Why Scrum Masters shouldn’t be coaching Product Owners

Scrum Master May 21, 2020

Why Scrum Masters shouldn’t be coaching Product Owners

As I explained before in 'Why most Scrum Masters are destined to fail’, being a Scrum Master is a demanding job. You need to be an expert at Scrum, have exceptional soft skills, excel at situational leadership, influence at all different levels of a company, and be a master at making others understand Scrum to boot.

Are you dizzy yet?

Image by Marisa Sias

Another taxing Scrum role is the Product Owner. The Product Owner is expected to be a Product Management expert. Product Management is the motor that drives the delivery of value with Scrum. Scrum has little to say about how you do your Product Management, except that all responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Product Owner.

Many people believe Scrum Masters should be coaching Product Owners. As if the Scrum Master role isn’t difficult enough. Two of the companies I worked for hired an Agile Coach (at these companies it was just a fancy word for a Scrum Master), to coach all Scrum Masters and Product Owners. Part of the responsibilities of the new Agile Coach position was to get the Product Owners to deliver more value.

The belief that a Scrum Master or Agile Coach should be able to coach all Product Owners in their profession is misguided. What makes the Product Owner role difficult is not what needs to happen according to Scrum, but everything that is isn’t part of the framework.

The relevant parts of the Scrum Guide that may lead to misunderstandings:

The Scrum Master serves the Product Owner in several ways, including:
• Ensuring that goals, scope, and product domain are understood by everyone on the Scrum Team as well as possible;
• Finding techniques for effective Product Backlog management;
• Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items;
• Understanding product planning in an empirical environment;
• Ensuring the Product Owner knows how to arrange the Product Backlog to maximize value — Scrum Guide Nov 2017 version

These parts highlight that it is the job of the Scrum Master to serve the Product Owner in the realm of Scrum. A Scrum Master coaches the Product Owner on leveraging the power of Scrum to deliver valuable products. It says nothing about coaching Product Owners in the field of Product Management.

A developer who joins a Scrum Team usually already knows how to code. Development Team members are typically not coached by Scrum Masters to improve their programming skills either. This is not to say it isn’t possible, but it usually isn’t the case and not part of the Scrum Master’s job by default.

In a similar vein: a Product Owner is expected to be an expert in Product Management. Even if they aren’t experts, it isn’t the job of the Scrum Master to coach the Product Owner in the field of Product Management. A Product Owner should be coached in Scrum and how the Product Owner role fits in the Scrum framework. But that’s only a tiny fraction of the Product Owner role.

A more effective approach would be to hire a Product Management expert to coach the Product Owners. A Product Owner or Product Manager who has been in the trenches, helping to deliver great products. As written in the Scrum guide and applicable for the Product Owner role as well: knowledge comes from experience. Just understanding the theory won’t cut it in the real world.

A seasoned Product Owner or Product Manager, who teams up with a Scrum Master to collaborate closely can take delivering valuable products, using Scrum as a foundation, to the next level. As I’ve written before, Product Management is the foundation upon which Scrum rests to deliver products of the highest possible value.

The Product Owner role and how it fits in Scrum is a fraction of the real job

In my experience, Scrum forms less than 10–20% of the real job of a Product Owner. Attending all prescribed events and refinement should take at most 20% of your time. What you do outside of the Sprint cadence, and where Scrum does not prescribe how you should be doing it, matters most to building the right thing. This is where the field of Product Management can provide direction and answers consciously left out of the Scrum framework for you to figure out.

If you want to become an expert in Product Management, there is no substitute for real-world experience building products. If you’re going to coach others in the craft, you need to have been in the trenches building products as a Product Owner for many years.

Scrum Masters need to be an expert in Scrum and transferring their Scrum expertise to others. Only by teaming a Scrum Master up with an experienced Product Management professional, can Scrum deliver on its promise of delivering products of the highest possible value. Product Management expertise helps Product Owners do their actual job: delivering value to customers and the business.

A worrying trend I’m seeing is that more and more Scrum trainers are facilitating professional certifications for Product Owners, without ever having helped to build any products as a Product Owner. I believe this is a missed opportunity. Few Scrum Masters are such experts in Product Management that they can wear both hats with equal comfort. It does a great disservice to the complexity of both the Scrum Master and Product Owner role.

Just like most Product Managers wouldn’t be capable of teaching Scrum, most Scrum Masters are not capable of teaching Product Management. And that’s okay, the Scrum Master role is already demanding and challenging enough without bringing Product Management into the mix.

Focus, one of the Scrum values, is essential to succeed as a Scrum Master. The main responsibility of the Scrum Master lies in promoting and supporting Scrum, not teaching the craft of Product Management. It is already difficult enough to make an organization live and breathe Scrum, so don’t stretch yourself too thin and focus on where you can make a difference.

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