Both a Product Owner and Scrum Master are focused on executing a project within a Scrum Methodology.
The Scrum process deals with unpredictability and complex solving problems by creating an iterative cycle. Starting with sprint planning, then a scrum team meeting – called the daily scrum/sprint/sprint review – which creates an incremental step towards building the product.
From here there is a sprint retrospective, which then returns the process back to spring planning or may require a sprint backlog process.
If there is a significant problem, then from sprint review the process goes to a product backlog meeting.
Product Owner and Scrum Master are two roles within a Scrum Team. The Product Owner needs a supportive Scrum Master and vice versa.
But, what are the distinctive features of these two roles and how can they work together to bring a project to completion efficiently?
Both Scrum Master and Product Owner are part of a Project Team. However, the roles differ in their high-level position and their low-level function for the project team.
A Scrum Master is focused on the process and is explicitly concerned with how the project is completed.
The decisions made by a Scrum Master will be based on a methodology of how the project will be completed and the successful SM will be supportive of others, serving the potential needs they present to complete their part of the plan.
Above all else, the Scrum Master will balance the needs of all stakeholders within a project, but ultimately most define the SM as the defender of the project team, ensuring the group can complete the work efficiently and in the best conditions.
The Scrum Master is usually a project manager or someone experienced in team leading within the organisation. The hardest part of this role is to know if you are the person completing the project or the person managing the project.
The role is not one that has the power to assign roles but does have the overseeing function, to ensure the roles are fulfilled. It is a delicate balance between a team member and a taskmaster.
In contrast, the Product Owner is focused on the product itself and is likely to be the key stakeholder in the project, helping to define the vision and making most of the significant decisions for the project.
The critical role is to communicate the overall mission to the team who needs a solid understanding of the market, the management of the product, the users, the competition and the potential competition.
Rather than facilitate the work of others, which is the remit of the Scrum Master, the Product Owner acts as leader, giving firm and decisive leadership.
The key role of the Product Owner is to provide a reasonable but motivating goal and then ensure the means to achieve this are available.
It about knowing what you want from the beginning and understanding the tasks it will take to bring this to fruition.
A Scrum Master has many responsibilities, but they are broadly summarised as:
- Removing barriers that may prevent the project from developing or growing
- Organising and facilitating meetings of the project team
working with the product owner to ensure that the process is in good shape
- Making sure communication between the project team and product owner is smooth and effective
- Managing the schedule of the team, ensuring they can achieve the demands/ targets of the product owner
- Negotiating with the product owner if the demands/ targets are unreasonable or unachievable
- Managing the performance of the team and making sure that quality and quantity of work complete is entirely up to standard
- Making sure the schedule and scope of the project are met and to manage any delays or events that take the project off track
- Removing obstacles, including potential blockers within the team and managing dependencies
- Facilitating meetings
- Writing project progress reports
- Managing the expectations of the Product Owner and the project team, helping them align
- Making sure the team can work without distractions and interference
A Product Owner’s responsibilities are much more high-level and focused on the overall project. They will:
- Providing the vision for the project and define or agree on the scope
- Representing the voice of stakeholders, whether this is other executives or the customer themselves
- Managing the relationship between stakeholders and the expectations they hold
- Defining the success criteria that the Scrum Master and a team will be responsible for achieving
- Setting the schedule, including priorities but more importantly the release date
- Being the single point of contact for the product
- Taking of the accountability for the achievement of the project
- Managing the budget
- Accepting work in reviews, or not
You will end up with a PMI_ACP or a CIP. The best known is the CSM and was initially issued by one of the founders of the Scrum System Ken Schwaber.
To be a Product Owner, the best-known certification is the CSPO, the certified scrum product owner. However, there is also the option of seeking a SPOC certification (Scrum Product Owner Certified) or PSPO (Profession Scrum Product Owner), offered by Scrum.org.
An excellent product owner will seek to understand the underlying vision of the product and then exceed the expectations of the customer for this idea.
They will be a person who can empower a team to deliver this product and deal with the product backlog, seeking priorities, managing risk and dependencies, understanding value and seeing the opportunities where they exist.
They will be great at one-to-one communication, accepting that this is the best way to deliver the information they must provide.
A good product owner with have the high-level view of the business model and can share experiences of similar projects with the team.
They will also understand the needs of the functionality of the project but will seek to empower the scrum master to manage this day-to-day function of the team. They will be available, but they will also be able to say no if necessary.
Ultimately, the Product Owner will take the Backlog Refinement seriously. They will spend time refining and adding detail, estimating and ordering the items needed by the team.
They will know when to involve other stakeholders and will be knowledgeable enough to clarify technical issues.
An excellent scrum master will understand the scrum process inside out and know how each stage in the process is aimed at making successful incremental steps to the completion of the project.
They will be an unbreakable buffer between the team and the Product Owner and the remover of any blocks that are going to prevent the success of the process.
They are not responsible for the business case and are not a team leader as such. Great scrum masters instead are facilitators and mentors, the person who connects the people inside the team and makes sure the vision of the Product Owner can be achieved.
Can One Person Do Both?
The question as to whether a single person can do both jobs is highly debatable.
Many argue that there needs to be a clear demarcation of work between the two roles and therefore should not be managed by one person.
A Scrum Master needs the Product Owner; they need someone with an overall vision. But, the project team needs the Scrum Master to be independent and to work in the realistic capacity of the group.
To do both would require the visionary to speak in one way and the practical executor of the project to communicate in entirely different terms.
This makes it difficult to maintain the most efficient tone – possible – desirable – maybe not.
Realistically the roles do not conflict. It is possible to create a clear demarcation for the team about what position you are fulfilling at any given point and ask for them to adapt.
The hesitation by those who say it can be done is that it would take an exceptionally skilled individual to be both key stakeholder and the person responsible for training and mentoring a team to an outcome.
If a high-level executive is on good terms with ground level staff, then it might work… but generally, the realistic view is that it should be two separate people.
High-level vision versus ground level processor – it might be too simplistic to summarise the two roles in this way, but it is an interesting starting point.
A Product Owner may get involved in the messy details of a project, but more likely they hope their experienced scrum master will work on the process efficiently enough that they can remain as visionary, seeing the opportunity and guarding against the risk.
Product Owner vs Scrum Master has a lot of overlapping responsibilities and skills, but each of them requires a different level of communication and way of thinking.