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  • Writer's pictureAbdi Bedel

Conflict of Interest: Why the Scrum Master & Product Owner Should Be Separate Roles

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

The Scrum framework is a popular Agile methodology used to manage complex projects. It consists of three primary roles: the Scrum Master, the Product Owner, and the Development Team. The Scrum Master is responsible for facilitating the Scrum process and ensuring that the team adheres to the Scrum framework. The Product Owner, on the other hand, is responsible for defining and prioritising the product backlog to maximise the value of the product.


However, there is a potential conflict of interest that can arise when the same person performs both roles. This can occur when the Scrum Master, who is supposed to be a neutral facilitator, also has a vested interest in the success of the product as the Product Owner. In this scenario, the Scrum Master may prioritise their own interests over the interests of the team, leading to bias and compromised decision-making.


To avoid this conflict of interest, many experts recommend that the roles of the Scrum Master and Product Owner be separated. In this article, we will explore the main arguments for why these roles should be separate and the benefits of doing so.


The Role of The Scrum Master

The Scrum Master is the ultimate facilitator. They organise all the team meetings and keep things running smoothly. They're like the glue that keeps the team together, helping everyone stay focused, motivated, and productive.


As per the Scrum Guide, the Scrum Master is responsible for facilitating the Scrum process, removing impediments, and promoting self-organisation within the team. They act as a coach to the team, helps to ensure that all members understand their roles and responsibilities, and assists them in becoming more productive and effective.


For instance, imagine a software development team that is facing a roadblock in their project, hindering their progress. In this scenario, the Scrum Master's role is to identify the impediment and remove it, allowing the team to continue their work.

"The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. The Scrum Master helps those outside the Scrum Team understand which of their interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which aren't." ~ Jeff Sutherland, the co-creator of Scrum

Overall, the Scrum Master serves as a guide, a coach, and a facilitator, ensuring that the team adheres to the Scrum process and maximising their productivity.

Hey there! Let's talk about the rockstar of Scrum - the Scrum Master! Their job is to make sure that the team is crushing it and delivering top-notch work. They're like the conductor of an orchestra, making sure everyone's on the same page and playing in harmony.


The Role of The Product Owner

Alright, let's talk about the Product Owner! This role is like the captain of the ship, making sure the team sails towards the right destination. They represents the stakeholders' interests and ensures that the team delivers value. As the Product Owner, you have to be the voice of the customer, the market, and the business.


As the link between the team and the stakeholders, the Product Owner needs to be able to communicate and prioritise effectively. They create and maintain the product backlog, prioritise user stories, and define the product vision and roadmap.


As a Product Owner, you're like a chef crafting a perfect dish that everyone will love. You need to know your customers' tastes, what ingredients you have in your kitchen, and how much time you have to prepare the dish. It's a lot to handle, but when you get it right, everyone is happy.


"Product owners are a key factor in helping agile teams focus on delivering value. They provide clarity, guidance, and direction for the team." ~ Bob Galen, Agile coach

The Conflict Of Interest

Now let's talk about the potential conflict of interest when the same person takes on both the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles. Yikes! That's like wearing two hats at the same time – it's not just confusing, it can also cause a lot of problems.


As mentioned as the Scrum Master, your main priority is to facilitate the Scrum process and help the team to be more productive and effective. On the other hand, as the Product Owner, your primary responsibility is to represent the stakeholders' interests and ensure that the team delivers value. These two roles can be quite different, and when combined, they can lead to conflicts of interest.


For instance, imagine that you're the Product Owner, and you're also the Scrum Master. You may prioritise user stories that benefit the team, rather than the product. Alternatively, you may find yourself micromanaging the team to deliver what you think is best for the product. As a result, the team's productivity may suffer, and the value of the product may not meet the stakeholders' expectations.


"A good Scrum Master is all about the team, and a good Product Owner is all about the product. The same person cannot be both, as the focus would shift too much towards one area or another." ~ Ben Aston, founder of Black & White Zebra

The conflict can lead to suboptimal outcomes, such as poor prioritisation, lack of transparency, or reduced trust. For example, if the Scrum Master is also the Product Owner, they may prioritise their personal preferences over the team's needs or the stakeholders' interests. This can lead to a lack of transparency and trust, as the team may not feel comfortable raising concerns about the product's direction.


For instance, if the Scrum Master favours the team over the product, they may end up developing features that are not valuable to the stakeholders. On the other hand, if the Product Owner micromanages the team, they may not have the autonomy to make decisions and be innovative. In the words of Agile Coach Geoff Watts, "If the Scrum Master and the Product Owner are the same person, who is going to challenge their assumptions?" Without someone to challenge their assumptions, there may be a lack of transparency and trust, leading to poor prioritisation and a less successful product.


Why two heads are better than one

So, why have two people when one could do the job, right? Well, having dedicated Scrum Masters and Product Owners can actually make a world of difference!


Firstly, having dedicated Scrum Masters and Product Owners brings several benefits to the Scrum framework. One significant advantage is clearer accountability, as each role has distinct responsibilities and objectives. This separation of roles helps ensure that each person can focus on their duties without any conflicts of interest.


"When you have separate roles, you have clear accountability. It's easier to see who's responsible for what, which means fewer misunderstandings and more efficient teamwork." ~ Agile coach Bob Galen

Effective collaboration is another benefit of separate roles. When the Scrum Master and Product Owner have a clear understanding of their responsibilities, they can work together more efficiently to achieve the product vision. Improved communication between the roles also fosters better decision-making, which ultimately benefits the team and the product.


Separate roles also help promote a healthy balance between the team's needs and the product's goals. With the Product Owner responsible for the product's success and the Scrum Master focused on helping the team, the roles are complementary and work together to achieve the common goal.


With two people leading the charge, you'll get a much more well-rounded perspective. The Product Owner can focus on the product vision and strategy, while the Scrum Master can keep the team on track and facilitate their progress. This division of labor promotes better collaboration, communication, and value-driven decision-making.

"Separating the roles of the Scrum Master and the Product Owner is crucial for effective Scrum. It provides the necessary checks and balances to ensure that the team is productive, and the product is valuable." ~ Nimesh Soni, Agile Coach

So, to sum it up by having a separate Product Owner and Scrum Master, it allows both to perform their roles to the best of their ability, and it creates a healthy balance between the team's needs and the product's goals. And well who doesn't love a healthy balance?

 

Well, there you have it, folks! , it's important to recognise that the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles are distinct and require different skill sets and perspectives. It's clear that having separate roles for Scrum Masters and Product Owners is the way to go.

"It's like the pitcher and the catcher on a baseball team. They're on the same team, but they have different roles." ~ Agile expert, Mike Cohn

So, to help you out, here are our top 5 tips for making sure your Scrum Master and Product Owner are separate:

  1. Clearly define the roles and responsibilities for each position

  2. Ensure that each role is filled by a dedicated and qualified person

  3. Encourage communication and collaboration between the roles

  4. Avoid micromanaging or taking on conflicting responsibilities

  5. Continuously monitor and adjust the roles as needed.


By implementing these tips, you can help to prevent conflicts of interest, improve collaboration and communication, and ultimately deliver more value to your customers. As Albert Einstein once said, "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity." So, take this opportunity to optimise your Scrum team and reach your full potential! 🚀

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Abdi Bedel

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