How a Scrum Master and Product Owner Deliver Value in Agile Software Development
A question that we often hear from clients who are new to Agile software development is, “Why do you recommend that our Agile development team include a Scrum Master and Product Owner? Aren’t they one and the same?” We understand the confusion. Agile projects rely on a strong business vision as well as fast, frequent feedback loops in order to prioritize work and ensure the project delivers maximum value to the organization. However, some resource-constrained companies try to assign both roles to a single in-house team member. In our experience, we find that companies who adopt this approach don’t always realize the full benefits of Agile. It can be challenging for them to find a resource that possesses both the strong product knowledge and experience in the Agile framework needed to deliver the solution that their stakeholders expect. If a company does find that magic combination, it can be challenging for the resource to do both roles effectively. This can lead to a delayed timeframe and a higher probability of errors.
The Scrum Master and Product Owner are the Ying and the Yang of your Agile team. While they have unique skills and work well separately, they come together to ensure the overall team is operating with maximum efficiency and delivering the best possible product. Here’s how they do it.
The Product Owner (PO) is typically a client’s in-house resource. He or she is essential to seeing that the Agile project successfully delivers value to the business while building the product or feature set that the stakeholders want. They serve as a filter between the development team and the customers and stakeholders. Ensuring maximum ROI from the project is their chief concern, so they are often responsible for managing the “product backlog” or list of work requirements—helping to describe work items and then prioritizing them accordingly. While the Product Owner doesn’t necessarily possess a high level of tech expertise, they have a clear understanding of what pieces have to come together to deliver the desired product or feature set. As one Agile Gorilla describes it:
“The most important thing a Product Owner can do is say ‘no.’ It’s frustrating for a stakeholder to see a queue of work requirements—it’s just like standing in line at the bank. The PO needs to understand the product well enough to know what requirements make sense and which ones do not. They need to manage priorities so that the team focuses on what will deliver the most value.”
A few of the qualities that effective Product Owners possess include:
1. The trust and respect of the stakeholders who are funding and/or supporting the project.
2. A clear understanding of the business and the issues that the project is designed to resolve.
3. An understanding of Scrum and Agile methods, how projects work in Agile frameworks, and how their role fits within the team and project scope.
Does a Product Owner need to be an expert in Agile software development? Not really. While having a PO with basic knowledge of Agile frameworks is desirable, an experienced Scrum Master can coach the PO on how to apply the framework. However, it’s essential for the PO to have a clear understanding of the product, its requirements, and its use case in order to effectively communicate this information to the development team.
We realize that resource-constrained clients can’t always delegate one of their team members to serve as a full-time PO. In some instances, we can supply a Gorilla to assume the Product Owner role. This benefits the client by having a seamless, fully-integrated team of Gorillas who can leverage each other’s strengths.
Scrum Masters are responsible for seeing that the team works as effectively and efficiently as possible while keeping the Product Owner’s vision top of mind. Scrum Masters operate in the moment, focusing on what can be accomplished in a given timeframe. They are concerned with maximizing efficiencies, reducing waste, and rolling out the product and/or feature set within the designated time frame. As a result, they encourage the team through daily standup meetings, remove impediments to their workflows, and work closely with the Product Owner to keep the product backlog in shape for each sprint.
While the Product Owner is responsible for the product and/or feature set being created, the Scrum Master is responsible for team processes and maximizing the team’s efficiency. He or she works closely with the Product Owner to help ensure that feature requests, timeboxes, and expectations from team members are reasonable within the Scrum framework. As one of Gorilla Logic’s Scrum Masters describes it:
“A Scrum Master looks forward from a planning perspective and asks, ‘What is the team capable of in a sprint?’ They understand the team’s velocity and whether or not they can meet deadlines from a project-specific perspective and planning horizon.”
Successful Scrum Masters create self-sufficient teams that can operate on their own and be self-organizing. They typically possess the following qualities:
1. A commitment to servant leadership – A Scrum Master supports the team members in what they do best by helping them identify and remove impediments.
2. A focus on process improvement – Scrum Masters identify and bring “lessons learned” to the team so that they can continuously improve their processes.
3. An ability to guide teams through a process of maturity.
Understanding the individual contributions that Product Owners and Scrum Masters bring to a project, most companies opt to hire both. The Product Owner and Scrum Master collaborate often, including in areas such as backlog grooming. Although this ultimately falls on the Product Owner, Scrum Master also serves as a resource. The Scrum Master tracks the results of each sprint retrospective which include what went well, areas of improvement, and action items to drive improvement. Armed with this intel, the Scrum Master can work with the Product Owner to see that the next sprint aligns even more with the project goals and set the team up for success.
Finally, the relationship between a Scrum Master and Project Owner can determine the team dynamic. Each role looks at the same thing from different perspectives. For example, while Scrum Masters look at team performance from past patterns, Project Owners look at the team to go further and faster. Scrum Masters don’t want to push the team too hard and will “protect” it from the Project Owners. The result is a healthy relationship with the right amount of push and pull.
Although their skill sets and activities may overlap on occasion, Scrum Masters and Projects Owners need to fully understand their roles and how to make the most of their collaboration. Our Agile Gorillas can help facilitate this by educating clients on the responsibilities of each role and how they will partner with the team.
Do all of our clients have separate Product Owners and Scrum Masters? Not always. For example, a recent Gorilla Logic client assumed they could save money by assigning its own resource to serve as both Product Owner and Scrum Master. Two years into their project, the client realized that having a Gorilla assume the Scrum Master role would free up their time while getting valuable metrics regarding velocity and predictability within the team. Previously the client team struggled to meet deadlines, changed direction, and often added stories to existing sprints. Investing in a full-time Scrum Master resulted in a more predictable delivery cadence, workflow efficiencies, and the ability to devote more thought leadership to developing the product. In hindsight, the client realized that having a Scrum Master at the beginning of the project would have accelerated their time to market and allowed them to recoup the expense.
Some clients wonder if they are truly Agile if they don’t have both roles on their team. Some Agile software development firms are adamant that without both roles, clients don’t reap the full benefits of Agile, namely clear requirements and an efficient team. Others argue that the Product Owner and Scrum Master occupy the same brain but in different ways so it’s critical to have both roles. Here at Gorilla Logic, we believe in “pragmatic Agile,” and provide you with purpose-built resources to help you build the best possible product or feature. Let us help you build an Agile development team that works best for you.