Every Great Product Owner Needs a Great ScrumMaster

Posted on Wednesday 26th March 2014

Summary

The product owner and the ScrumMaster are two separate agile roles that complement each other. To do a great job, product owners need a strong ScrumMaster at their side. Unfortunately, I find that there is often a lack of ScrumMasters who can support the product owner. Sometimes there is confusion between the roles, or there is no ScrumMaster at all. This post explains the differences between the two roles, what product owners should expect from their ScrumMaster, and what the ScrumMasters are likely to expect from them.

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Product Owner vs. ScrumMaster

The product owner and ScrumMaster are two different roles that complement each other. If one is not played properly, the other suffers. As the product owner, you are responsible for the product success — for creating a product that does a great job for the users and customers and that meets its business goals. You therefore interact with users and customers as well as the internal stakeholders, the development team and ScrumMaster, as the following diagram shows.

ProductOwnerRelationships

The grey circle in the picture above describes the Scrum Team consisting of the product owner, the ScrumMaster and the cross-functional development team.

The ScrumMaster is responsible for the process success — for helping the product owner and the team use the right process to create a successful product, and for facilitating organisational change and establishing an agile way of working. Consequently, the ScrumMaster collaborates with the product owner and the development team as well as senior management, human resources (HR), and the business groups affected by Scrum, as following pictures illustrates:

ScrumMasterRelationships

Succeeding as a product owner requires the right skill set, time, effort, and focus. So does playing the ScrumMaster role. Combining both roles – even partially – is not only very challenging but means that some duties are neglected. If you are the product owner, then stay clear of the ScrumMaster duties!


What the Product Owner should Expect from the ScrumMaster

As a product owner, you should benefit from the ScrumMaster’s work in several ways. The ScrumMaster should coach the team so that the team members can build a great product, facilitate organisational change so that the organisation leverages Scrum, and help you do a great job:

ExpectationsOnTheScrumMaster

The following table details the support you should expect from the ScrumMaster:

Service Details
Team coaching
  • Help the team collaborate effectively and manage their work successfully so that they can make realistic commitments and create product increments reliably.
  • Encourage the team to work with the product owner on the product backlog.
  • Ensure that the team has a productive work environment.
Organisational change
  • Work with senior management, HR and other business groups to implement the necessary organisational changes required by Scrum.
  • Educate the stakeholders about what’s new and different in Scrum, explain their role in the agile process, and generate support and buy-in.
  • Resolve role conflicts such as product owner vs. product manager and product owner vs. project manager.
Product owner coaching
  • Help the product owner choose the right agile product management techniques and tools.
  • Support the product owner in making product decisions and tackle product owner empowerment issues.
  • Help establish agile product management practices in the enterprise.

The ScrumMaster supports you as the product owner so that you can focus on your job – making sure that the right product with the right user experience (UX) and the right features is created. If your ScrumMaster does not or cannot provide this support, then talk to the individual, and find out what’s wrong. Don’t jump in and take over the ScrumMaster’s job. If you don’t have a ScrumMaster, show the list above to your senior management sponsor or to your boss to explain why you need a qualified ScrumMaster at your side.


What the ScrumMaster should Expect from the Product Owner

It takes two to Tango, and it’s only fair that your ScrumMaster has expectations about your work as the product owner. The following picture illustrates some of them:

ExpectationsOnTheProductOwner

The table below describes the ScrumMaster’s expectations in more detail:

 Service  Details
Vision and Strategy
  • Provide a vision to the team that describes where the product is heading.
  • Communicate the market, the value proposition and the business goals of the product.
  • Formulate a product or release goal for the near to mid term.
Product Details
  • Proactively work on the product backlog. Update it with new insights and and ensure that there are enough ready items.
  • Provide direction and make prioritisation calls.
  • Invite the right people and choose the right techniques to collect feedback and data, for instance, invite selected users the review meeting and carry out a usability test.
Collaboration
  • Be available for questions and spend time with the team.
  • Buy into the process and attend the sprint meetings.
  • Manage the stakeholders and make tough decisions; say no to some ideas and requests.

You can find more a more comprehensive description of the product owner duties in my post “The Product Owner Responsibilities“.


Learn More

To learn more about the collaboration between the product owner and the ScrumMaster attend my Certified Scrum Product Owner training course. Please get in touch if you have in questions or if would like me to teach the course on-site.

If you feel that your ScrumMaster would benefit from improving her or his work, then I recommend Geoff Watt’s book “ScrumMastery: From Good to Great Servant Leadership”.

30 comments on “Every Great Product Owner Needs a Great ScrumMaster

  1. Allison says:

    I love this! I am meeting with a group of Product Owners this afternoon, and I think I’ll have them read through this list because it pertains to their needs right now.

  2. Srinath says:

    Nice post. A great Product Owner and a great Scrum Master can forge together a team that delivers great products. Such a team, which delivers value to the customers, would be an asset to any organization.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Srinath. I agree: A product owner and ScrumMaster collaborating well are a great asset.

      • Baptiste says:

        I would say: the team as a whole… The scrum Master alone can do nothing without a good developer team, which he has to be part of by the way.
        From the wording of that comment, I’m a bit worried the dev team is seen as a detail as long as the PO and the SM are OK… Obviously it’s very wrong.

        I guess you agree, buy I thought I’d dump that thought here so that people less engaged in agile get that important point.

        Interesting article, anyway :)

        • Hi Baptiste,

          Thanks for your comment. You are right of course: A capable team is required to develop a great product. The point I was trying to make was that product owners should focus on the product. To do this, they need a ScrumMaster/coach at their side who takes care of process, collaboration, and organisational development issues.

          Unfortunately, I find that many product owners and teams either don’t have a ScrumMaster at all or are working with someone who is struggling to fill the role properly – usually because the individual has to play other roles such as being a developer on the team, or because the person lacks the necessary skills and does not have the necessary standing in the organisation. As a consequence, I see product owners take on ScrumMaster responsibilities, which I think is generally a bad idea.

          • Roel van Beek says:

            How can one mitigate the bad idea in: “As a consequence, I see product owners take on ScrumMaster responsibilities, which I think is generally a bad idea.” If there isn’t enough budget or resource to provide for any other solution?

            To provide more insight:
            At the moment I am fulfilling the role of product owner, the engineering team lead isn’t only doing hands on engineering work but also plays the role of the ScrumMaster – in which I sometimes need to step in as he simply doesn’t have the bandwidth.

          • Hi Roel, Thanks for your comment. I suggest you use your next retrospectives to reflect on how to apply the Scrum roles more effectively. The development team may be able, for instance, to take on more of the development responsibilities of the ScrumMaster so that the individual can focus on the ScrumMaster duties. This may require training up some of the team members and sharing the engineering team leads’s skills. You may also have to engage with management to help the decision makers understand why a dedicated and qualified ScrumMaster is important for your product. Hope this helps!

  3. Jon says:

    Any chance of the same analysis for Business Analyst and Product Owner?
    Of interest please

  4. […] Every Great Product Owner Needs a Great ScrumMaster […]

  5. John Peltier says:

    I agree with your perspective – the product owner should not be performing scrum master duties. That said: what are your thoughts about agile organizations that have chosen kanban or scrumban, rather than scrum?

    • Thanks for your comment, John. A product owner/manager working with a Kanban team will equally benefit from having an agile coach who advises and coaches the team and who works with the organisation. Do you agree?

  6. Bruce Nix says:

    Great post! I have shared this with one of my new teams and suggested discussing over lunch to collaborate on ways to improve the relationship.

  7. […] Und Roman zum zweiten: Warum man nur zusammen mit einem großartigen Scrum Master ein großartiger Product Owner werden kan… […]

  8. […] Find out why product owners need a strong ScrumMaster, and why the two roles are fundamentally different and require a clear focus and a distinct skill set.  […]

  9. Melanie says:

    This is great, thank you.

    As a Product Owner for several years, on several products, I quite often find that there is a conflict between the SM and PO role when there is an assumption that the PO isn’t capable, and somehow needs a huge amount of coaching rather than the PO also having the experience and understanding of agile necessary. It’s interesting to read the reverse – that often people find there is an inexperienced SM in the mix and therefore the PO is taking on more.

    • Thanks for you feedback Melanie. I am glad you found the post helpful.

    • Tim Nesdale says:

      I think the reason that there is often an inexperienced Product Owner is because a great deal of agile software is created by a vendor and therefore the vendor has an experienced and trained up scrum master who has worked on a lot of different projects in a number of different industries (like myself). The Product Owner is from the Clients side and most of the time they are doing this role for the very first time (in our experience) so I have to school them up on their responsibilities and make sure they’re comfortable with their commitments.

      I do disagree with the idea that the PO should write all the user stories and do the backlog grooming. Again I think this is a skill that is gained with experience and an experienced Scrum Master who has a proven track record with their development team knows exactly the format their team expects, they know what they need to be explicit about in their acceptance criteria and what they can take as a given so that they don’t waste time documenting unnecessarily.

      As a scrum master I work very closely with the PO and they are ultimately responsible for the backlog and all of the stories and ideas we commit to but I prefer to be the one that documents them.

  10. […] Every Great Product Owner Needs a Great ScrumMaster [Agile] – The product owner and the ScrumMaster are two separate agile roles that complement each other. This post explains the differences between the two roles […]

  11. Mark W says:

    Great post, big fan of your work.
    In our Scrum implementation clearly there’s some team self-organising missing, and it results in our PO saying to me that she has to “manage” the Sprint tasks with the team members. Questions to the individual team members like: “when will that be ready?, “when can I see it?”, “why the delay?”, “why is it not completely done?”, “who can help you?”. In your view is this the correct behaviour for the PO, or should I as Scrum Master be more hands on?

    • Thanks for your feedback and your question. I recommend you use the next sprint retrospective to to discuss the issue and dig down to its root cause. Does the product owner mistrust the team? If so why? Was the product owner a project manager and falls back into his/her old role? Does the team make unrealistic commitments? Does it fail to manage its tasks properly? What’s your role in this? Do you help the team self-organise? Have you made the product owner aware that his/her behaviour is inappropriate and unhelpful and explained why? You could use an exercise like “Glad-Sad-Mad” to bring out the different perspectives and start investigating the causes.

      Hope this helps!

      • Mark W says:

        Great help, thank you. My role is as Scrum Master. We held a Retro and I think you hit the nail on the head with, “Does the team make unrealistic commitments?”. So in Sprint Planning that followed we took some positive steps to address being unrealistic.
        Meanwhile, do you think either role should ask the “management” type questions I listed in my original post? Is it such a sin in your view?

        • I recommend you see how the changes you have made help the team manage and track its work in the sprint. If there are still issues then address them in the next retrospective. A helpful technique is to ask questions as the ScrumMaster rather than telling people what to do. That’s something you could try out straight away. Hope this helps.

  12. Lisa Cowgill says:

    Hi Roman,

    I’m new to the Product Owner Role (less than a year) and have frequented your site often for inspiration (love your pages on Vision Boards). What has been a struggle for me (aside from having very limited experience) is connecting smaller decisions and conversations into the larger vision and strategy. In my past jobs I never had the opportunity to own a vision for something. I was more of an ‘order taker’, I’m trying to break out of that mindset, but it’s been slower than I have wanted it to be.

    What advice do you have to new POs who are having challenges in understanding/setting a vision or strategy? I have purchased a couple of your books recently, been looking online for any articles I can find about Product Ownership, got an amazing Agile/Scrum coach and even joined an an Agile discussion group. I have been trying to drive the discussions with my business stakeholders and understand what problems they have. What more should I be doing?

    • Hi Lisa, Thanks for your comment and your feedback. It is great to hear that you find my site and tools helpful. The best advice I can give you is to ask why. Why do you build a new product or invest in creating new features? Why would people benefit from it? Why would they want to use or buy it? Why does it help your business grow?

      A vision answers the big why in my mind, the reason for creating a product, the positive change it should bring about in the world. The product strategy describes how you want to realise your vision, who the users and customers are, what problem the product solves, what makes it stand out, and what value it creates for your business. You may want to compliment your strategy with a business model to describe who the product can be or is monetised and a product roadmap that forecasts how the product is likely to grow over the next 12 months or so, what goals or benefits it should provide and what results or features have to be delivered. I like to derive the product backlog from the roadmap thereby connecting the strategy to the tactics or details.

      Does this help?

      • Lisa Cowgill says:

        Hi Roman,
        Asking ‘why’ is something I have been trying to do a lot more as of late. I think you hit the nail on the head – I have been struggling because I don’t have a ‘future state’ vision or product strategy outlined for our corporate web site. I have thoughts and opinions, but I don’t have any data to back up that vision (although now it sounds like I have some data digging and internal stakeholder discussions to have). I need to put a product strategy and business model together in order to have that overarching vision.

        Can the product strategy and business model be lightweight? I have never done either before, so rather than creating these big, complicated things, I would prefer to keep both high level and have them evolve over time.

        • Hi Lisa, I prefer to start with an initial product strategy and then correct and refine it iteratively particularly for new products and major product updates. If you simply want to capture the vision and the strategy of your current product, then creating a Product Vision Board preferably together with the key stakeholders should be sufficient. You may also want to consider attending my Agile Product Strategy and Roadmap course, which teaches you how to develop a valid product strategy and an effective product roadmap.

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