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Scrum Master vs. Product Owner: both roles explained

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

February 10, 2023

The Scrum Master vs. Product Owner: both are essential roles in the Scrum team. They have different responsibilities, but they share one common goal: to ensure the project is a success. To get the most out of this working relationship, both roles must be clearly defined  —  and the team must know how to work with each.

Scrum is all about transparency and accountability, so ensuring everyone understands each other’s roles is essential.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but people often confuse these roles (or try to combine them). To help clarify matters, we’ve created this little guide.

What is a Scrum Master?

A Scrum master is the leader of the Scrum team. They are responsible for ensuring everyone works together efficiently and effectively and completes all tasks on time. The Scrum master will also facilitate discussions to help the team decide how best to complete a project.

They should be experts in Scrum methodology and understand the team’s processes well. They should also be able to coach the team to ensure that everyone works together as productively as possible.

Essential Scrum Master skills:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • Ability to lead and motivate teams
  • Deep knowledge of Scrum methodology
  • Good problem-solving skills

How the Scrum Master fits into the product life cycle

  • They kick things off: Product discovery involves gathering information to inform the creation of a product, service, or feature. It consists of researching market trends and competitive intelligence to determine how best to meet the customer’s needs. And the Scrum Master helps lead this. 
  • They facilitate discussion: Primarily, they facilitate conversations between stakeholders, customers, and teams. They help ensure that everyone feels heard, questions get answered, and the team remains focused on the task.
  • They provide support: They also help ensure the team understands each development phase while providing ongoing guidance on process and project management as the process progresses. This includes facilitating agile sprints and monitoring deliverables while keeping an eye on risks.
  • They give feedback: The Scrum Master provides helpful feedback when needed, including identifying potential bottlenecks or areas where further exploration may be beneficial.
  • They measure progress: The Scrum Master will also help define and track KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for the team’s progress during each phase. By measuring how well each stage goes, they can keep everyone working towards a common goal throughout the product discovery lifecycle. 
  • They coach: Finally, the Scrum Master monitors morale among their team members and helps them find ways to stay motivated, despite any setbacks encountered along the way. They also help people perform to the best of their ability within their roles.

TL;DR: A good Scrum Master will dramatically improve processes within your development team and increase cohesion between different stages of product discovery. They are a coach, confidant, and communicator. 

Day-to-day Scrum Master responsibilities

A typical day for a Scrum Master can vary greatly depending on their team size and the project’s complexity. Some common tasks a Scrum Master will work on include:

  • Facilitating Scrum meetings with the team on a daily or weekly basis to discuss progress, goals, and obstacles
  • Looking at sprints, tasks, and backlogs while keeping an eye on deadlines 
  • Prioritizing tasks for the team to complete weekly
  • Identifying areas of improvement in the process
  • Working with stakeholders to ensure the team is meeting their requirements 
  • Keeping an eye on project risks and helping resolve any issues that arise
  • Mentoring and coaching team members to help them develop their skills and reach their potential

On a typical day, they might start by checking how much progress the team has made on their latest milestone and ensure everyone understands what they need to do for the day. Then they might lead discussions to help the team decide how best to complete the project. They’ll provide feedback and measure how well each part of the project is going so that everyone stays focused on their goals. And, just like the coach of a sports team, they’ll motivate people and cheer them on throughout the day. 

What is a Product Owner?

The Product Owner is responsible for setting the team’s vision and priorities. It’s their job to ensure that what the team is making aligns with the company’s goals. They are also responsible for managing the product backlog and deciding task orders.

The Product Owner needs to have a good understanding of the company’s vision and their customer’s needs, so they can ensure that they’re creating the best possible product. They should also have excellent communication skills, as they’ll liaise between the team and management to ensure everyone is on the same page. This might also involve negotiation since they want the best solution for both the company and the client.

Essential Product Owner skills:

  • A strong understanding of both customer needs and the company’s goals
  • Exceptional communication skills, including negotiation 
  • Experience with product management and backlog prioritization
  • Familiarity with agile methodologies like Scrum and Kanban
  • Ability to track progress and provide feedback on team performance

How the Product Owner fits into the product life cycle

  • They create the roadmap: The Product Owner will usually kick off the project by creating a product roadmap outlining what they want to achieve and how they plan on getting there. They’ll then work with the team to break this down into smaller tasks and prioritize them. Once the product is ready, they’ll release it and gather feedback to ensure it meets customer expectations.
  • They define the product vision: As part of the kick-off, the Product Owner will set a clear and actionable product vision. Then work closely with the team to efficiently bring their ideas to life.
  • They track performance: The Product Owner (along with the Scrum Master) will track the product’s performance and make any necessary updates. They need to stay up to date with customer feedback, trends in the market, and competitor products to ensure that their product remains competitive
  • They maintain the backlog: The product backlog lists all the tasks and features that go into the product. The backlog should include a description of each task/feature, its priority, estimated time until completion, and deadlines — all of which fall under the Product Owner’s remit. It must also clearly identify dependencies, a key part of preventing scope creep and bottlenecks.
  • They fine-tune the workflow: The Scrum Master will work with the Product Owner to ensure an efficient workflow between each team member.

Day-to-day Product Owner responsibilities

Some common tasks a Product Owner will work on throughout the day:

  • Creating user stories and use cases to identify customer needs
  • Prioritizing tasks and features in the product backlog
  • Developing product criteria, such as acceptance tests, to ensure that they’re meeting customer requirements
  • Leading team kickoff meetings and planning sessions
  • Tracking progress on tasks and providing feedback to team members (alongside the Scrum Master)
  • Gathering customer feedback and incorporating it into the product
  • Identifying necessary changes to ensure a successful launch
  • Leading retrospectives to identify areas of improvement for future projects.

A typical day for a Product Owner may start with a meeting with the Scrum Master and team to discuss daily tasks. Since they’re responsible for the project vision and priorities, they’ll work with the team to break down large tasks into smaller ones and set reasonable deadlines. They will then update the product backlog based on customer feedback, ensuring changes are implemented correctly. The day may end with a retrospective to identify areas for improvement for future projects.

TL;DR — The Product Owner is responsible for setting the vision and priorities of a project.

Scrum master vs. Product Owner: overlaps between the two roles

The Scrum Master vs. Product Owner roles have many overlapping responsibilities. 

Both seek to understand the customer’s needs, provide feedback on team performance, prioritize tasks in the product backlog, and manage risks associated with developing a product. Additionally, they need strong communication skills to effectively transfer information between the team, the client, and management.

The main difference between these two roles is that while the Scrum Master focuses more on maintaining an efficient workflow and keeping the team focused on tasks at hand, the Product Owner is responsible for setting the vision and goals, as well as managing customer expectations through continual interaction with stakeholders. 

Can a Product Owner be a Scrum Master and vice versa?

The short answer? No, a single person can’t have both roles simultaneously. Both have a lot on their plate; trying to cut corners will only result in one very stressed employee! 

Yes, both work according to Agile methodologies and provide feedback and guidance — but where they double up, they complement each other rather than overlap. 

Due to their distinct (and significant!) responsibilities, it would be impossible for one individual to assume both roles simultaneously. For this reason, separate individuals must fill both positions and understand each other’s roles thoroughly to create an effective working relationship that will benefit everyone.

To recap: 

The Product Owner is responsible for defining the product vision, setting priorities within the product backlog, working with stakeholders, tracking progress, and providing feedback. 

The Scrum Master focuses on maintaining an efficient workflow, facilitating meetings between stakeholders, implementing best practices, and resolving conflicts or identifying potential risks associated with developing a product.

How to boost collaboration in a Scrum team

Collaboration is a byword for success. So how do you make it happen?

  • First and foremost, establish effective communication between the Product Owner and the Scrum Master. These two roles are like the glue that holds your team together, and if they’re not working together, the team and the product will suffer. Effective communication could look like daily or weekly meetings, collaborative brainstorming sessions, and the shared use of project management software, so all the team data, including the product backlog, is stored in one easy-to-access place.
  • Speaking of project management software — use it! With online PM tools, you can collaborate across projects and set milestones and deadlines while providing visibility into project status updates from external stakeholders and internally within the organization – allowing more transparency when it comes to task completion. Not only does this make it easier for everyone involved in a project, but it also serves as an accountability tool that can help motivate employees toward higher levels of performance and productivity.

Backlog’s task-tracking feature lets everyone on the team coordinate efforts across multiple projects and provide feedback in real-time. 

  • Additionally, have weekly meetings with all stakeholders (including developers, if possible). It’s crucial to keep everyone up-to-date on progress and allow them to voice any issues they may have or ideas they want to bring up throughout the process.
  • It’s also important to encourage collaboration and communication between team members by setting an example for them to follow. Have a positive attitude, provide constructive feedback, and praise good work when it’s done.
  • Finally, don’t forget to make sure everyone is feeling comfortable in the team environment —  whether that means taking short breaks or switching up the team dynamics by mixing in new members. By doing this, you can help ensure that each team member can contribute their unique skills and knowledge towards the project’s success.

Final thoughts

The roles of the Product Owner vs. Scrum Master are incredibly important for any Agile-based project. While both roles have similarities, they also have distinct responsibilities. Ultimately both positions need to work together as a team for a project to reach its full potential and keep any conflicts or risks associated with developing the product at bay. The bottom line: having two distinct individuals in these roles can go a long way towards creating an effective working relationship that will benefit everyone involved in the development process.



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