Often when we talk about the responsibilities of the Scrum Master role one of the first topics that come to mind is coaching. But too many Scrum Masters believe that their responsibility for coaching stops at the Development Team. While coaching of the Development team is important, Scrum Masters must not forget that they also have a responsibility to coach their Product Owners.
However, despite the importance of this responsibility, many Scrum Masters find themselves uncomfortable with the idea of coaching their Product Owners. One reason for this is that the responsibilities of the Product Owner role focus on Product Management, which is an area with which few Scrum Masters have any practical experience.
But there's also another, more insidious reason. In many organizations, the Product Owner is likely to hold a senior title in the organization, such as Director or Vice President. In most cases, these titles are far more senior than the Scrum Master's own title. To make matters worse, while Scrum Masters often come from technical or project management backgrounds, Product Owners may hail from strange lands such as sales or marketing. These lands are likely to be foreign to not only the Scrum Master but to the rest of the Development Team, as well.
This seniority, combined with the unfamiliarity of the role, can put the Scrum Master in an awkward position when they're asked to coach their Product Owner. However, both the Scrum Master and the Product Owner must always remember that inside the walls of the Scrum team…everyone is equal.
Helping Your Product Owner Communicate Their Vision
The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities for Scrum Masters to coach their Product Owners that are not dependent on seniority level or a deep knowledge of Product Management.
One such opportunity is helping the Product Owner understand how they can best communicate their intent to the Development Team. There are many techniques to accomplish this, such as product visioning, product roadmapping or release planning. However, one of the most powerful tools for helping your Product Owner get the details of their vision out of their head and in front of your Development Team is the product backlog.
Scrum Masters often tell their Product Owners that they are responsible for the management of their product backlog. However, those same Scrum Masters are often silent on exactly how to do this.
One area that's ripe for coaching is helping your Product Owner understand how they can better convey their intent through user stories. A Scrum Master can provide invaluable feedback on what the right level of detail is in those user stories to accurately communicate the Product Owner's intent without constricting the Development Team's implementation options. In addition, an adept Scrum Master can also provide advice as to how the right level of detail might change depending on where that item falls in the product backlog.
And speaking of backlog ordering, a Scrum Master can also help their Product Owner understand the different backlog prioritization strategies that are available to them and when it might make sense to choose one strategy over another.
Finding The Right Touch With Your Product Owner
Another common area of coaching is helping your Product Owner understand how they can make themselves more available to the Development Team and why this is important.
Striking a balance between building a strong rapport with the Development Team and micro-managing the team's every move is an act that requires finesse. This can be an excellent opportunity for a Scrum Master to add value as an astute observer who can provide feedback on the Product Owner's interactions with their team.
Being Your Product Owner's Conscience
And finally, an excellent but often-overlooked opportunity for coaching is for the Scrum Master to serve as the Product Owner's conscious. Earlier we mentioned the importance of helping the Product Owner develop a clear vision for the product that your team will deliver. However, even with a clear vision, it can still be easy to be led astray.
In the fast-paced world of product development, new opportunities arise quickly. Key customers may demand capabilities specific to their own business, sales teams may pressure teams for functionality necessary to close a large deal, and competitors may unveil more than enough new features to make any Product Owner jealous.
When these new opportunities arise, it's important for the Scrum Master to help the Product Owner stay true to their original product vision, even in the face of temptation.
One way for a Scrum Master to do this is to continually ask “The 3 W's”:
- Who is this feature for?
- What need will it accomplish for that person?
- Why are we as an organization investing in filling that need?
But merely asking these questions isn't enough. A skilled Scrum Master must also help their Product Owner evaluate whether the answers to these questions match the stated vision for their product, and if they do not, determine whether it's time for that vision to change in response to a previously unforeseen opportunity.
Embracing Your Role As Coach
As a Scrum Master, it's your responsibility to coach your entire team, including your Product Owner.
While this coaching arrangement may at first feel uncomfortable, investing the effort to do so will help improve both the working relationship of your entire team as well as improve the chances that what your team delivers will ultimately provide value to your organization.
Do you want to learn more about how to grow your team through coaching? Check out my course series, Using the Scrum Framework from Pluralsight, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.
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