Product Owner vs Scrum Master: Are They the Same?


There are plenty of names, faces and ti­tles in a typ­i­cal soft­ware team. So much so that it can get a bit over­whelm­ing at times. Two roles that are men­tioned fre­quently in ag­ile soft­ware de­vel­op­ment are the Product Owner and the Scrum Master.

In this ar­ti­cle, we dive deeper into the role of the Product Owner and the Scrum Master, ex­plore what the key dif­fer­ences are and whether they can be per­formed by the same per­son.

What is a Product Owner?

A Product Owner should be both an in­dus­try ex­pert and the de­ci­sion-maker. The pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity of the prod­uct owner is to acts as the key bridge be­tween the de­vel­op­ment team and the re­main­der of the stake­hold­ers, though there are plenty of other Product Owner re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

They gen­er­ally be­long to the same com­pany that is fund­ing the soft­ware build. While guid­ance can be given by the de­vel­op­ment agency, the di­rec­tion and com­po­si­tion of the fi­nal prod­uct needs to be dri­ven by the client, in par­tic­u­lar the Product Owner.

At times, the Product Owner role is­n’t per­formed by a sin­gle per­son. While a sin­gle point of con­tact is de­sir­able for a num­ber of rea­sons, this is­n’t al­ways a re­al­ity. Let’s say the ap­pli­ca­tion stretches across mul­ti­ple de­part­ments so you need in­put from mar­ket­ing, op­er­a­tions and sales. In this in­stance, we sep­a­rate out the two func­tions — there’s the de­cider and the ex­pert(s).

The Decider

  • It’s im­por­tant that the ‘decider’ is a sin­gle per­son and not a com­mit­tee.
  • A com­mit­tee is sig­nif­i­cantly slower when mak­ing im­por­tant de­ci­sions.
  • The de­cider needs to have au­thor­ity from their or­gan­i­sa­tion.
  • They need to be pre­sent at all meet­ings in or­der to un­der­stand the cur­rent di­rec­tion and set the fu­ture di­rec­tion.
  • They need to be ruth­less and syn­the­sise the back­log in or­der to meet com­pany ob­jec­tives.

The Expert(s)

  • The ex­pert is usu­ally some­one that has an in-depth un­der­stand­ing of how the ap­pli­ca­tion will be used.
  • They will ei­ther be the in­tended user or work closely with the in­tended user base.
  • They can pro­vide their ex­per­tise on part or all of the ap­pli­ca­tion.
  • The ex­pert may be the ad­min­is­tra­tor or have ad­min­is­tra­tive priv­i­leges for the ap­pli­ca­tion.

What is a Scrum Master?

A Scrum Master is fo­cused on the ac­tual de­liv­ery of the ap­pli­ca­tion, not nec­es­sar­ily what it in­cludes.

Think of it this way, you (along with an ar­chi­tect) de­sign your house. The builder builds it. The su­per­vi­sor en­sures that it is built to the right spec­i­fi­ca­tions and in a timely man­ner. In this hy­po­thet­i­cal, the Scrum Master is the su­per­vi­sor.

A Scrum Master is not typ­i­cally con­sid­ered the leader of the de­liv­ery team, they are of­ten con­sid­ered an en­abler. However, we’ve found that Scrum Masters are strong com­mu­ni­ca­tors and gen­er­ally have a great overview of a pro­ject, putting them in a great po­si­tion to lead a de­vel­op­ment team (as seen in the graphic be­low that high­lights the par­tic­i­pants dur­ing Development - our Scrum Masters are also our Squad Leads.)

Your Scrum Master will have a few key re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­clud­ing:

  • Creating and man­ag­ing ac­tive sprints (iterations).
  • Assisting in un­block­ing the de­vel­op­ment team when there are prob­lems.
  • Leading client com­mu­ni­ca­tions.
  • Tracking scope changes.
  • Tracking pro­ject progress against orig­i­nal time­lines and bud­gets.

The Scrum Master is a part of the de­vel­op­ment team, so they will usu­ally be­long to the same or­gan­i­sa­tion. For ex­am­ple, if you hire WorkingMouse to build an ap­pli­ca­tion, then your team will in­clude de­vel­op­ers as well as a Scrum Master.

It’s crit­i­cal that they be­long to the same or­gan­i­sa­tion as the de­vel­op­ment team as that’s the team they’re lead­ing. It’s much eas­ier to man­age a team when they’re your di­rect re­ports.

How does a Product Owner dif­fer from a Scrum Master?

The Product Owner is fo­cused on the im­pact the ap­pli­ca­tion will have for their com­pany. They are re­spon­si­ble for the ‘what’ not nec­es­sar­ily for the ‘how.’

Now, we’ve de­lin­eated that these are two com­pletely dif­fer­ent func­tions. One in­ter­est­ing ques­tion is whether the Product Owner role and Scrum Master role can be per­formed by a sin­gle per­son?

For most pro­jects, both po­si­tions re­quire at least 1 FTE. However, there may be some use cases where the time/​util­i­sa­tion re­quire­ments aren’t a blocker. That shifts the con­ver­sa­tion to­wards whether there would be a con­flict of in­ter­est.

Could a Product Owner that leads the day-to-day de­liv­ery of the de­vel­op­ment team take a step back and con­sider the di­rec­tion of the prod­uct as a whole? Would they be tak­ing ad­vice from the de­vel­op­ment team rather than stake­hold­ers and end-users? There is also the risk that de­ci­sions would be made too quickly and would be iso­lated within a vac­uum. Remember, some col­lab­o­ra­tion and a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion are good!

It would cer­tainly be pos­si­ble for some­one to per­form both the Product Owner and Scrum Master roles, but I feel sorry for the poor soul that does it. Balancing stake­holder feed­back, along­side the feed­back of the de­vel­op­ment team would be a near-im­pos­si­ble feat.

Finding your next Product Owner or Scrum Master

If you’re look­ing at hir­ing your next Product Owner, you’ll want some­one that fits the fol­low­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics:

  • They are a se­nior mem­ber within your or­gan­i­sa­tion.
  • They have a strong un­der­stand­ing of your in­dus­try.
  • They will ei­ther use the ap­pli­ca­tion fre­quently or have a close re­la­tion­ship with users that will.
  • They have a ruth­less na­ture and can pri­ori­tise based on level of im­por­tance.

You won’t need to find a Scrum Master if you’re en­gag­ing a de­vel­op­ment agency to build your prod­uct. If you’re look­ing for a Scrum Master then we’ll as­sume you have de­vel­op­ment ca­pa­bil­i­ties and are plan­ning on build­ing the prod­uct in­ter­nally. For your Scrum Master, you’ll want some­one that has some or all the ca­pa­bil­i­ties be­low:

  • They have a scrum cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from a recog­nised in­dus­try body.
  • They have strong peo­ple man­age­ment skills and can lead a team.
  • They have an un­der­stand­ing of the chal­lenges the de­vel­op­ment team are likely to face.
  • They are a strong com­mu­ni­ca­tor and aren’t afraid of de­liv­er­ing tough news to the Product Owner or other stake­hold­ers in more se­nior po­si­tions.

Discover Software


Yianni Stergou

Get cu­rated con­tent on soft­ware de­vel­op­ment, straight to your in­box.

What is Agile Software Development: How to Start with a Problem

16 October 2020

The Advantages of Agile Project Management

09 September 2020

What’s the Best Agile Project Management Method For You: Scrum vs Kanban

11 September 2020

Your vi­sion,

our ex­per­tise