Agile: Scrum Master or Product Owner—a role for you?


Enable creation or facilitate execution?

Since you’re reading this post, you’re probably already familiar with the main benefits of Agile & Scrum: high productivity, clear insights into the status of deliverables, and the ability to address changing priorities on the fly without getting thrown off course.

With plus points like these, it’s no wonder that more than 66% of Agile teams use Scrum*—or that it’s being adopted more and more, not just by software development teams but by teams outside IT across a wide range of disciplines and organizations. But perhaps you’re wondering, “How can I best contribute to the team’s work?” Of course, that could be as a member of the development team, if you have a specialism that allows you to produce project deliverables of whatever kind—the beta of a new software module that customers have been clamoring for, perhaps, or the next iteration of the design for an offshore wind farm.

But, again, since you’re reading this post, it could be that you’re wondering whether you have a facilitative or enabling role to play. In Agile Scrum, there are two key roles other than in development that fulfill these kinds of functions: Scrum Master and Product Owner. As we shall see, there are some overlaps between them, just as there is an overlap between enabling and facilitation. But the distinctions, which also fall along these same fault lines, are key. In a nutshell: while the Product Owner role is all about enabling design and setting up sprints, the Scrum Master focuses on doing what it takes to facilitate implementation, in part by clearing the path ahead of obstacles.

So if you’ve got this far, read on to see whether certification in one of these roles is for you.

What the Scrum Master does—and doesn’t—do

Let’s look first at the role of Scrum Master and consider the “doesn’t do” just to clear the air. If you’ve ever thought of getting certified as a Scrum Master, you may have thought, “I don’t have any management experience.” Well, the good news is, you don’t need that kind of experience. Despite what the title might seem to imply, a Scrum Master doesn’t manage the development team, let alone any of its members: they’re not a team manager or even a project manager. Rather, they’re more of a facilitator. They’re sometimes called a servant leader.

Every project faces bottlenecks, hurdles—call them what you will. It’s the Scrum Master’s job to clear these and facilitate the work of the team so everyone can do their best work. With Agile Scrum, “doing their best work” means, among other things, organizing themselves in ways that are most appropriate to the project. These methods may entail ways of working that differ significantly from the organization’s standard processes and procedures. So it doesn’t hurt if the Scrum Master’s got relatability in their set of soft skills: they may have to push back against a culture of playing by the rules, sticking to “what works,” and generally “staying the course.”

This kind of path-clearing work can also entail helping see to it that the overall dynamics in the team are functionally healthy and that relations between the Developers and the Product Owner are positive, which is to say smooth and productive.

“Best” can also mean “focused,” and since “focus” and “high pressure” don’t go well together, the Scrum Master may also find themselves serving as a kind of gatekeeper, seeing to it that the Developers don’t get overloaded.

This last aspect is key when it comes to working with the Product Owner, who themselves may be feeling pressure from management to see that the x or y product feature is ready by the end of a sprint, even if quality will suffer as a result.

If the Scrum master looks outward and focuses on implementation, the Product Owner works closely with the Developers, focusing on what goes into the product backlog in the first place and what priority it should be given. So Product Owners are key enablers of creation.

What the Product Owner is and isn’t

Here, too, it’s worth pointing out a few things the Product Owner doesn’t do and isn’t responsible for. For instance, just like the Scrum Master, the Product Owner is not a team lead or a project manager. There’s nothing supervisory about their role. Rather, they shepherd the development of the product—guide it towards success. That involves liaising as an ongoing matter with the Developers, with key stakeholders, and, of course, the Scrum Master. But most importantly, they are the main link between the Scrum team as a whole and the customer or end-user.

These interactions may have a commercial aspect if the customer is outside the organization. The Product Owner’s focus—and this is a point of contrast with Scrum Master—is on product features, overall product quality, on what is called the “product vision.” They must also be able to convey this vision to the other team members and the stakeholders. Now, it could be that there is a marketing aspect to the Product Owner role if the customer is outside the organization. Having said that, the Product Owner’s focus is primarily on maximizing value.

There are other distinctions that are perhaps less obvious but just as important. For instance, it is the Product Owner, not the Scrum Master, who, in consultation with the Developers, decides what goes into the product backlog—the “single source of truth,” as it is known. They help to scope user stories and determine how much functional territory each one needs to cover. And that, in turn, helps the Developers and the Scrum Master to plan sprints.

Thus, both the Product Owner and the Scrum Master play supporting (as opposed to “management”) roles, and both do a lot of liaising. However, while the Scrum Master focuses on clearing a path to overall success, the Product Owner works to ensure success at the level of user stories.

Two complementary roles, one overall focus

The Scrum Master is a coach, a facilitator, and a servant leader with expertise in Agile practices. The Product Owner is the product visionary and a maximizer of value with expertise on the product. So the two roles complement each other nicely as they mentor and guide the Developers and help them create the best products.

And if you’ve got this far—who knows?—perhaps there’s something in one of these roles for you.

Want to know more about the impact of these roles within organizations?

As a (potential) Scrum Master or Product Owner working in an Agile organization, you are likely to encounter some challenges in implementing Agile transformation. According to the 15th State of Agile report, respondents identified ‘inconsistencies in processes and practices’ and ‘cultural clashes’ as the top two challenges they face.

With this in mind, we invited Johann Botha, recently ranked 5th for Agile Thought Leaders by Thinkers360 to join us for a discussion-oriented webinar about these very issues – want to catch up on what Johann thinks the Agile mindset means to business transformations? Watch the webinar back at any time by viewing the recording below!

 ASMPO-Webinar-Banner-resized for blog post CTA


Watch the recorded webinar now!