Who is more important – An effective Scrum Master or Product Owner?

Eugene LaiFri, 07/17/2020 - 10:16

More often than not, when I am asked to help a team adopt Scrum practices for the very first time, there are significant challenges to overcome. Very often, there is no one with Scrum Master experience, there is no Product Owner or a Product Owner who has limited availability…the list goes on. Many of the teams I work with encounter a situation where they need to choose which problems to solve first, since it is usually impractical to try to address all of the issues all at once. 

Who is more important – An effective Scrum Master or Product Owner?

One of the biggest issues that teams choose to address is selecting a Product Owner or a Scrum Master. To enable teams to implement Scrum successfully, it is critical to decide how to assemble the best possible team. There are many factors to consider when exploring this scenario. If you are in this situation, below are a few that might be worth looking into.

Factor 1: Can a team member be trained/mentored to become a Scrum Master?

Many teams have hidden talent that is difficult to see without the help of an experienced Agile expert. There is a high degree of likelihood that there is at least one person on your team who is open to learning new things and exploring a new role on the team. If you know your team well, you should be able to identify that person relatively quickly. This could be an opportunity to develop an internal team member and groom this person to become your new Scrum Master without significant effort. This means you could focus more energy on finding a Product Owner.

Factor 2: How long as the team worked together?

If this team has been working together for many months or years, there’s a chance that their relationship is fairly mature, and that they are willing to back each other up when faced with new challenges that will come with a major shift in process and approach. This means that you might be able to survive in the short-term without a dedicated Scrum Master, which enables you to focus on finding a Product Owner.

Factor 3: Does the team have a solid understanding of the customer’s needs?

If the team is accustomed to interfacing with the customers and/or stakeholders directly, they may have a good understanding of their interests and priorities. If this is the case, it is possible that one of the team members can step in and help organize the work while you focus on finding a Scrum Master first, then identify a formal Product Owner who has the authority to take true ownership of the end deliverable.

Factor 4: Does the leadership/management trust this team?

Trust is usually earned through consistent successes, which should be evident and easily identified if you know the history of this team. If the level of trust is on the low side, it will be helpful to get some short-term wins to build positive momentum, then focus on building the right product (i.e. achieve some small wins by demonstrating process discipline at the cost of possibly not building the perfect solution). In this case, having an effective Scrum Master would be more important than an effective Product Owner.

Factor 5: Does the leadership/management value product or process?

If you know with confidence that your leadership team values product over process, it might make more sense to recruit a Product Owner first so that priority is placed on the output. Without a Scrum Master, the overall efficiency of the team will likely suffer in the short-term, but hopefully someone can step in and help facilitate and/or coach the team.

To close this article, having to choose between a Scrum Master and a Product Owner is not the ideal way to launch a new Scrum team. However, life isn’t always utopian so we will sometimes have to make a few short-term compromises in the interest of achieving longer-term goals. If your situation fits, consider your options carefully and take a step forward!