constraints. Another is trying to discover and communicate the most valuable thing for the group to accomplish.

Doesn’t the product owner have the same resource issues and constraints as the project manager? Sure they do, everyone experiences those throughout an organization. There is a key difference between the way these two people deal with them though. A project manager will decide how to organize those resources. A product owner will allow the team they are on to organize those resources themselves. This is a powerful piece to being a self-organizing team.

This allows the product owner to act with singular focus on delivering the most valuable things possible for the group, and allowing the team as a whole to figure out with single focus on delivering it with all of the options at their disposal.

So, if you’re a project manager moving towards becoming a product owner when you feel like you are about to make a decision, ask the team first. More often than not, it’ll be the right move.