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Great Scrum Masters Are First Good Product Owners

25 September 2017

Christopher Lewis
Albert Christopher Solutions

In sports, the mark of good coaches is their winning percentage and how well their best players perform. The product owner is often the best or the main player on the Scrum Team, because he or she is defining what the product will become. The ScrumMaster — the coach — is partly responsible for ensuring that the product owner has the tools and the right team members to produce the best product.

The relationship between product owner and ScrumMaster

The relationship between the product owner and ScrumMaster is a special and meaningful relationship, because the product owner has the power to influence business stakeholders (for example, in the areas of budget and scope) and the ScrumMaster has the power to influence the development team (for example, in the areas of effort and time lines). Working together in lockstep allows for the development of the product within the established time line and within budget without compromising business value. A ScrumMaster’s ability to establish a solid working relationship with the product owner is facilitated by empathy. Having previously performed the duties of a product owner, a ScrumMaster is able to strongly convey this shared understanding.

Where do great ScrumMasters come from?

Continuing with the sports analogy, some of the best coaches who were former players were not the "best" players but were good role players. ScrumMasters do not have to be former excellent product owners, but being a former product owner who was good in the role is a bonus when functioning as the steward of the Agile process. A ScrumMaster who was a former product owner provides two benefits to the Scrum Team. First, coaching a product owner lends credibility to the ScrumMaster. Product owners will listen to a ScrumMaster’s suggestions; knowing that the ScrumMaster has previously performed as a product owner simply adds proven real-life tactics, rather than theory, to the suggestions. Second, previous product owner experience enables the ScrumMaster to see the early signs of a product owner who is falling behind and is able to provide help.

Overcoming role ambiguity

Detecting that a product owner is falling behind is often not difficult, but it is essential to understand the actions required to get back.

As an ex-product owner, not being heavily involved in programming keeps the ScrumMaster's focus on coaching and facilitating communication during the entire Scrum process. This may be a departure from IT professionals’ idea of the ScrumMaster position, which is often described as a development team leader. However, development leads and ScrumMasters are significantly different roles.

Many Agile projects break down as the result of the product/program management falling behind and not being disciplined in following Agile principles. A ScrumMaster who has faced this ambiguity can help a product owner navigate the difficulties of prioritizing a product backlog. Understanding the significance of a metrics-driven, prioritized backlog is a major key to success within a project. A backlog that is used as a "parking lot" for ideas or a place where anyone within the organization can insert new stories leads to a project that may not deliver the functionality that will satisfy the original business goals of epics. The inability to deliver on these goals leads to never-ending scope creep, which often hurts a product or project, not the production of the development team.

The benefits of product management experience

A ScrumMaster with a product-ownership background can not only help guide a project to completion throughout development but also help product management at the beginning of the project. Often a substantial amount of time is lost within development because salient user functionality or the meaning of business requirements are assumed rather than explicitly clarified during sprint or backlog grooming sessions. Having a background in user experience, interaction design, and requirements gathering allows the ScrumMaster to ask, and encourage the development team to ask, relevant questions for the product owner. This experience reduces a great number of obstacles and miscommunication, because these areas are addressed prior to crucial development periods.

Along with helping product management directly, a ScrumMaster with product management experience can also help tacitly. Sometimes the development team has its own idea of the development sequence of user stories based on what makes logical sense when programming, but when the ScrumMaster understands the reasons behind the established priority, he or she now acts as a conduit between the two factions of the Scrum Team. A ScrumMaster who truly identifies with both the development team and product owner can better inform and monitor the activities of the development team to match specific business goals, while also being a coach for the product owner.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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