When it comes to Scrum, an Agile framework for software development, clearly defined roles are important. The singular Scrum roles of Product Manager, Scrum Master and Development Team are so important, in fact, that merging them could lead to the disruption of a team and the inability to complete a project on time. Or, at least, that’s what the principles of Scrum say.

But we live in the real world, with small team sizes, tight budgets, project managers and cranky customers. The ideals of a methodology aren’t always easy to stick to. Sometimes roles have to be combined.

So, when it comes to completing a Scrum project, which is it? Do you have to stick to the principles of Scrum and never mix roles? Or are there times when combining two roles could be beneficial to a Scrum team?

Scrum Roles Defined

While other roles can exist, there are 3 primary roles in Scrum: the Product Owner, Scrum Master and Development Team (member). These roles make the process and the development of software as smooth and efficient as possible to satisfy the customer. Here’s a quick rundown of the roles and their responsibilities:

Product Owner

The Product Owner has the vision for the product and its production. They are the voice of the customer and the representation of the stakeholders. Therefore, they operate on the business side, creating and understanding the user stories, adding them to the product backlog and prioritizing tasks according to which will provide the most value to the client and the stakeholders.

Scrum Master
The scrum master is both a coach, a facilitator and a moderator. They have two main responsibilities. First, they protect the scrum and clear the path of impediments, like obstacles and distractions, for the development team. Second, they use their deep knowledge of scrum principles to make sure the team follows the scrum methodology. Other responsibilities of a scrum master may include keeping channels of communication open between the team, guarding the team from outside interference, obstacles or distractions.

Development Team
The development team is made up of a handful of individuals (typically between 3 and 9 people, not including the Product Owner and Scrum Master) who create the product through analyzing, developing, designing, testing and documentation. They are a self-managing and self-organizing, meaning that they decide how to take on tasks and how to achieve goals. They are accountable for themselves when building the project, and do this with assistance from the Product Owner and Scrum Master.

So, now that we know these roles, do you think that one person can manage two, or even three, of these roles at a time?

Yes, Scrum Roles Can Be Merged

If you answered yes, then you may have had personal experience within an agile or scrum team of combining these roles. If you’ve worked on a small team, you may have had to combine roles out of necessity.

Take Benjamin Smith’s experience as a Project Manager and Certified Scrum Master for Entrance Consulting:

I’ve led many Scrum projects here at Entrance over the past 2 and a half years. Some of the projects have been successful despite one person taking on multiple roles.

For instance, as the ScrumMaster, I often contribute to the development effort when the team needs it. This is fine as long as the ScrumMaster conforms to the standard process. So the ScrumMaster can maintain his or her position as the impartial maintainer of the Scrum process, it’s a good idea for them to abstain from estimating activities even if they plan to undertake some of the dev work.

A danger exists when the Product Owner wants to also participate in the development process. When they do so, they begin thinking too much about how things will be accomplished when they should instead be thinking about what needs to be accomplished and why, what is the business value of doing it.

Allowing someone to be both the ScrumMaster and Product Owner can eliminate the usually beneficial tension of the PO asking for more than the team wants to give, and the two sides finding a middle ground.

Natalie Kaminski, Founder and CEO of Nika Consulting Group, a small web development shop, has a team of 9 people who all take on multiple roles.

We are an Agile shop and due to our small size (9 people), we all wear many hats. I personally play the roles of Scrum Master and Product Manager on pretty much every project we undertake. It has been working very well for us, because I am able to better manage Sprint planning knowing how I want the product to evolve.

Alving Garcia, Marketing Director and Scrum Master at Shipedge, has shared all 3 roles at different points of development.

I believe one person can have multiple roles since I have done that very thing many times during our sprints. I am the Scrum Master and share the Product Owner role with our CEO, since we sometimes interchange that role depending on what tasks are at hand for that sprint.

I have also had to be part of the development team whenever there was some front-end design or development work that needed to be done. So I was the Scrum Master, Product Owner sometimes and every now and then an actual part of the development team and answered my own daily tasks/following day tasks questions that we had daily for the standup meetings and also managed the standup.

Of course, if the Product Owner is the Scrum Master and sometimes part of the development, they may have more work that they can handle and may need to delegate those tasks to other team members. Sometimes it may cause a conflict of interest, but since we have done it many times and have still managed to get our tasks done, I have nothing against it, as long as it is only done every now and then and not a common, every sprint occurrence.

So, some teams have had successful experience combining roles, though with some caveats.

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No, Scrum Roles Should Never Be Merged

If you answered no, then you are probably aware that Scrum principles dictate that roles should never be combined. You may also have personal experience combining these roles and direct experience of the disaster that follows.

For one, the combining of roles means that one will always suffer. A merged Product Owner/Scrum Master may spend more time on championing the product than clearing obstacles or on facilitating conversation for the team than creating user stories.

Jon M. Quigley of Value Transformation LLC says,

One of the key elements to the success rate for agile projects is the focus of attention and effort. Agile teams that are successful or successfully deployed agile endeavors do not distract the personnel with the many opportunities for distraction that often coincides with conventional project management.

When we allow this multiple role from one person in the group, we start to erode those things that make agile work. We are essentially falling into the same trap into which conventional projects often fall. We water down the mechanisms that drive efficiency and efficacy.

There can also be a conflict of interest. While both the roles of Product Owner and Scrum Master require empathy, they serve different masters, the client and stakeholders vs. the development team members (respectively). Coveros CTO Thomas Stiehm sees it as such:

The basic conflict is that the goal of the Scrum master is to champion and manage the process so this includes protecting the team from the demands of the stakeholders that will take them out of the process.

The goal of the Product Owner is to get the best possible product in the shortest amount of time. So the Product Owner could ask the team to do things that will break that process and potentially damage the process, team or product in service of a product goal like having feature X ready for the big demo next Monday when we don’t really know what feature X is at this point.

The conflict of championing the process and championing the product has inherent conflict. The closest thing I have seen work is that the Scrum Master acting as a Product Owner proxy to determine the priorities of minor stories but even here, I prefer to have a Business Analyst take on this role (PO proxy).

So, what do you think? Have you seen a team member take on both roles and succeed? Or have you seen multi-role-tasking in Scrum go disastrously? Share your experiences below.

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About Jennifer Yeadon

I am the Content Marketer at SmartFile, which means I get to learn everything and write about it -- my two favorite things. I firmly believe that oatmeal cookies should contain chocolate chips, not raisins.

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