Product leader vs. Product owner

November 3, 2014

How is a product leader different from a product owner? This question has come up often in my mentoring sessions and here is an attempt at capturing best practices and product leader responsibilities recommendations.

Product owner is now a well understood role in technology industry. Product leader on the other hand is not very well understood. I liked a recent tweet that said a product owner is the janitor as well as CEO of his product.

Product leader is a seasoned product owner who has graduated to manage a few product owners. In a startup, a product owner and product leader are one and the same. A start-up or a single product person company has a daunting task for that person.

The visual below illustrates key responsibilities of the two roles. It also suggests tool/s that can be used for each.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 3.35.26 PM

This is in no way a comprehensive or a prescriptive list. It is a recommendation based on various industry leading best practices and sources. I’d love to hear back from other product people.

Product leader  responsibilities

A company that has growing number of products has two alternatives  (1) the founder continues to be their product leader with our without a team of product owners or (2) a product leader is appointed to manage the overall product portfolio. Product leader and product owner are essentially the same type of people – they are product people. Both create products that users love. Even though both have same product DNA they operate at different levels of execution. Product portfolio management, analogous to securities portfolio management, is a key difference, and involves a well thought strategy for the constituents of your portfolio (stocks, bonds, options etc.) – which ones to invest in and which ones to divest in, and why. The other responsibilities are common to any other leader however with a strong product flavor: product thought leadership , organizational excellence, and high impact communication.

Product thought leadership:

  • Overall product vision: a unified vision for all products. Tools: vision statement (derived from company’s vision statement) and moonshot approach.
  • Product strategy: How is the vision accomplished (roadmap)
  • Competitive strategy: Market fit, partnership, and threat mitigation. Tool: Porter’s Strategy.
  • Customer creation:  Customer validation. Tool: Steve Blank customer creation.
  • Innovation: Intellectual Property plan.
  • Growth plan: Overall KPIs and distribution plan. Tools: partnership plan, Mclure’s KPIs.
  • Product priority filter: filter applicable across products.
  • Product goals: 24 month, 12 month, and quarterly. Tools: memo, themes.

Create a winning product portfolio:

Product inventory [external]: maintain inventory just like a stock portfolio with a goal of 30% returns . Each product should be mapped to the followign external attributes:

  • Map to Market. Tool: Market Map.
  • Revenue or users and growth history and projections.
  • Market. Tool: Magic Quadrant.

Product inventory [internal]: with internal attributes:

  • Maturity (Beta, GA)
  • Investment required: end-to-end cost including dev, qa, deployment, marketing.
  • Alignment with company’s core
  • Alignment with company’s strategy

The above should determine which products are stars, dogs, cash cows, and which ones are questionable? Strategic tool

Organize for excellence:

  • Succession plan (leadership contingency)
  • Performance (Stack rank, Happiness framework:coaching framework, rewards, morale plan)
  • Training (communication, process, technology)
  • Clear ownership (RACI)

Communicate for impact:


  • Influence (Company product blog)
  • Influencer endorsement (Analysts, Bloggers, Marketing)
  • peaking engagements


  • Bi-annual: Bi-annual
  • Quarterly: Product investment audit
  • Monthly: Product progress
  • Win Loss analysis

Company wide

  • Quarterly: Product update (KPIs)
  • Team wide
    • Quarterly: Release updates
    • Monthly: Sprint update

Porter’s lesser known tool: SoSA (Source of Strategic Advantage)

December 7, 2013

Porter’s Five forces is an elemental business strategy tool often overused across the globe.  Another framework introduced in the 2nd chapter of his Iconic book, Competitive Strategy, is SoSA or Source of Strategic Advantage framework. This powerful and less frequently used framework blends SWOT with intrinsic company values to determine what is the real source of its competitive edge.  This source is tied to company’s DNA and it is critical to determine this source of competitive edge and align  the entire organization towards one of the three  directions – Cost Leadership, Product/Service Differentiation or Niche Leadership. Also, continually evaluate that alignment for every investment and decision made thereafter. SoSA framework urges you to think about two internal factors and two external factors that define a company’s competitive psyche. Internal factors are company’s intrinsic strengths and its core values that it’s employees and founders subscribe to (e.g. open source, data driven ). External factors are opportunities in the market and environmental implications (e.g. policies, govt, regulations, privacy implications).

What’s magical about this tool is as you comprehensively build it, you realize that you must align to one of the three directions:

  • Cost Leadership
  • Product/Service Differentiation
  • Niche Leadership

It must be one and only one of the above. Picking two can be disastrous. Interestingly enough most upcoming enterprises try to be more than one.

Critics of this framework say hybrid strategies do succeed citing Amazon’s example. In reality, successful hybrid strategies start with spin-ins trying out a new concept that might not be aligned with your most relevant direction. Hybrid strategies might work after you have succeeded and proven a business aligned to on of the above three directions.

Customer Development framework and searching for your early customers.

September 19, 2013

I am a fan of Steve Blank’s customer development process and find it fascinating how  easily it can be applied to any product at any stage in any company. I believe the initial product stage is the most difficult stage – discovering who your ‘earlyvangelists’ are; almost like looking for needle in a haystack. These  early adopters are the ones who will evangelize your products. Look for the following attributes in your ‘earlyvangelist’ customer:

  • has a problem or is aware of having a problem
  • has been actively looking for a solution
  • has cobbled together a solution
  • has or can acquire a budget

Of the above the last two really determine who the ‘earlyvangelists’ are since they feel the pain points the most and are proactive enough to take steps to alleviate the pain.

source: Four steps to Epiphany – Steve Blank

A new approach to wealth of nations can be applied to corporations

July 22, 2012

An alternative and a far more meaningful approach to measure a nation’s wealth is described in the July Economist  article Real Wealth of Nations . Perhaps, lessons from this can be applied to private and public companies. Not just assets and revenue but also intangibles: creativity, culture, and education. Creativity to conjure blue oceans. Culture to  have a nurturing environment. Education to drive research, standards and openness.

Power and leadership

October 3, 2010

I am a big fan of schumpeter’s column in the Economist. If all schumpeter’s articles were bundled into a book it would certainly make a very useful navigational guide to the business badlands like terrain. The write-up on leadership and power (Sep 2010) and what it takes to climb up the corporate ladder is particularly well written. It confirms the vox populi – lack of correlation between ability and power. However, the fact that power leads to better health, more friends, and a healthier heart doesn’t really resonate with what we have witnessed in the lost decade. None of the above attributes can be ascribed to the profligate leaders of the disgraced corporations – BP, Lehman, Enron.  A critical attribute of a successful leader that Schumpeter might have missed out is the effective articulation of a compelling vision and ensuring that this vision trickles down and continously energises all employees.

Public vs Private companies and Skype

August 29, 2010

The August edition of the Economist raises a very relevant question ( : whether the sun is finally setting on the public company (vs the private company)?

I started thinking about  Skype’s recent announcement of going public and whether that is a good or a a bad move. Although, the offering is not significant, going public would force Skype to react to impatient investors and erratic street expectations. Skype’s core competency has been cutting edge technology innovation and exploring unprecedented business model that pioneered the destructive creation of domestic telecom industry. Would Skype continue to innovate when suddenly its goal will be more aligned towards the Street’s quarterly expectations? In skype’s case the problem is further exacerbated by Ebay’s 3 years long failed adoption of Skype that had slowed the rate of innovation. Now is the time for it to start exploring the next round of creative solutions with wireless technology and wireless carriers and for that it needs to be free of  the Street’s shackles.

Economist in the same write-up points out how the most fashionable investment vehicles—leveraged buy-out firms, hedge funds and venture-capital funds—are spearheading the [private] revolution. “These firms are usually organised as partnerships, though some, such as the Blackstone Group, are also listed. Corporate raiders often raise money by creating funds in the form of partnerships. Their targets are often restructured as partnerships. This makes managers behave like owners rather than hired hands: they can lose money as well as making it and they have years to turn their companies around rather than answering to the stockmarket every quarter. Hedge funds can make money by buying companies and selling underperforming assets. Venture capitalists make money in the long term by lending their names and expertise to start-ups. Hedge funds and venture-capital firms also make money in their different ways by getting fund managers to behave more like partners, with “skin in the game”, as the modish phrase puts it.”

Why aren’t my Latin American Mutual Funds doing as well?

April 10, 2010

A recent article in the Economist explains why Latin American economies aren’t growing as fast as some other global economies.  It has been blamed on lower Productivity growth. It defines  Productivity growth as “gains in the efficiency with which capital, labour and technology are used in an economy—is the elusive holy grail of economic development”. It goes on to say ” productivity growth means squeezing more output from the same inputs. And Latin America has been particularly bad at this. The short answer is that the typical Latin American firm is a small, inefficient service business and may well be operating in the informal economy. Productivity growth tends to be higher in manufacturing and agriculture than in services.”

This is quite interesting since, typically, lower population and homogeneous demography are considered key ingredients for success. South American countries qualify in both those areas yet this region gets dinged due to lower productivity growth. Although Chile and Brazil might be a little ahead of others we have to wait for quite some time before the benefits of education and infrastructure start impacting productivity positively.

3 Gs of Negotiation

April 5, 2010

3 Gs of negotiation  is part of groundwork that must be carefully done before the first negotiation meeting.

Give:  Information that will/may be offered to the other party (ies) at the appropriate time. Keep in mind Give and Get go hand-in-hand.

Get : Information that needs to be obtained from the other party (ies) or from other sources. This can be driven by understanding self-interest of the parties involved.

Guard : Information that must be kept confidential or that will only be given under limited circumstances. This is perhaps most important and can be used when exploring  BATNA (Best Alternative to No Agreement).

Debt Sustainability

February 14, 2010

In light of the ongoing economic meltdown in Greece, the Economist has an interesting article that quantifies debt sustainability of countries. It uses the simple reasoning that if interest rate paid on debt is more than the economy’s growth rate (represented by GDP)  – the country might be in trouble.

Excerpt Feb 13th economist:  So which countries are in the biggest trouble? The ability of a government to honour its debt depends on a number of factors, in particular the size of the debt burden relative to GDP, the interest rate paid on that debt relative to the economy’s growth rate and the size of the government’s primary budget balance—the surplus, or deficit, before interest costs

Why state sponsored entrepreneurship worked in Israel?

November 30, 2009

Economist has interestingly pointed out why government sponsored entrepreneurship scheme succedeed in Israel while it failed in the other countries -“The government let foreigners decide what to invest in, and then stumped up a hefty share of the money required.”