Project Teams, Scrum

Scrum Master and Product Owner – Can They Be the Same Person?

Published 11/02/2022

If you’ve experimented with Scrum before, you’re likely familiar with the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles. In case you’re not, here’s a quick breakdown: the Scrum Masters are responsible for improving and maximizing the productivity of the Scrum Team. They have three essential priorities – support the Product Owner, support the Development Team, and support the Organization. The Product Owners are the customer representatives; they ensure that the team spends time building things that bring the most value to the organization. 

These roles sound so deceivingly simple that sometimes a single person will try tackling both roles. This can happen in a ground-up implementation of Scrum when a Product Owner is never officially assigned to the team, like in startups or the digital agency world, leaving the Scrum Master to wear multiple hats. It can also happen when the team’s Scrum Master is also an individual contributor (for example, a full-time Developer) and simply too overwhelmed to focus on the Scrum process. In this case, the Product Owner may try to step up to lead the process and their own responsibilities. Regardless of the reason, when a team attempts to combine all duties into a single role, it seldom ends well.

The Scrum Master’s Role

Scrum Masters are part of the Scrum Team trinity, including the Scrum Master, Product Owner, and the Team. Scrum Masters play their part by ensuring that the entire team is familiar with the Scrum Guide, Scrum framework, and all the Scrum events. These methods provide a smooth delivery of all user stories, requests, incidents, and enhancement capabilities.

Great Scrum Masters spend a lot of time nurturing the skills they need to get really good at their work. In the Scrum Master job, there is a vital people component and an organizational component. Scrum Masters are like skilled engineers solving complex problems: their thinking and effort is around uncovering barriers and figuring out how to overcome them.

The Product Owner’s Role

Product Owners are responsible for utilizing the team to ensure the correct product completes development. For that planning, they need a clear vision that emphasizes the product’s value. As a result, they develop the product vision using user stories, research, product and business requirements. The product backlog is a crucial component of Agile product development; thus, backlog management is the top activity of the Product Owner.

Furthermore, Product Owners are the first ones to get the release date. While Product Owners can’t single-handedly control the release of a product, they can call for the enactment, pause, or cancellation of the release. 

Besides the different responsibilities of the Product Owner and Scrum Master, the skills needed to perform each role are also quite different. To manage and prioritize the backlog, the Product Owner needs to analyze market data and have domain expertise to make the right decisions. For the Scrum Master, people management skills such as resolving conflict or facilitating communication come to the forefront. Given the disparate priorities and abilities associated with each role, there is a solid reason the Scrum Guide separates the two. Imposing the responsibilities of both roles onto one person may be overwhelming and cause distress.

Agruements to Consider

Now let’s go back to our question: Can the Scrum Master and Product Owner be the same person? 

The answer is that they can, short-term, but they shouldn’t. The Scrum Master and Product Owner should always be separate roles, as they are full-time roles. Of course, there are exceptions to the norm, and one person could do both roles, but we need to bear in mind that many teams split these jobs out for a good reason. Combining the posts might be necessary short-term but, in reality, may not be sustainable for long periods. We shouldn’t burden one exceptional person to do two jobs at a subpar level.

Here are a few reasons why having different persons for each role is beneficial to a business. First, when Scrum Masters act as Product Owners, they don’t have the same access to customer feedback. Without this data, it’s challenging to create products that fulfill the customers’ needs and goals. One could spend all this time creating products that the customers don’t like or aren’t what they expect.

The next issue is that when Product Owners act as Scrum Masters, they take on new responsibilities that devalue their original ones. If they’re taking time to perform Scrum Master duties, they’ll have to cut corners when creating the product backlog and managing the development process. There’ll be less room for innovation and more focus on completing tasks before deadlines. Since the Product Owner has too much on their plate, the product’s value will begin to suffer.

Solutions to the Dilemma

When the Product Owner acts as Scrum Master, the solution is to find a new Scrum Master inside the team who can dedicate time to the role. Placing trust in our team is a great way to show leadership, and we might be surprised by their capabilities. Not only does this free the Product Owner from managing the Scrum process, but it also helps create a healthy tension between Scrum Masters and Product Owners. 

When the Scrum Master is filling in the Product Owner’s responsibilities, the simplest solution can be to free the individual of their Scrum Master responsibilities, allowing them to focus on the Product Owner role entirely. This, of course, only works if the individual is interested in the Product Owner career path.The Scrum Master and the Product Owner roles are complex. If both of these voices reside in a single person, it will confuse the team. We won’t have that check and balance, and we’re going to end up underperforming – this thought would be daunting for anyone on the team. Single Product Owner; Single  Scrum Master – let’s try not to blend them in the same person.

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