Scrum Master and Product Owner – a relationship that matters

Scrum Master and Product Owner – a relationship that matters

Dave Laycock – Scrum Master / Delivery Manager

What are the key elements that build a relationship between the Scrum Master and Product Owner in a project – and why does it matter? 

Success tends to follow when people in each role demonstrate the Scrum values of commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect. These tend to define a great relationship between the two roles; without them, cracks will start to show.

It’s vital for professionals occupying these jobs to get off on the right foot together: it both makes the work more fun and, when there are delivery challenges, a sound relationship helps everyone work towards getting the right result. 

Scrum Master and Product Owner – understanding the differences 

In a Scrum project, the Product Owner’s responsibility is to understand the business, stakeholders, what customers or users need, and the direction a product should take to offer the most value. The Product Owner effectively communicates the product’s mission, vision strategy, and the value it will create, so that the team can work together with the Product Owner to maximize the product’s value. This role also covers effective Product Backlog Management, so the team understands the priorities and the effort needed to best plan for the Sprint and achieve the Sprint’s goal. 

Meanwhile, the Scrum Master’s role and responsibility is ensuring the ability of the whole team to deliver the product, and helping all stakeholders understand Scrum as it is defined in the Scrum guide, namely, to act a change agent enabling both the organization and the Scrum team to collaborate effectively. 

This covers two main aspects: 

First, it’s about the logistics of everyone having what they need to do their job while removing blockers and facilitating the Scrum approach and so-called “ceremonies”. In an Agile environment, these include sprint planning, the daily stand-up, sprint review, etc.

Second is the evolutionary aspect of the team: in this, the Scrum Master develops themselves, coaches the team on an individual or group basis and shares learnings with other Scrum Masters in a community of practice – a forum for sharing the good, bad and ugly of what they’ve learned.

While the roles differ, there needs to be a natural bridge between them. The Scrum Master should understand the end customer and the need for the product. Conversely, the Product Owner should recognise any delivery challenges so they can prioritise and help maximise value from the delivery team. 

What are the risks in the Scrum Master/Product Owner relationship?

Probably one of the greatest risks to a Scrum project from the Scrum Master/Product Owner relationship is lack of focus. 
If they and, consequently, the team loses focus and this problem isn’t addressed, it puts the end goal at risk. Spotting the risk requires the team to be transparent in everything it does, i.e., having the courage to highlight problems and find ways to resolve them.

Another major “red flag” in the Scrum Master/Product Owner relationship is lack of communication. 

Like the comic book characters, Batman and Robin, people in these two roles need to be a fully-functioning duo – and that means maintaining good communication, building mutual understanding and being honest and open with each other. In this way, anything in the project that may have been missed won’t go unnoticed. 

Ultimately, the success or failure of communication comes down to attitude: the desire to build a trusting relationship and work hard to get to know each other on a personal basis. Getting it right (or wrong) is visible and this will cascade down to the team. So, if Scrum Master and Product Owner aren’t speaking on a daily basis, then something’s not right!

Starting and maintaining productive relationship

Starting work on a new project can be daunting and made more so if the Scrum Master and Product Owner haven’t worked together before. 

There is a learning curve, so it’s useful to get to know each other as early as possible and start to build the trust necessary in the relationship. 

Apart from the obvious human element of communication, there are exercises that can help in ways of working. For example, having a matrix of all the roles in the team and everyone writing a short summary of how they see other people’s roles (as well as their own).
This exercise can draw out the team’s expectations, such as what they think the Scrum Master should do to help them. Where a role becomes the focus of discussion – with common themes or concerns arising from different people in the team – it means the person in that role can address those questions directly and understand better what people need. 

The value of this feedback can apply equally to a Product Owner and therefore start to instil a better relationship between them and other team members.  

As a result, everyone should become focused on the same thing – something that goes to the heart of an Agile approach.  

Scrum Master/Product Owner – a relationship that matters

The relationship between Scrum Master and Product Owner is so visible to people both within and outside the team that it must work well.

I’ve worked with some great product owners; people I’d work with again in a heartbeat, because we have got to know each other so well and there’s honesty in our communications. Running a project in Scrum is a joint effort and, if something’s not right, we need to work collaboratively to fix it. 

This mutually supportive relationship also matters when speaking to senior stakeholders. When Scrum Master and Product Owner agree about what’s possible for the product and its features, they can present a unified message to senior management and get any help that’s needed. 

Ultimately, a Scrum team has numerous relationships within it. The Scrum Master/Product Owner relationship is one of many but, by constantly checking yourself and your team’s alignment to the values, you won't go far wrong.