Project owner: How to take ownership of a project

Icons represneting project owner responsibilities, including vision and ideas.

Wondering who the project owner is, and what they do? If you’re new to project management, different project team roles and responsibilities might be confusing. We’ve all been there!

While the success of a project relies heavily on day-to-day management, the strategic direction and overall vision are just as important. 

This is where a project owner comes in. They exist to make sure successful project completion doesn’t get lost between teams and tasks.

In this article, we take a closer look at the role of a project owner, how the role differs from a project manager, and how to (actually) take ownership of a project.

Project owner meaning 

First things first, what is a project owner?

Project owner definitions can vary. But ultimately, a project owner is a strategic leader, with overall responsibility for a project. 

They’re not necessarily involved in the day-to-day management,  but will take care of the vision, goals, and eventual project success (or failure).

Ownership in project management

Within a project management team, a project owner usually sits above the project manager. Project owners work closely with the project manager throughout the project life cycle.

We’ll touch on how these two roles work together and their different responsibilities later on. 

Note: Not all project management teams will have both a project owner and a project manager. It depends on the project scope, complexity, resources available, the scale of the project, and the size of the company.

Project owner synonyms 

Depending on the business, the role of project owner could come with a different job title, but their roles will ultimately remain the same.

Some of the job titles that you might see used instead of project owner include:

  • Head of project (or project head)
  • Project chief
  • Project director
  • Project lead (or project leader)

Now that we’ve covered the definition and synonyms of project owner, let’s take a closer look at what the job entails.

Project owner job description 

As we now know, the project owner works closely with the project manager and provides leadership and direction for a project. In a nutshell,  they’ll set the goals for a project, identify how it will benefit the business, and establish processes.

It’s important that a project owner is able to communicate effectively and build relationships with stakeholders who will also be involved in getting the project completed. 

Matrix showing how the project owner is connected to different parts of the project ecosystem.

This is where the project owner fits into the project ecosystem.

Project owner roles and responsibilities

The project owner role:

The project owner is typically the person that proposed the project and will be the recipient of the project output. 

A project owner can have a defined role within a business, but not all projects are going to have a clear project owner role or a designated project owner, and the truth is that anyone can take ownership of a project. While it’s typically a senior person on the project team, ownership doesn’t always come down to the job title.

It completely depends on the nature and scale of the project.

Larger projects and companies tend to have a clearer hierarchy,  and the responsibilities of project roles will probably be more defined. Smaller projects or teams with flat structures usually see more overlap between project owners and project managers, and sometimes other team members will even have to step up and take on the role of project owner. 

Project owner responsibilities include:

  • Responsible for the “big picture” and owning the project vision
  • Enabling and motivating team members
  • Taking ownership of the project’s success or failure
  • Communicating the project vision and goals
  • Providing strategic leadership in project activities
  • Assisting the project manager
  • Encouraging buy-in from other project stakeholders
  • Acting as the project advocate and identifying project sponsors 
  • In some cases, they might also be responsible for parts of the project plan

With this in mind, let’s get some clarity on how the responsibilities of a project owner compare with other key project team roles.

Download the eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager

Project owner vs. project manager

At first glance, it might be hard to tell the difference between a project owner and a project manager, but there can be distinct variations between their responsibilities. 

A project manager is responsible for things like:

  • Owning project execution
  • Day-to-day operations
  • Asking, “who does what, how, and when?”
  • Managing project planning and scheduling
  • Creating a project timeline and deadlines
  • Assigning specific resources, optimizing resource allocation, and scheduling
  • Tracking the budget
  • Coordinating between teams and delegating tasks
  • Optimizing cost, speed, and quality of project deliverables
  • Staying on top of performance metrics
  • Streamlining processes to ensure the project is completed successfully

Regardless of differences, the project owner and project manager will work closely together. After all, what project can truly be successful without project collaboration?

Project owner vs. project sponsor 

The difference between project owner and project sponsor can seem unclear at first. But there’s a distinct difference between the two.

A project sponsor can:

  • Be a single individual or a group who has invested resources or funds in a project to enable its success. As you can imagine, that makes them a pretty important stakeholder
  • Often act as the “champion” of a project alongside the project owner
  • Have several projects on the go at once, unlike the project owner

Project owner vs. product owner 

Product owner is a role that initially came out of the Scrum agile framework. That said, the role itself is only a few decades old. As a result, it’s still a comparatively undefined role. 

However, we do know:

  • The product owner may be able to bridge the gap between execution and strategy
  • They are usually responsible for organizing sprints and managing the product backlog
  • They are often expected to answer any questions from engineers and developers 

Project owner vs. product manager 

A product manager is responsible for:

  • The entire product life cycle
  • Identifying customer pain points and needs
  • Translating customer needs into a plan
  • Prioritizing what needs to be done, and when

But there are several skills that overlap between a project owner and a product manager. For example:

  • Both are responsible for providing the strategic vision for a project and getting buy-in from other stakeholders
  • Both roles are also directly involved in working and supporting project teams and helping to prioritize workloads and tasks.

Project owner vs. project leader 

Project owners and project leaders are often used interchangeably within organizations.

Both roles are responsible for:

  • The vision and success of a project
  • Supporting the wider project team
  • Providing leadership and ensuring teams stay on track

How to take ownership of a project: 5 best practices

Project ownership is the key to project success. Without it, it’s likely that the project goes off course—fast.

When you’re ready to step up to the plate, here’s what to do. 

  1. Understand why the project needs to happen: Understanding why a project is important instills a sense of purpose within the project team. This will motivate them to make it a success.
  2. Define the vision: The project vision is “the big idea” of where the project is going. It gives direction, helps with goal setting, and in some cases, it can help resolve problems before they arise.
  3. Be clear on the project goals: Projects that don’t have clear goals often fail. Without leadership and guidance, the project could quickly steer off course. Set goals early and make sure key stakeholders understand them.
  4. Enable collaboration: While you’ll provide a wider vision for the project, project owners should assemble and trust the project team to get the job done. Enable collaboration and avoid micromanaging.
  5. Stay the course: On larger projects, the project owner doesn’t get involved in planning and things like resource allocation and scheduling—this is down to the project manager. Instead, they should focus on the strategic direction and vision of the project, making sure there are no distractions that could jeopardize its success. 

Project owner examples

Example 1: The project owner could be the Head of Finance driving the implementation of new technology that’ll streamline and speed up processes.

As the owner of the project, they’ll determine the vision, and communicate how this new technology will benefit the department or the company as a whole.

Example 2: Let’s say you work at a creative agency. You’re the Head of Operations with a grand vision of workload planning, resource allocation, and team scheduling running smoothly.

The goal? Enable PMs and Delivery Managers to leave tedious scheduling work behind and allow them to focus on delivering on project milestones and objectives. 

With the business case in mind (streamlining operations), you’ll liaise with key stakeholders and put a plan in place alongside your PM(s) to implement resource management software.

In the not-so-distant future, with a flexible resource management tool in place—your vision? Complete.

Congrats, you just nailed the project owner role!

Project vision can be a deal breaker

Do we really need a project owner in charge of project vision? Is it really that important? 

The short answer is yes, a project vision can make or break a project.

Without it, projects won’t have a clear direction and you can’t set effective goals. Plus, studies have shown that there’s a strong correlation between vision and performance and productivity. 

So regardless of the size of your project, project owner or not, never compromise on vision—it’s the glue that holds it all together.


Related Resource Guru reads:

Download the eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager