The Scrum Guide defines three roles that have to be present in a Scrum Team - the Scrum Master, the Product Owner and the Development Team.
In an ideal Scrum situation, these three roles are perfectly synchronized, supporting each other - enabling one another to bring the most value possible to the collaborative process and, as the ultimate goal, deliver products of the highest possible value.
As Scrum teams grow and improve, they move closer to this ideal.
Unfortunately for many teams and organizations, the earliest days of Scrum implementation are often impeded by misunderstanding, misassigning or mishandling these two roles.
Today, we will do our best to identify the reasons for early confusion, clarify these roles and provide some tips on best practices.
Scrum Master and Product Owner Roles Defined
Before we start tackling the reasons for Scrum Master vs Product Owner confusion and providing suggestions on how to best play these roles, we should say a thing or two about these roles and their responsibilities towards different Scrum Team members, other stakeholders and the product itself.
As its name suggests, the Scrum Master is responsible for maximizing the value added by the implementation of Scrum. In order to do this, the Scrum Master helps everyone involved (the Product Owner, the Development Team, all pertinent external stakeholders) better understand Scrum - its practices, values, rules and even theory.
The role of the Scrum Master is commonly described as leader-servant, denoting the fact that this role is supposed to lead the Scrum Team in some respects but also serve its members, as well as outside stakeholders, in equal measure.
While the Scrum Master will play a role in interactions with everyone involved in the development of the product, they will spend the majority of time serving the Scrum Team and more precisely the Development Team.
The Scrum Master is responsible for coaching the Development Team so that it is as cross-functional and as self-organized as possible and facilitating Scrum Events aimed at supporting this. In addition to this, the Scrum Master will also remove any and all impediments that affect the Development Team, either internal or external. They will also assist the Development Team in handling organizational environments in which Scrum is not well understood. The ultimate goal of the Scrum Master is to assist the Development Team in any way possible to create products of high value.
The Scrum Master will also provide invaluable assistance to the Product Owner. On the theoretical level, they will help the Product Owner understand and practice agility. They will also provide valuable input when it comes to the Product Backlog, helping to find techniques that will allow for effective Product Backlog management and making sure that everyone on the entire Scrum Team understands the need for Product Backlog items that are concise and clear. They will also ensure that the Product Owner has all the facts needed to best arrange the Product Backlog.
The Scrum Master's service to the Organization as a whole should never be neglected either. The Scrum Master is the one who will lead the organization’s process of adopting Scrum, as well as provide coaching when needed. They will also be responsible for planning the implementations of Scrum and helping employees and other stakeholders understand and practice Scrum. If the Scrum Master identifies certain organizational changes that would make the Scrum Team more effective, they will do everything in their power to make these changes a reality.
The main responsibility of the Product Owner is to maximize the value of the product that the Development Team works on. The approaches to filling the role of the Product Owner will vary greatly depending on a number of factors, including the Scrum Team, the individuals and the organizational structure.
The Product Owner is solely responsible for the management of the Product Backlog, a prioritized list of everything that has to be done in order to complete the product.
Defining Product Backlog items and prioritizing them in the Product Backlog so as to provide as good a support as possible for the Development Team to achieve their goals is one of the most important aspects of Product Backlog management. The Product Owner also has to make sure that the Development Team understands the Product Backlog items as well as they need to be able to work on them, often with the help of the Scrum Master. All of this is done so that the work of the Development Team is optimized for maximum possible value. Finally, the Product Owner ensures that the Product Backlog is visible, clear and transparent to everyone, including the external stakeholders.
In many organizations and teams, a number of these Product Backlog management techniques is done in collaboration with the rest of the Scrum Team, but it should be pointed out that the Product Backlog always remains the responsibility of the Product Owner and no one else.
In addition to this, the Product Owner is the only person who decides when a Product Backlog item can be designated as Done. They are also the most visible "external" face of the team in the majority of cases, interacting with customers and other external stakeholders. Furthermore, the Product Owner is the main line of defense for the Scrum Team, in that no one can force the Development Team to work on something that has not been added to the Product Backlog by the Product Owner.
Most Common Issues (and how to address them)
As you can see, the roles of the Scrum Master and the Product Owner are well-defined and in an ideal world, they support one another and the Development Team in handling the project and making sure it delivers as much value as possible.
The only problem is that we do not live in an ideal world and that there are innumerable factors that can negatively affect the holders of these two roles within the Scrum Team, the way they fulfill these roles, as well as the Scrum Team itself and even the organization as a whole.
Misunderstanding the Roles
One of the more common issues with these two roles is the misinterpretation of the same. This happens due to the lack of knowledge and training; due to lack of organizational buy-in; due to clinging to waterfall practices and even due to personality traits of the people assuming the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles.
Examples of this are as varying as are the possible reasons for these issues. For instance, a Product Owner might decide to drop in on the Development Team and ask for status updates at random times. Or, they might decide that their presence at Scrum events is rather optional and become one of those never-present Product Owners who never really see themselves as part of the team.
The Scrum Master might decide to single-handedly and without informing someone else reorganize the Product Backlog. Or, they might throw the Development Team under the bus when someone in the organization starts asking about "why that team is special"; or "what the hell is Agile, get that team in line".
The best way to avoid problems like this is to have the Scrum Masters and the Product Owners undergo as much training as possible and to instill a culture where their own fulfilling of roles will be subject of reflection and self-improvement. Like most times in Scrum, open communication within the team can also be of immense help to identify these issues and find ways to resolve them.
Insufficient Scrum Knowledge
For a number of Product Owners and Scrum Masters, maturing into those roles is anything but organic. At times those roles are pushed on them and at times they jump into them because they notice there is a gap in the job market, so to say. Even for those people who become Scrum Masters and Product Owners because they want to and because they wish to help their teams and organizations, it can take a while before they truly master Scrum.
Until that time comes, this insufficient knowledge of Scrum can have a negative effect on how they fulfill their roles and this is perfectly understandable.
While Scrum is definitely logical, being based on universal concepts of empiricism (transparency, inspection, adaptation), it is still a framework with interdependencies that maximize its ability to add value. This means that when a Scrum Master or Product Owner does not fully understand and master a certain aspect or practice of Scrum, this may have a detrimental effect on the rest of the process.
The Product Owner might, for example, underestimate the importance of regular Product Backlog refinement or the Scrum Master might miss the point of the Sprint Review. These will definitely negatively influence the Scrum process and take some of the value that would have been added by a more knowledgeable Scrum Master or Product Owner.
The good news is that this does not completely devalue Scrum. This just means that it will take some time to iron everything out and maximize the beneficial effects of implementing Scrum.
It is important for all Scrum Masters and Product Owners to learn about Scrum and ensure they keep learning. They should take pride in their roles and the way they are helping their teams and organizations.
Lack of Organizational Buy-In
The number of organizations that are beginning to understand and the advantages of introducing Agile practices and methods (including Scrum) and implementing them is growing at an ever more rapid rate.
Unfortunately, for a number of organizations, implementing Scrum often stops at saying that they are implementing it or sending a few of their project managers to get Scrum-certified. Such a lackadaisical approach makes it all but impossible for Scrum Masters and Product Owners in such companies to fulfill their roles properly. Moving an organization towards Agile requires more than that, plain and simple.
A faux-Agile organization will continue to put the focus on metrics and KPIs that do not have a place in the Scrum methodology and they will both intentionally and unintentionally turn Scrum Masters and Product Owners into mere shadows of their roles.
This is a difficult issue to overcome, especially in larger organizations where structural changes cannot be made that easily and where managers of managers have two more layers of managers before one reaches actual decision-makers.
In such situations, Scrum Masters and Product Owners need to find the ways to explain their position in a way that will explain how only comprehensive Agile practices will benefit the organization. Getting organizational buy-in should always focus on numbers that will show, black on white, the benefits of true agility and clearly defined ways in which the organization can support this.
Getting full company buy-in can be excruciatingly difficult to do in some organizations, which is quite unfortunate considering how important it is.
Both Scrum Master and Product Owner are crucial parts of every Scrum Team. Their roles are clearly defined, but it takes a lot of effort and experience to master them.
Luckily, this is what Scrum is good at - getting better over time.