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Ideal Ratios: Product Managers to Product Owners to Engineers

ideal ratio of product managers

It’s the $64,000 question. What’s the ideal ratio of product managers to product owners to engineers?

Here’s the short answer. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all ratio.

Here’s the other thing. There are numerous surveys that publish ratios based on the responses. DO NOT read anything into these survey results.

They’re not good. They’re not bad. They’re not right. They’re not wrong. They just represent the current state, period. They mean nothing.

There’s a simple set of guidelines however, that’ll help you come up with the ideal ratio for your team.

Guidelines For Your Optimal Ratio

Let’s start with a few assumptions.

Assumption 1: Roles & Responsibilities

Let’s assume product managers are routinely talking with target customers, understanding what they’re trying to accomplish/business priorities, why they’re important and why they can’t get there.

Then product managers determine the value of addressing those business requirements (via product solutions) and their contribution to your organization’s financial and strategic goals.

I know the realities here. Many of you in product management roles are routinely tasked with doing everything BUT the responsibilities described above, but stay in the happy zone with me for just a minute.

The point is that product managers, relative to product owners and engineers, should be operating more high and wide versus narrow and deep. This is paramount to establishing your ideal ratios. Here’s why.

As you go from product manager (business requirements) to product owner (epics and stories) to engineer (engineering tasks), the level of granularity gets exponentially greater.

For each business requirement there are multiple epics.

For each epic, there are multiple user stories.

For each user story, there are multiple engineering tasks.

In theory, and I emphasize in theory, that means you should have more product owners than product managers, and more engineers than product owners. But so much of this depends on the complexity of your products.

Maybe it makes more sense to think of it in reverse order. You need fewer product owners than engineers, and you need fewer product managers than product owners.

Assumption 2: Skill Sets & Roles

Let’s assume that everyone in a product manager role has the right skill set for the role. Same for product owners.

Once again, I know this isn’t reality in many cases, but stay on the happy path with me for another minute.

It’s critical that the skills sets and roles match up across the board to get your ratios right. When they don’t, it forces product managers and product owners out of their wheelhouse, and that throws your ratios out of whack in a big way.

If I had $1 for every product manager (by title) that told me they’re functioning primarily as a product owner, I’d own my own island with a private jet!

To a lesser extent, there are product owners tasked with product management responsibilities. Bottom line: it has the same impact on your ratios.

Apply the 80/20 rule here. If product managers, product owners and engineers can do the job they were hired to do 80% of the time, your ratios will remain intact.

Assumption 3: Size & Speed of Engineering

Let’s assume you could have as many developers/engineers as you wanted. You still can’t build products and features fast enough to meet demand.

There’s no such thing as fast enough when it comes to delivering new capabilities.

From now until the end of time, demand for new products and features will forever outstrip the speed at which you’re able to deliver, no matter what.

Ratio Guidelines

Here are the guidelines to follow when it comes to the ratio of product managers to product owners to engineers.

You don’t want any one of these disciplines to be staffed to the point that they’re outrunning and out gunning the other two.

If you have too many engineers relative to product owners and product managers, guess what? They’re not going to sit around and twiddle their thumbs. They’re going to build something, and there probably won’t be a lot of market insight behind it.

If you have too many product owners relative to product managers and engineers, you’re going to have an abundance of visual designs and functional specifications for things that may or may not have the highest value to the market, or your existing customers.

If you have too many product managers relative to product owners and engineers, frustration levels will be through the roof because of the enormous size of your backlog and its impact on your market position.

Your ideal ratios are those that result in…

  • A steady stream of business requirements that always reflect the highest-value business priorities/outcomes of your target customers and map to the core competencies of your organization, i.e., things you’re capable of delivering.
  • A backlog of visual designs and functional specs that consistently keep engineers building solutions that are most valuable to the market.
  • An engineering team that keeps the size of the backlog to something that’s analogous to just-in-time inventory for a manufacturer.

The Role of Leadership

Executive leadership plays a significant role in making these ratios click. They have to be committed to budgeting for the appropriate headcount.

They also have to be committed to giving product managers, product owners and engineers the resources, skills, tools, and especially the air cover (top-down support) to make them successful in their role.

The role of operational leadership (directors and VPs) is also significant, but from the opposite side of the spectrum, keeping the distractions to a minimum.

It’s all too easy for product managers, product owners and engineers to get involved in all sorts of of sales and customer situations. This is where their managers have to limit those interactions to the 20% part of the equation.

Sales and customer interactions are incredibly valuable, but they can become a fulltime job for any of these roles, and it usually happens before anyone realizes it. Your ratios go completely out the window if it’s not closely monitored.

Bottom Line

Here’s the bottom line on establishing and maintaining the ideal ratio of product managers to product owners to engineers.

Once you figure out the headcount, give each role what it needs to be successful and keep them doing the job they were hired to do 80% of the time.

You’ll deliver incredible products that keep buyers coming and customers paying!

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by John Mansour on August 8, 2022.