Product Owner vs Scrum Master: Are They the Same?


15 September 2021

Software Development

Agile Project Management


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.

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