Being both Product Owner and Scrum Master

The Scrum Master for my team left for a new role at the end of August, and since then we’ve been without a dedicated Scrum Master.

My role is that of the Product Owner, but in the past I’ve covered some of the duties of the Scrum Master (keeping the show on the road) during holidays and illness, and so I volunteered to step in to the role until a replacement can be hired.

Ten weeks on, and there’s no sign of a new Scrum Master being hired, so it looks like I’ll be carrying on with my dual-role a while more.

The Scrum Alliance (and others) are quite clear that the Product Owner and Scrum Master roles should not be performed by the same person. They are both full-time jobs in their own right, and it’s inevitable that with one person trying to do both that some things will slip.

My own personal opinion is that a Product Owner and Scrum Master should be like the bickering (but loving) parents of the scrum team. Each role has different needs and priorities, and as such there should be a bit of natural conflict between the two.

As Product Owner I’m looking for the team to deliver the maximum value from their sprint and/or program increment. In the pursuit of this value I’m going to be demanding and ask things of the team that they are sometimes unwilling or unable to deliver.

As Scrum Master I’m more concerned about delivering upon a commitment, and I want to ensure that the team doesn’t over or under commit, but instead maintains a steady and sustainable cadence. So I’m going to help the team to resist some of the more excessive demands of the Product Owner.

And normally this conflict (which is hopefully a good-natured conflict) is good for the team. The Product Owner demands, and the Scrum Master pushes back, and they both meet in the middle with a compromise. And in that compromise the team delivers the most value, but in a realistic and sustainable way.

How does that work if it’s just one person?

As someone who’s primarily a Product Owner, the temptation is to use the lack of a Scrum Master to push my own agenda unchecked. Indeed I know that, if I wanted to, I could probably push the team to accept ever more demanding stretch-goals each sprint – until such a point as they all burnt-out or quit!

And so I somehow need to keep myself in check, because I don’t want my team to quit because of me. But in the same way, I don’t want to take my foot off the gas too much, or we’ll never deliver anything. That’s the danger of being self-policing – that you stop being demanding enough – and the team slows down.

How can I make it work?

In my case it helps that the team is well established and experienced in agile practises. Previous Scrum Masters have coached them well in self-organisation and working together, so it only takes a light-touch intervention to keep the team performing well.

I try to make sure that the sprint rituals are all performed as intended. I mostly keep quiet in the daily stand-up and encourage team members to speak to each other rather than me – because I don’t want it to become a status update meeting.

The retrospective is also sacrosanct in the calendar. It’s all too easy to skip this meeting if you’re primary function isn’t a Scrum Master, but I recognise it’s important to close the loop, and to get the team to learn and reflect on its progress. In fact I’m sure the team is sick of me quoting the mantra “inspect and adapt”!

Apart from that I’m trying to engage with Scrum Master community in my organisation to get their advice on how best to continue. I’m not sure whether this dual-role thing is going to be a long term situation, but I’ll try to keep the show on the road in the mean time! 

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