In government, in practice, they’re synonymous. Because we care more about the responsibilities than titles, right?
But sometimes it’s a thing for some people. They raise it as if to suggest it’s an unresolvable ‘chicken or egg’ type of question. This is how I explain it.
In GDS we use Product Manager.
We don’t think Product Owner is wrong. Product Manager is just more us.
Product Owner is a Scrum thing. Like Scrum Master is a Scrum thing. We like Scrum but it’s not the only method we use. We want the people managing our products to be able to use a range of delivery methods. So using Product Manager is a signal of intent.
Product Owner is a term that’s used less frequently than Product Manager. It makes sense for us to use a title that people relate to when we are trying to attract the highest number of quality candidates to product management jobs in government.
Product Manager is used by the majority of government organisations. And when digital, data and technology people from across government got together en masse recently to agree the roles and responsibilities we need to deliver better services, we settled on Product Manager. By saying ‘the majority’, that’s acknowledgement that the agreement is new and taking some time to percolate through.
Where it gets a bit confusing is in a few departments they have Product Owners and Product Managers. In these cases the Product Owners come ‘from the business' and don’t have product management responsibilities. What they are is subject matter experts, who are very welcome helping delivery teams to understand the policy and operational realities. But we could be doing with calling them something else. Maybe just referring to them by their actual policy or operations role titles. That would make things clearer.
Fundamentally role titles evolve. We should hold onto them loosely to protect against hubris.
What we must spend more time and effort on is making sure that when we configure teams we give people a combination of responsibilities that are compelling and commensal. Google it.