The Confusion of Roles & Responsibilities in Product

Steve Johnson
4 min readDec 19, 2019


The industry continues to be confused by the titles, roles, and responsibilities in product management.

Product management focuses on problems to be solved for a market full of customers: defining and delivering the right products by empowering teams with clarity on problems-problems to be solved either in the product or its promotion.

However, what one organization calls product management, another calls product marketing.

If you don’t engage directly with customers every week, you’re not a product manager. If you’re telling engineering precisely what to build, you’re not a product manager. If you’re determining what campaigns to run, you’re not a product manager.

It can help to break product management responsibilities into three phases- Strategy for future products and services, Planning for updates to existing products, and Growth for the products available today. These three phases correspond roughly to the titles product manager, product owner, and product marketing manager.

The most successful teams I’ve coached have one or more people in each role. Even if you have a smaller team-say with three to five product professionals-you could have at least one responsible on strategy, one on technical planning, and one focused on product growth.

Comparing product management and product marketing

Product management identifies friction that is preventing successful usage of the product. Product marketing identifies friction that is preventing successful purchasing of the product.

Product marketing is to marketing and sales as product management is to development and support. Product managers find problems in the market that development solves with new functionality in our product(s). Product marketing finds problems in acquisition and adoption that marketing teams address with campaigns.

Both product managers and product marketing managers should spend face time with customers-without a sales objective-in order to understand problems to be solved.

That’s why product marketing is the ideal role to perform win/loss analysis. Most teams find that they are losing deals not on functionality but on friction in the buying process. The client didn’t understand something or thought we didn’t have something we actually did have. So with insights from Win-Loss analysis, the product marketing person can work with marketing to refine the product’s go-to-market.

For example, suppose the client didn’t understand something critical about your technical choices related to security. And it’s truly unfair to expect a sales rep to explain the guts of your product. In the short-term, sales takes product managers or tech leads on sales calls. But for the long term, let’s get marketing to solve this for all sales teams-with an ebook or a video explanation by our CTO for the reasons behind your choices.

Where is product management?

Product management is sometimes in marketing, sometimes in development or engineering, and sometimes in its own department, reporting directly to the CEO. The determination reflects the perception of product management’s role in the organization.

These are the three aspects of managing products: business planning, technical planning, and growth planning. For many software teams, product managers and product owners are focused primarily on technical planning and are often in development or engineering department. For some organizations, the product management or product marketing function is responsible for market and product growth, which is why these organization put the role in marketing.

Both product management and product marketing identify problems to solve. Development and marketing teams are responsible for solutions.

Product managers don’t necessarily require technical skills; that’s a common misperception in organizations that use the title product manager for development and project management. Product managers do NOT specify solutions; they identify, articulate, and prioritize problems to solve. However, you must be technical enough to understand the customer problem and how to articulate them to engineering. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be technical.

Obviously, defining and delivering products is a team sport. Ideally the team works as one. After all, good ideas can come from anywhere. However, as in any team, each player has a specialty or knowledge area that is their primary focus. Designers design; developers develop; sales people sell. And product managers and marketers identify personas and their problems at each step of its lifecycle.

Regardless of the terminology, the true role of product management is strategic. Defining the markets and personas to serve, isolating and prioritizing problems to solve, and then empowering the development and marketing teams with market context necessary to develop and deliver solutions to the market.

See also The Three Roles of Product at Product Growth Leaders.



Steve Johnson

author, speaker, consultant, guitar player. Removing chaos from product management since 1996. Learn how at