Project Manager vs. Project Owner: What is the Difference?
When it comes to the wonderful world of business, it’s easy to look at an agency like a football team. Everyone plays their own position, but all share the same end goal winning

At one end you have the grunts on the line, busting their backsides and doing the work that may not be as sexy as the “skilled” positions, but without them, you wouldn’t get very far. 

Opposite of them are the executives and leaders. Those who have put in their time, and no longer have to step foot on the field, but instead, recognize their team for grinding through the hardships as they hold up the trophy at the end of a successful season. 

Somewhere in between the two is a gray area. You have middle management on the sidelines who have the entire team’s best interest in mind and others who are running things on the field. 

“Middle management”, for the sake of this article, is like comparing the head coach and quarterback to a project owner and project manager. There is often a lot of confusion surrounding these two very different roles; each has distinct responsibilities. In this article, we will review the primary differences between a project (or product) owner and a project manager.

Project Manager vs. Project Owner: The Similarities

In order to have a winning season, one of the core elements of a team is a highly-skilled, knowledgeable, and intelligent head coach with a strategy and a talented quarterback to execute it.

When referring to an agile team handling new ideas, new initiatives, and large projects, someone needs to own the project strategy and someone should be on the ground floor to manage the team and delegate responsibilities.

But is one more important than the other?

No. In fact, the two must work together in order to be effective. However, each has its own individual responsibilities. 

Sure, you can get by occasionally with one or the other, but in order to be consistently successful, you need both. Every project needs an owner, or it’s like asking the quarterback to design a game plan, put players in, read the defense, and motivate the team, and execute the plays. Then again, you can have the best coach in the world, but without a leader on the field, you won’t get very far.

When organizing a team, it’s crucial to understand that title doesn’t make one role more important than another. One may have more responsibility or be considered a clutch player, but they are still part of a team that needs to work together to reach the desired outcome. 

What is a Project or Product Owner?

According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide, Sixth Edition, a product owner is “responsible for guiding the direction of the product. Product owners rank the work based on its business value. Product owners work with their teams daily by providing product feedback and setting direction on the next piece of functionality to be developed/delivered. The product owner works with stakeholders, customers, and teams to define the product direction.”

A project owner is the head coach who is responsible for the overall strategy and the big picture of a project or initiative. The project owner’s decision-making is completely based on the direction of the project, and they have a higher-level understanding of organizational goals. 

To put it as simply as possible, the project or product owner is responsible for defining the “what” and “why” of the project. 

Project and product owners are:

  1. Entrepreneurial — Project or product owners want to get the most out of every project and opportunity when working with key stakeholders. Like a coach, they put their name and reputation behind everything their team does.
  2. Visionaries — A project or product owner is responsible for not only seeing the big picture but making sure they take into account everything the stakeholder wants or needs. They have a long-term interest in the outcome of the project.
  3. Decisive — Project owners are the decision-makers. When the overall strategy is being created, they are making difficult choices that are in the best interest of the client and the project’s performance. 

What is a Project Manager?

According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide, Sixth Edition, a project manager is “the person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives.” Many project managers are accustomed to being at the center of coordination for the project, tracking and representing the team’s status to the rest of the organization.

However, times have changed. Today’s projects have more complexity than one person can manage. Cross-functional teams coordinate their own work and collaborate with the project or product owner.

When referencing the quarterback of a team, a project manager works directly with the project or product owner to understand the details of the strategy as well as the constraints (scope, budget, and timeline) and determine the best way to execute the plan. The responsibilities of the two roles come into play during “kick off” time. From there, they’re nose-deep in the project, coordinating assigned tasks to key players based on the project plan, and oversee the entirety of the project to ensure everything is on time and within budget.

Depending on the methodology, a project manager’s primary job description falls on answering “how” and “who”. A project manager’s characteristics and responsibilities typically usually include:

  1. Time management Managing the clock is a huge responsibility for the project manager. They need to be sure that each deliverable is in line with the predetermined timeline, and need to adapt with any challenges that may arrive. Along with their personal tasks, they oversee the entire team’s assignments and make sure they aren’t going to hold anything up. 
  2. Communication — Project managers need to be able to negotiate multiple different aspects of a project. If a member of the team has tasks that overlap, they need to work with them to be sure that they not only get done but done on time.

    Project managers also need to work with stakeholders who have a vested interest in the outcome or results of a project. It’s important to communicate with stakeholders and maintain a positive attitude, but they can’t let last-minute items delay the final project or disrupt the team if it isn’t in the best interest of the end goal.
  3. Risk management — Like a good quarterback, a project manager needs to be able to identify and manage any risks. If they want to run with an idea or make a game-time change, they better be sure it’s worth it. 
  4. Servant leadership — When working on an agile project, project managers shift from being the center to serving the team and the management. In an agile environment, project managers are servant leaders, changing their emphasis to coaching people who want help, fostering greater collaboration on the team, and aligning stakeholder needs. As a servant leader, project managers encourage the distribution of responsibility to the team: to those people who have the knowledge to get work done.

How Do Project or Product Owners and Project Managers Work Together?

Overseeing a team isn’t for just anyone. In order to be a strong project owner or project manager, there is a list of characteristics that can help identify a strong team leader. Some of those characteristics include:

  1. Communication — Communication is an incredibly important aspect of working with and leading a team. Whether addressing concerns or changes to stakeholders, discussing the game plan with the team, or delivering results, leaders must be clear and confident in the messages they deliver.
  2. Leadership — Leadership is a skill needed for both project owners and project managers, but it can mean something different for each role. Like a head coach, a project owner motivates and inspires teams. They are responsible for making sure everyone is ready to hit the ground running.

    A project manager uplifts the team when they’re down or tired. While the project is in motion, they’re rallying the team on the field and helping to drive the team to rise to the challenge, do the work, and go for the goal.
  3. Organization — Leading a team includes a significant amount of moving pieces. Both project owners and project managers must be well organized and ready to pivot. Having your entire team in line and doing what they’re supposed to will help ensure victory at the end of the project. 

Leading a Team to Victory

Now take a look at your own projects and your team and ask yourself if you’re ready to hit the field. Do you have the appropriate leadership in place to execute your projects efficiently and successfully? Is there a designated project owner and a project manager who knows what their responsibilities are? 

If not, we can help! We specialize in all things project management and we’re ready to jump in where you need us. Schedule a call today for your free consultation, and we’ll be happy to help lead your team to victory!