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Scrum Does Not Have a ProductMaster Role

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A common question across multiple forums is about the acceptability of combining the ScrumMaster and the Product Owner role. While most Agilists believe that these roles are like oil and water, there are situations where combining them might be inevitable.

Mike Cohn, quoted an interesting example from Harvard Business Review where Professor Hayagreeva Rao asked his students to define the job profile of a pirate ship captain. The resulting job profile had 2 major areas of responsibilities

  • Star tasks–the strategic work of deciding which ships to attack, commanding the crew during battle, negotiating with other captains, and so on
  • Guardian tasks–the operational work of distributing their pirate booty, settling conflict, punishing crew members, and organizing care for the wounded

According to professor Rao, it is very difficult for an individual to possess the ability to handle both the responsibilities. Star tasks involve risk taking and entrepreneurship, whereas guardian tasks involve consistency. Mike suggested that the ScrumMaster is responsible for performing the guardian tasks and the Product Owner performs the star tasks. Both the tasks are important and hence need undivided focus and attention.

Boris Gloger, listed down a series of reasons to suggest that ScrumMaster cannot be the product owner, some of them include,

  • The ScrumMaster will not be able to tell himself that he does a lousy job as a Product Owner.
  • The Product Owner would get no help from the ScrumMaster against the development team.
  • The ScrumMaster and the Product Owner role will conflict at the idea that the team shall come up with their own technical solutions.
  • The ScrumMaster would now be involved in the outcome. He would get all blame from Management in case of failure.
  • Who will do the validation of the product in the Review? The ScrumMaster\Product Owner would not be independent anymore.
  • The Product Owner as ScrumMaster would accept flaws in quality, because he suddenly has the power.

Ben Johnson & Geoff Watts and suggested that, in practical situations, there are several scenarios where a Scrum team member wears two hats. The most common being ScrumMaster and developer and the less common being Product Owner and Developer. The third combination, that of a ScrumMaster and a Product Owner has explicitly high potential for conflicts of interest. According too them,

This has even more explicit potential for a conflict of interests but depending on which of those hats is the more dominant we can see very different outcomes. For example, if the ScrumMaster assumes the role of Product Owner because there is nobody standing out as a real alternative from the business side, this can lead to real business priorities suffering at the expense of more technology‐focused indulgences.

However, there are examples of situations and circumstances where both the roles are combined.

Richard Lawrence quoted the Chief Engineer role in the Toyota product Development system where it is a combination of ScrumMaster and Product Owner roles. Richard suggested,

I have to wonder: Toyota is one of the best product development organizations in the world. Are Toyota’s CEs a special breed, immune to the conflicts of software teams? Do the rest of us need distinct roles to balance our selfish interests? 

At the very least, if we find that the interests of our POs, SMs, and teams seem to be fundamentally in conflict, we should ask why. Shouldn’t we all have the same goal: Producing valuable software now and in the future?

Likewise, on a similar discussion, previously on InfoQ, Jason Little suggested that in certain situations like having a small team, some of the Product Owner duties would fall into the ScrumMaster's lap and the team would have to live with it. Kevin E. Schlabach suggested that this arrangement should not be permanent however, it can continue for a short period of time, say one year. Ben Johnson & Geoff Watts suggested that a combination of ScrumMaster and Product Owner could work if the Product Owner is mindful of the Scrum process at all times.

Thus, there is a general consensus that Scrum does not have a ProductMaster role. There could be situations where the roles of a ScrumMaster and the Product Owner are combined for some time, however, this arrangement should be temporary and should be rectified at the first possible opportunity.

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