“Can’t we just combine the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles?”

If you’ve been around new Scrum teams for any period of time then you’ve likely heard this question more than once. In fact, it might even sound as if it makes sense. After all, at first glance, the roles actually appear very similar. So similar, in fact, that one might believe that there may even be efficiencies to be gained by doing so.

But, if we look closer, many of these similarities only appear because these two roles are the only roles on a Scrum team which are not developer roles. In fact, that’s where the similarities end.

Creating a balance

While the roles may at first appear similar, in actuality they have very different focuses. The Product Owner is focused on the value that the team will produce and how to select the work that will ultimately enable that value. The Scrum Master, on the other hand, is focused on how to enable the team to deliver the work that the Product Owner chooses most effectively. This means that separating these roles between two individuals helps to strike a productive balance. This balance enables the team to produce value for their organization but to do so in such a way that ensures the long term creation of that value, such as working at a sustainable pace and keeping the level of technical debt in check.

On the other hand, when these roles are combined into a single individual often that individual will gravitate towards the role they are most comfortable with while starving the responsibilities of the other role. For example, if the individual is most comfortable in a technically-oriented role then they may gravitate towards those responsibilities of the Scrum Master that support and enable the Development team while ignoring the value maximizing responsibilities of the Product Owner.

Making the most of two roles

While ensuring that the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles are properly split across two individuals is a necessary ingredient to creating a high-performing Scrum team, there’s more to making the most of these roles than simply splitting them.

Often the tension created by attempting to balance the competing priorities of these roles leads to teams viewing the roles themselves as competitors. However, this simply isn’t true. While a healthy tension should exist between a skilled Scrum Master and Product Owner, these roles should complement each other rather than compete.

But, it’s also important to remember that the Scrum Master is not simply an assistant to the Product Owner, either. While the Scrum Master may help the Product Owner fulfill certain responsibilities, if both agree that doing so would be effective, this in no way implies that the Scrum Master should be subservient to the Product Owner. All members of a Scrum Team are considered to be equal which means that regardless of their roles in the organization, in the context of the Scrum team, the Scrum Master and the Product Owner are peers.

Resisting the temptation

While the temptation may exist to combine the Scrum Master and Product Owner roles, remember that these roles were intentionally designed as separate roles. Respecting this separation of responsibilities helps to ensure that your team will benefit from the the full value that each of these roles are designed to provide, which will bring them one step closer to becoming a high-performing Scrum team.

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