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Why Product Owners Need Effective Scrum Masters

Published on 9th February 2022

When you consider who the important partners for product people are, your thoughts might turn to the stakeholders, development team, and sponsor. But having an effective Scrum Master is crucial when you work with a Scrum-based process. Sadly, many product owners don’t have an effective Scrum Master at their side. More often than not, this causes the individuals to take on some Scrum Master duties like coaching the development team. In this article, I explain why this is a bad idea, why you need a qualified Scrum Master to succeed as a product owner, and what you can do when you lack one.

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What the Scrum Master Should Do

While the role is discussed in many books and articles, I find that it is still not always correctly understood. What’s more, it’s not uncommon in my experience that product owners have to do their job without the support of a Scrum Master or agile coach.

So why is the role important? I view the Scrum Master as someone who takes care of process, collaboration, and organisational change issues. This includes the following six duties:

  • Roles: Ensure that the right roles are in place and their authority and responsibilities are clear to everyone. This includes product roles such as product owner and feature owner.
  • Staffing: Help find people who have the right skills and are motivated to work on the product and who can fill the roles. For example, I’ve seen organisations where the Scrum Masters work with HR and the development teams to recruit new team members.
  • Process and collaboration: Teach agile values, principles, and practises to the product owners, development teams, stakeholders, and management. Help people use the right processes in the right way; help them discover ways to improve their work, for instance, in the form of sprint retrospectives.
  • Productive work environment: Help set up an environment that is conducive to creative teamwork and encourage people to practice sustainable pace—to do a great job without getting overworked, losing motivation, and falling ill. Ensure that people have the infrastructure and tools they need to do a good job. This includes laptops, tablets, phones, and software tools; but it may also include having access to a kitchen and a coffee machine.
  • Organisational change and empowerment: Work with senior management, HR, and other business groups to implement the necessary organisational changes required to fully empower product people and leverage agile practises.
  • Meetings: Prepare and facilitate meetings. This includes sprint planning, Daily Scrum, sprint review, and sprint retrospective, as well as product strategy and product roadmap workshops. Establish ground rules and ensure that everyone is heard, and that nobody dominates.

Having an effective Scrum Master allows you to focus on your job—to maximise the value the product create. It avoids that you get too involved with people, process, and organisational issues. A Scrum Master can also be a sparring partner for you—someone who you can discuss concerns with and who offers helpful feedback.

You can think of the product owner and Scrum Master as two complementary roles in Scrum: the former is responsible for product success and the latter for process success. And without the right processes in place, it is hard to maximise value creation on a continued basis.


What the Scrum Master Should NOT Do

In theory, your Scrum Master should focus on providing people and process leadership. In practice, however, Scrum Masters sometimes take on duties that do not belong to the role, including the following three ones:

  • Project management: The Scrum Master is not a project manager, even though that’s a common misunderstanding. The individual should neither identify and assign tasks nor create reports like a release burndown chart, for example. Instead, the person should teach the Scrum product owner and development team how to how to proactively manage a sprint and a release, respectively.
  • Product backlog work: Keeping the product backlog up to date is a responsibility the Scrum product owner and development team share. But it’s not the job of the Scrum Master. You should therefore not expect that your Scrum Master refines the backlog for you. The individual is not a product backlog manager or a user story writer. The same is true for setting product goals. An effective Scrum Master will remind you to select product goals, but the individual won’t do it for you.
  • Team management: The Scrum Master should not manage the development team. Instead, the individual should help the team practise self-management so that the members learn to make realistic commitments and work together effectively.

You can view the Scrum Master as an enabler or a coach, as someone who helps others understand how they can create a valuable product rather than doing the work for them.


Dealing with a Non-existent or Ineffective Scrum Master

As I mentioned earlier, it’s not uncommon in my experience that there is no Scrum Master at all or that the role is not effectively applied. But as the Scrum Master work is important, someone else usually steps up and takes on the duties. Often, that’s you, the person in charge of the product. While it’s great to care about the development team and the process, taking on Scrum Master duties in addition to your other work is a bad idea for the following three reasons:

  1. Taking on more duties is likely to cause you to be overworked or to neglect some of your product management responsibilities. In the first case, your creativity and health will suffer. You are more prone to make mistakes and choose wrong product decisions. In the second case, non-urgent but important work like continuous discovery and strategizing is often scarified. Sadly, this usually creates more work for you in the future. You might even have to deal with an emergency, as you desperately try to catch up with competitors or adjust to new trends, which you had missed.
  2. It takes time to acquire the necessary Scrum Master skills, such as facilitating organisational change or building productive teams. It’s usually not something you can learn within a few days or by attending a single training course. Consequently, I prefer to work with professional, full-time Scrum Masters who carry out their jobs for an extended period, who are able to deepen their skills and develop the necessary expertise.
  3. If you seem to be able to take on the Scrum Master role, then there is little need for your company to hire or develop Scrum Masters. Think about it: If management sees that you apparently cope without a Scrum Master, then why should they change anything? Trying to help might therefore mask a systemic problem and organisational impediment, rather than making it obvious.

Therefore, if you don’t have a Scrum Master or if the individual is not able to do an effective job, then don’t take on the role—certainly on for an extended period. Instead, address the problem and its causes. In the first case, consider how you can help the decision makers in your company understand that Scrum Masters are not optional but mandatory to foster an agile way of working and to support product people and their development teams.

That’s not only true during an agile transition, but it also applies to organisations that have used agile practises for some time. This ensures that product owners, development teams, and stakeholders receive support on a continued basis. Personally, I find it simply unfair to ask someone to be a Scrum product owner without ensuring that the individual has an effective Scrum Master to partner with.

If you have a Scrum Master, but the individual’s work is ineffective, then explore the causes. For example, the Scrum Master might be stretched and does not have enough time to do a good job; the person might lack the skills to be effective; or there might be conflict between the Scrum Master and the development team members or yourself.

Whatever the cause might be, talk to the Scrum Master. Share your observations as objectively as possible without judgement or blame, and actively listen to the Scrum Master. This will allow you to understand their perspective and empathise with them. Offer your help when possible and be willing to change when that’s necessary. If the Scrum Master is not willing to adjust their behaviour, though, then it might be best to find another person who can play the role and is more effective at supporting the dev team, product owner, stakeholders, and the wider organisation.

Post a Comment or Ask a Question

8 Comments

  • Smaranda says:

    All very good points. In practical terms, how large should an R&D department be to justify hiring a full time SCRUM master? 3-4 development teams? Sometimes hiring a very specialized role too early can backfire as that role will create too much process and unnecessary work. Something to also consider is that not all teams have to do SCRUM at all times. Devops or SRE teams might prefer Kanban which can further limit the scope of such a specialized position.

    • Roman Pichler says:

      Thanks for your feedback and question Smaranda. When you consider to hire a Scrum Master, I would primarily look at the teams’ and organisations’ ability to effectively apply agile practices. The better the teams are at applying Scrum and achieving the agreed outcomes, the fewer Scrum Masters you will need. And the better an organisation is at supporting the teams and creating the right environment for them, the smaller the number of Scrum Masters can be. But if you want to practice Scrum, you will need at least one Scrum Master. An experienced Scrum Master should know more than the Scrum framework and also be able to apply a Kanban-based process. Hope this helps.

  • Basti Witsker says:

    What is your opinion about how many teams a Scrum Master should manage? And what kind of knowledge about the product and the desired outcomes should the Scrum Master have?

    • Roman Pichler says:

      Thanks for sharing your question Basti. Strictly speaking, a Scrum Master should not manage a team at all. Instead, the individual should help the teams to practice self-management. How many teams a single Scrum Master can support depends on four factors in my experience:

      1. The state of the teams;
      2. The state of the organisation;
      3. The expertise of the Scrum Master
      4. The amount of the time the person can dedicate to the role;

      The better the team and organisation are at applying agile principle and practices and the more expertise and availability the Scrum Master has, the more teams the individual can look after. I can’t remember, though, that I have seen a Scrum Master who looked after more than 4-5 teams.

      Hope this helps!

      • Gary K Evans says:

        I have been in Agile for over 20 years and 15 of those as a Scrum Master/Coach. Regarding the number of teams a given Scrum Master can facilitate, for myself I have found my upper bound to be “2”. This is my limit to be effective, and my effectiveness falls quickly at “3”. Serving one or two teams in all of the many personas a Scrum Master should fulfill requires investment in the team: teaching, guiding, and protecting. I have heard SMs who said they could handle four or five teams concurrently, but when I observed them it was apparent they were not facilitating any single team effectively. Scrum Masters should be careful how far they stretch themselves across multiple teams.

  • Robert says:

    A couple years ago, I told my then-manager that I wanted to be a Scrum Master (I was currently a business analyst on a product team). My manager said sure, then made me a PM and BA on a different product team, and since then I’ve been expected to fill all three roles (with SM the lowest priority). As a result, I feel like I’m doing all three roles in a mediocre fashion and not nearly as effectively as I could if I had just the SM role. I can definitely relate with your definition of what a SM should and should not be doing.

    • Roman Pichler says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience Robert. I hope that you will soon be able to focus on one of the roles.

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