Click image to enlarge | © Scaled Agile, Inc.

Twenty years ago things were simple. There was a new ‘framework’ called Scrum starting to do the rounds, and one of the novelties of it was that the voice of the customer was present inside the Agile Teams adopting it. This ‘voice’ was the Product Owner, whose job it was, to be that consistent representative of the actual customer or of the business needs in business terms.

Their authority over the product backlog was clear, and they decided not only what went into that backlog, but also what order the things got worked on. This was a radical change from the waterfall projects of the 1980’s and 1990’s.


Stepping forward some years and the role of Product Management began to appear in software development. Some companies named their Product Owners as Product Managers (partly for renumeration reasons) and others recognised that there was a slightly different need in the product space, and started to draw some differences between the two. The SAFe framework drew this distinction from its beginnings back in 2009/10 as it recognised the need to support working with Products at scale, and today if you look up what the Product Management function does, it will tell you: “Product Management is responsible for defining and supporting the building of desirable, feasible, viable, and sustainable products that meet customer needs over the product-market lifecycle.

Whilst this may seem a bit all-encompassing, it isn’t quite. Product Managers have to consider the full lifecycle of a product from its vision and inception, potentially right through to its sunset. They have to think about geography and market segmentation, customer segmentation, revenue models and competitor analysis. They need to work out ongoing “must have” features via customer research and UX work. They have to look at the financial and operational data flowing from the overall product offering as it matures, and make pretty big decisions about how to deliver further value and generate more revenue. There is more to it than this as well.

What they do not have the time and headspace to do, is come up with the rich detail of every single feature that is within the potential product offering. This is where Product Owners are at the forefront once more, and have a significant role to play. SAFe is very keen that Product Management create and maintain the big sketch of the product, but that Product Owners work to turn it into a bright, colourful and detailed picture.

SAFe maintains this difference so that people get a chance to be great at their craft and also not to be overloaded with work. Product Owners are not subservient to Product Management, they actively work alongside them adding the details and creating the value. Equally there is a strong two-way loop between the two roles so that details learned from teams can feed straight back into the Product vision as well.

To learn more about how Product Owners operate inside a SAFe environment; the SAFe PO/PM Course is a great introduction to Program Increment (PI) Planning and execution from a Product Owners perspective as well as providing an understanding of what is needed to support the day-to-day work of Agile Teams and Product Management when working at scale.