This past week, I taught a couple of Scrum classes on the fundamentals for teams, Scrum Masters and Product Owners. We had quite a diverse group come through. Some had been working as Scrum Masters for a while and some had just recently been thrown into a Scrum team without a basic understanding of Agile Principles or Scrum Practices. We had some great conversations.
During a break, one of the students came up to talk with me. "I'm the Product Owner and the Scrum Master for my team," he blurted out. Based on the training we'd had up to that point, he realized that being both might not be the best approach.
"Really? How's that working out for you?"
So, why would that cause issues? To really understand that, you need a clear understanding of these two different roles.
To completely over simplify it a Product Owner owns the... uh... product. They have responsibility of the content of the product. The Scrum Master owns the process of executing the Scrum framework. One of the big conflicts of interest that may occur is when the Product Owner is tempted to add more work during a sprint. If the Scrum Master is a different person, then they can push back. But if the Scrum Master and the Product Owner is the same person, where is the balance of power? Who will protect the team?
"But Jim," you ask, "what if that person can be both? What if they can protect the team and still drive value into the product?"
I'm reminded of a scripture that says something like if all men could be great and righteous, then a king would be good... But how often is the reverse been proven? How often does too much power, without balance, caused "corruption"?
When I was a Product owner, I think I had the right attitude and skills that I probably could have pulled off being both... Well, the reality is that no matter how proficient I thought I was with Scrum, it was great to have a competent Scrum Master. I could focus on the product and communicating with the customer and other stake holders as well as being available to the team to clarify expectations. Our Scrum Master could focus on coaching the team--and me--on proper Scrum techniques and keeping the roadblocks out of the team's way.
So, even if you "could" be both, the Product Owner and Scrum Master have to be different people to maintain the balance.