What’s the Difference Between a Project Manager, a Product Manager, a Scrum Master and a Product Owner?

There are a lot of project management buzzwords in that question! They’re all job titles in projects, but some are used in the waterfall methodology and some are used in the scrum agile methodology. Let’s look at each in turn.

Waterfall Methodology

First, we have the roles for the waterfall methodology. For those just starting in project management, waterfall is the process of learning all you can about a project, planning it, executing to that plan, testing the created product against that plan, and then closing the project. Project managers and product managers work in the waterfall world.

The Project Manager

This is the individual tasked with organizing the work required to complete the project. In the different phases of the project, it is the project manager that works to get the right people to work on the tasks at hand, and to coordinate the work so that the right work is done in time for the next piece. The job title is spot on – a project manager manages the project. It’s as simple as that! The project manager is held accountable to ensure that work is being done to complete the project. Essentially, it’s a communications job at its core.

The Product Manager

Unlike the project manager, who is looking at the work from a process point of view, the Product Manager is the person who looks at a project from the product’s point of view. The product manager represents the user community, and must know enough about the use of the product that’s going to be worked on to voice what’s working, what’s not, and what’s needed to improve the product. The product manager is responsible for project scope, and the project’s business analyst usually works for the project manager to define the product’s requirements and how to test them once built. The product manager is the person who says what is to be done, and what the product needs to look, act, smell, taste and work like at the end of the project.

Agile (Scrum) Methodology

Second, we have the roles for the agile, or scrum methodology. In fact, there are several methodologies under the agile bucket, and scrum is just one, but it’s a very popular one, especially in the software development world. What marks it as different, for those just learning about this stuff, is that the agile methodology involves iterative development, or cycles of development. After each sprint (a defined period of time, like every two weeks or a month), the project is stopped, cleaned up and presented, as if it were finished. Adjustments can be made and we’re off into another sprint, and so on until the project is completed.

Scrum Master

In this methodology, the roles are broken out similarly. Here, the Scrum Master is responsible for paying attention to the methodology of getting the work done. In scrum, daily stand-up meetings are run by the scrum master (and those meetings are called scrums, from the rugby terminology of everyone jamming together!) The process of planning each sprint and how the work is completed is up to the scrum master.

The Product Owner

This role is nearly identical to the Product Manager from the waterfall methodology. The product owner is responsible for paying attention to the product, and how to make it better with the project. To do this, the product owner must break down what’s needed into use cases (a statement of what’s needed from a point of view, like from a user’s point of view, or an administrator’s point of view). These use cases are then prioritized before each sprint, and only those use cases at the top of the list will be worked on for the next sprint. Here’s where the strength of agile or scrum comes in. At the end of each sprint, the product owner evaluates the product built so far, and then goes back and looks over the remaining use cases. The product owner may want to add some features, take away some out of the backlog, or even modify and reprioritize them. The next sprint will include those use cases that can get done, and the cycle continues (hence the iterative approach).

Each methodology has the two roles: one that looks to the process and one that looks to the product. It’s how both the right work is being done and being done correctly and within the organization’s standards. The process breaks down without both positions being filled by strong individuals.