Are Product Owners and Scrum Masters Doomed to Battle Forever?

David Pereira
David Pereira
Product Leader, Content Creator, Speaker
Posted on
Jan 24, 2023
Updated on
Jan 24, 2023
Table of Content

Understanding how collaboration can lead to success or painful failures.

The relationship between Scrum Masters and Product Owners significantly impacts what teams can achieve. Yet, you can often observe a lack of affinity or something unhelpful for everyone.

Scrum Masters aren’t responsible for coaching Product Owners on how to do their job.
Product Owners shouldn’t ignore Scrum Masters and leave them out of the business context.

What I commonly observe is ugly: Scrum Masters focus solely on Developers and try to protect them from Product Owners. At the same time, Product Owners perceive Scrum Masters as annoying and don’t understand how they contribute to creating value.

The question is, how could Scrum Masters and Product Owners work together to create value faster? Let me share what I’ve learned and how you can benefit from a valuable relationship.

Understanding the Responsibilities

Before you figure out how to develop the relationship between Scrum Master and Product Owner, you’ve got to understand their responsibilities. Looking at the Scrum Guide, you’d find the following definition:

The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide.
The Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Scrum Team.

One is accountable for establishing Scrum, and the other for maximizing value. Without supporting each other, Scrum has little chance of succeeding.

Confusion complicates the collaboration between Scrum Masters and Product Owners. Here is what I commonly observe:

The Master of Agile Methods

Scrum Masters try coaching Product Owners to do their work. They bring methods like User Stories, Velocity, Planning Poker, Story Points, etc., and present them as state-of-the-art agility. Then, they force Product Owners to use them.

Product Owners either blindly use the methods presented by Scrum Masters or challenge the benefit of doing that.

Inexperienced Product Owners won’t challenge Scrum Masters and will follow the recommendations. 

Experienced Product Owners will understand what the method solves and how that contributes to creating value sooner. They take Scrum Masters’ suggestions as optional rather than mandatory.

The Lone Wolf

Product Owners have a huge burden to carry. Business stakeholders pressure for more than the team can possibly deliver. This is a complex puzzle to solve, but a good option would be a strong collaboration within the Scrum Team. Sadly, that’s often a neglected option.

Often, Product Owners opt to solve everything on their own. They take care of many key product aspects alone—for example, roadmap, prioritization, backlog management, customer interview, etc. The Scrum Master becomes powerless as they are not part of that. When that happens, the Product Owner and Scrum Master miss the chance to help each other.

Establishing a Partnership

A misunderstanding of responsibilities leads to pointless results. Scrum Masters may bring methods to help the team progress, but the job goes beyond that. Product Owners are accountable for maximizing value, but that doesn’t mean working alone and trying to be a hero.

A better relationship between Scrum Masters and Product Owners will look like a partnership. They support each other in living up to their responsibilities. It’s a two-way street. One should support the other. But how could they do that? Let me share what I’ve seen work:

  • Scrum Masters strive to understand the business dynamics: Scrum Masters have the daunting task of establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. That can only happen when Scrum Masters know how the business works and can connect the dots on how Scrum will help the company thrive. Product Owners can support Scrum Masters to develop such knowledge.
  • Product Owners help Scrum Masters understand their challenges: Maximizing value entails a lot of stressful work. Yet, Product Owners can share with Scrum Masters what gets in the way of delivering value. Opportunities to support the Product Owner will emerge when they take time to discuss challenges.
  • Scrum Masters help Product Owners benefit from Scrum: Playing the Scrum game is hard. Misunderstandings often get in the way. Great Scrum Masters connect Scrum to enable the product to create value sooner. With that, Product Owners become curious instead of resistant.
  • Conflicts are natural: A poor relationship between Scrum Masters and Product Owners avoids conflicts. Yet, a good one has conflicts, and they mindfully listen to each other and strive to identify the best option for the team and product. It’s not about winning an argument; it’s about identifying ways of creating value faster.
Scrum Masters and Product Owners are peers. They should enable each other to succeed in their mission.

Radical Candor

Feedback is one of the best tools to help people develop. Learning how to give and receive feedback can be transformative yet challenging.

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

For me, feedback is mandatory for a sustainable relationship. Some feedback may hurt others, but it’s necessary to evolve. Scrum Masters and Product Owners have many changes to give and receive feedback from each other. This will enable them to grow.

The challenge is how to do it properly. Feedback is tricky because, when given improperly, it’ll cause an adverse effect. I like Netflix’s approach. It’s called the 4 A’s:

  • Aim to Assist: The goal is to help people improve, not to hurt them
  • Actionable: Good feedback is actionable. The person can change something afterward
  • Appreciate: Don’t judge. Share appreciation and empathize
  • Accept or discard: The person receiving the feedback can accept or discard the feedback. It’s only the receiver’s choice what to do with it
StrategyPunk Netflix 4A feedback principles: Free PowerPoint Template

When Scrum Masters and Product Owners genuinely care about each other, they use radical candor to help each other evolve. 

I cannot stress enough about how important feedback is. Some years ago, I received feedback from a Scrum Master that changed me forever. I remember it as if it was yesterday. 

The Scrum Master invited me for a coffee and said, “David, I understand you want to help the team, and you do it very well. But sometimes, how you support the team creates mistrust. For example, you presented the roadmap yesterday, and all Epics and User Stories were precisely described. By doing that, the team felt ignored by you because you didn’t invite them to work together from the beginning.” 

That feedback struck me. I reflected a lot on it and realized that I didn’t trust the team to get to the point I wanted fast enough. That’s why I did all the work on my own. I had a flawed assumption and never truly empowered the team to solve problems. I’m glad I received that feedback. It helped me disrupt how I work.

“Keep ignoring feedback and life will keep teaching you the same lesson.” — James Clear

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to be a Product Owner or a Scrum Master. It’s even harder to rely solely on ourselves to thrive with such complex accountabilities.

Product Owners have better chances of maximizing value when supported by Scrum Masters.

Scrum Masters can help the organization benefit from Scrum when they are well-aligned with Product Owners.

Scrum Masters and Product Owners are essential to help Scrum teams create outstanding results. Together, they have a chance at a brighter future. Alone, they will most probably create ordinary results.

“It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed.” — Napolean Hill

About the author

David Pereira
Product Leader, Content Creator, Speaker

Product Leader with 15+ years of experience. Currently located in Munich, Germany and striving to help companies create value faster. I'm a Partner at Value Rebels and Interim Chief Product Officer at omoqo. My passion is helping product teams overcome their challenges and deliver REAL value faster. Almost every product team is trapped somehow, untrapping them is what drives me.

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