The Product Manager versus The Scrum Master
September 9, 2014

The Product Manager versus The Scrum Master

by Brian de Haaff

Agile methodologies and scrum teams are popping up everywhere. It all started with software development but agile approaches are now showing up in government, non-profits, and even in families. The idea is that any group with a shared purpose can benefit from flexibility, bottoms-up idea flow, constant feedback and accountability.

At Aha!, we meet with product teams every day and if they are not already working within an agile development framework, many are what we call “agile ambitious.” They are doing their best to incorporate the concepts into their daily workflow.

Scrum is the best known and most widely used agile software development framework. The scrum methodology recognizes three distinct roles: the product owner (who I will refer to as the product manager) holds the vision for the product; the scrum master helps the team best use scrum to build the product; and the mostly engineering team members who build the product.

If all goes perfectly well, everyone finds their place and the team speeds along. But, unfortunately, it typically does not work that way and there is often overlap and confusion because two roles have “authority.”

As product teams begin to incorporate the agile practices into how they work, there can be challenges and missteps along the way. And when there are it typically starts with the relationship between the product manager and the scrum master. For scrum to work, both individuals must understand their responsibilities and have a healthy respect for one another. Here are how the roles intersect and how to keep everyone sane and productive.

Product Expert vs. Methodology Expert

The product manager is the go-to product expert on the team. She facilitates communication between the team and the stakeholders and ensures that the team is building the right product at the right time. She is also is a key resource to the rest of the non-technical organization and should be responsible for the overall success of the entire product experience. She must be the master of the product.

The scrum master ensures that scrum concepts are understood both inside and outside of the team. He helps people outside the team understand the process, as well as which interactions with the team are helpful and which are not. The scrum master must be fully versed in scrum values, practices, and applications and provide a level of knowledge and expertise above and beyond that of a typical project manager. He must have a good understanding of the scrum framework and the ability to train others to use it.

Product Visionary vs. Team Coach

The product manager is responsible for maximizing the value of the team’s work. That means that the product manager owns defining the “why” and “what” based on a clear vision and set of priorities. In scrum, only the product manager is authorized to ask the team to do work or change the order (priority) of backlog items or features in the queue.

The scrum master helps the entire team perform better. He helps the product manager understand how to create and maintain the product backlog so the project is well-defined and work flows smoothly to the team. He also works with the whole scrum team to determine the definition of “done.” The scrum master owns the “how” and coaches the team on how to execute the scrum process. He helps them learn and use the framework so they can reach “done” at the end of each sprint.

Backlog Owner vs. Roadblock Owner

The product manager owns the product backlog and decides what goes into the product backlog and, equally important, what does not. She maintains the product backlog and orders the items in the backlog to deliver the highest value. She also works with the team and the stakeholders to continuously improve the quality of the product backlog and everyone’s understanding of the items it contains. She decides when to ship the product, with a preference towards more frequent delivery.

The scrum master drives the team’s self-organization and then removes distractions, impediments, or roadblocks to drive team progress. Impediments may be external to the team, like lack of support from another team, or they could be internal, like the product manager not knowing how to correctly groom the product backlog. He may also facilitate regular team meetings to ensure that the team is making regular progress.

Although the two roles differ (driving the product vs. driving the team), the intersection of the two positions is critical to delivering a successful product and leading a successful agile team.

The best product teams, whether operating within an agile methodology or not, work together. They are focused on what is best for the product and team over their own aspirations. And when they do, they deliver a product experience that exceeds customer and market expectations.

How is scrum working for you?

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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