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Can the Product Owner and Scrum Master be the same person?

Product Owner and Scrum Master are two of the three roles identified in Scrum. Since these are roles and not people or job titles, some people might be wondering if they can be the same person. This article will discuss and answer that question, so you can decide if this is the right thing to do for your Scrum team.

What are the Product Owner and Scrum Master roles?

There are three roles described in the Scrum Guide: Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Developer.

Developers are not necessarily “software developers” (though they may be that). They are simply those who are involved with the work to get a product increment to “Done” each sprint.

The Product Owner is not directly involved with that work. Rather, they are accountable for maximizing the value of the product, by defining a product goal, creating and communicating backlog items, and ordering the product backlog. Basically, they are the “business” or “stakeholder”, who wants the product to be built and can explain what it needs to do and why.

Behind the scenes, their job is to juggle the interests and requests of what are probably many stakeholders in the organization. They often have competing priorities and demands so it is not an easy job.

The Scrum Master is accountable for coaching and improving the Scrum team. Over time, their focus will eventually move more towards coaching and improving the organization. But initially, their job is help the team, improve their effectiveness, and guide them on their Scrum journey.

It is definitely a servant-leader than a management role! They are not a project manager and their job is not to push people around, micro-manage them or tell them what to do.

Can the PO and Scrum Master be the same person?

Since these are roles (i.e. accountabilities) and not people or job titles, a lot of people wonder if they can be covered by the same person.

While this is possible in theory, it is a bad idea. I do not recommend people do this, for the following reasons.

Each role is a major commitment

scrum master meeting product owner

Each of those roles is a pretty big commitment. In most organizations, being a product owner or Scrum Master is a full-time job. So it is unlikely that someone would have the time and energy to do both.

It is true that over time, a Scrum Master (hopefully) gets traction with a team and coaches and improves them well. And this often means that a Scrum Master might need to spend less time with a particular team, and sometimes can then start working with a second team.

However, the same is not really true of Product Owner. Unless a product is on the end of the product lifecycle and is winding down, they will probably be too busy to also be a Scrum Master.

The roles and mindsets are very different

Being a good product owner and being a good Scrum Master are different roles and skills and mindsets. Product Ownership is all about customers. Researching and understanding your customers, talking to your customers, and mapping product capabilities to the needs and desires of your customers.

Being a good Scrum Master is all about teams. Knowing what makes a great team, getting team members to talk and collaborate with each other, finding what motivates a team, helping a team identify and work on improvement opportunities.

While there are some crossovers (a good Scrum Master has a good understanding of Product Owner concepts such as roadmaps, story mapping, personas, backlog management, prioritization, etc.), they are quite different. This means that you are unlikely to find someone who is very good at both. And it is hard for people to focus and improve on one role without doing so at the expense of the other.

There is also the matter of context switching.

Performing multiple roles involves context switching

Since the product owner and Scrum Master roles are so different, there is going to be a lot of context switching. The person will have to keep changing their focus from one task or accountability to the other.

Context switching has a cognitive cost. It will prevent people getting in a state of “flow” (as described in this book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), where they can really focus and get effective work done.

Some people think that if you split a person 50/50 across responsibilities, you don’t get them 50/50, you get them 40/40! The remaining 20% of their effectiveness is lost to context switching.

There are possible conflicts of interest

There is the possibility of a conflict of interest between these roles as well.

One of the accountabilities of the Scrum Master is the long term stability, happiness and effectiveness of the Scrum team. Remember, the Scrum Master has a Team focus, not a Product focus.

Since the main accountability of the Product Owner is the success and effectivness of the product, the person could become compromised in their decisions.

For example, say the Product Owner is really pushing the team to work hard and complete some product backlog items. Normally the Scrum Master would step in to those conversations. They would talk about balancing the need to deliver more features this sprint versus the need to preserve the long-term health and happiness of the team.

They would talk about the principles of sustainable development (one of the cornerstones of the Agile Manifesto).

If the Product Owner and Scrum Master are the same person, that probably won’t happen! The team have potentially lost that voice and ally in those discussions.

Conclusion

In summary, it is a bad idea to have the Product Owner and Scrum Master be the same person. There are major conflicts over their time, focus and interests. So while it is theoretically possible, you should not do it.

Have you tried doing this in your workplace? How did it go? Let me know in the comments below.

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