Dec 7th, 2020

Does a Scrum Master Coach the Product Owner?

Naveen Kumar Singh
Naveen Kumar Singh

Naveen is a professional agile coach and has been working independently for a long time in the Asia... Read more

Who is a Scrum Master?

Scrum Master is a role within the Scrum Team, and scrum masters accountable for upholding the Scrum. Scrum masters provide services to the scrum teams, product owners, and organization. They do it through facilitation, teaching, mentoring, coaching, and causing the removal of impediments.

What kind of services a Scrum Master provides?

A Scrum Master provides services to the Scrum Team, Product Owner, and Organization to effectively implement Scrum.

Service to the Scrum Team:

  • Coaching towards self-management and cross-functionality
  • Helping the Scrum Team focus on creating high-value Increments that meet the Definition of Done
  • Causing the removal of impediments to the Scrum Team’s progress
  • Ensuring that all Scrum events take place and are positive, productive, and kept within the timebox

Service to the Product Owner

  • Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items
  • Helping establish empirical product planning for a complex environment
  • Facilitating stakeholder collaboration as requested or needed.

Service to the Organization

  • Leading, training, and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption
  • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact an empirical approach for complex work.
  • Remove barriers between stakeholders and Scrum Teams.

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Does a Scrum Master coach the Product Owner?

Yes is the most common answer, but coaching is missing in service to the product owner for a Scrum Master’s role when you look at the Scrum Guide. However, it is there for service to the Scrum Team and Organization. If you look at it again, you will see that the product owner is a part of the Scrum Team and a Scrum Master coaches the Scrum Team members so that it is true.

Practical challenges for the Scrum Master:

  • 1Scrum Master’s role is within the Scrum Team and not within the Development Team. Often the Scrum Master role gets portrayed as a protector for the development team or shielding the development team from the product owner. It sounds like the product owner is a senior role wherein the development team role is junior, and the scrum master comes in between them. Truth is different where all positions are equal, and everyone has their accountability.
  • 2Lack of knowledge around coaching is another big challenge where Professional Scrum Masters are told during training that they also coach besides teach and mentor, but they haven’t trained on coaching. Since we say that Scrum Master is an agile coach, that doesn’t mean they become coaches. Agile coaching is not professional coaching, but it is crucial to learn professional coaching before scrum masters start engaging teams in coaching conversation; else, they act more like motivators, guides, counselors, and trainers rather than coaches.
  • 3There is confusion when having multiple Scrum Masters for the same Scrum Team while developing a product. Everyone understands that one product means one product backlog and one product owner. At least people who have attended Professional Scrum Master Training understands it very well. There can be multiple development teams working on the same product if needed, but how many Scrum Masters needed? Do we need one Scrum Master per development team or need a Scrum Master at the product level? Or we need Scrum Masters at both levels?In that case, what will you call the Scrum Master operating at the Product level if each development team has their own Scrum master? We often call them agile coach, RTE, Senior Scrum Master, or Chief Scrum Master but is it OK?

What is the difference between teaching, mentoring, and coaching?

  • Teaching: Teaching to adults is one of the most challenging tasks. Scrum Masters should know how to design content using various techniques and how to teach by engaging audiences. Students learn more by doing rather than just listening. Teaching on-job to the product owner has worked for me in the past.
  • Mentoring: Mentoring is another area for the Scrum Masters to learn. They should be champions in various types of mentoring and having in-depth knowledge of mentoring style and conversation. The Scrum Masters help participants to design and develop multiple mentoring programs to support individuals during agile transformation. Speed mentoring is an area that becomes useful during the transition to mentor new scrum team members and product owners.
  • Coaching: Professional coaching is a profession, and professional coaches often work as a life coach, career coach, and leadership coach. Our goal is not to learn professional coaching but to master in the coaching conversation. We get in there by learning tips and tricks of professional coaching to adopt in our day to day conversation to have an engaging conversation.

An example of teaching to the Product Owner

In my last engagement as a Scrum Master, I encountered a situation where the product owner was continuously talking about MVP, but it was just a regular release for me. I ignored it, thinking it will not impact the outcome because we have different words, but the meaning is the same unless the development team member highlighted its consequences. I encouraged him to bring the issue in retrospective to have further discussion.

MVP is to validate the hypothesis and may be useful during the initial stage of a product, but subsequent releases are just an increment. Calling MVP to every release may put unnecessary stress on the team, leading to low-quality releases. In a retrospective meeting, we agreed to learn about MVP, a term coined in 2001 by Frank Robinson and then popularized by Steve Blank and Eric Ries. I scheduled a teaching session, prepared material to teach using brain-based learning and the Six Trumps methods.

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An example of mentoring the Product Owner

While working with a major insurance company in Malaysia, I had to develop a roadmap around product ownership to enable a product thinking culture. There was a time when all designated product owners sounded like traditional line managers/business owners, and scrum masters were working more like product owners.

We designed a mentoring program to help them take the role of a product owner in Scrum. Mentoring sessions included formal/informal training, shadowing product owners, and providing impromptu on-job supports to 40+ people.

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An example of coaching the Product Owner

As said above, I focus on conversation rather than going with how professional coaches operate. A simple example of coaching conversion is here. Recently I was approached by a product owner to have a conversation around product backlog prioritization where the product owner was not sure what to when the vendor of hardware components informed about a possible delay in delivery.

Our conversation leads to a discussion about what the product owner will achieve by prioritizing low value / no-urgent work against high-value items if the vendor may delay the critical piece of work needed to perform integration testing high-value items. The product owner decided not to change order and focus on value and figure out an alternative plan to complete high-value work over prioritizing low-value items.

Professional coaching vs. coaching conversation

Professional coaching is about transformative coaching conversation but only limits that and goes beyond that by having a formal contract, building trust, coming up long-term coaching plan. Professional coaching takes place between coach and client, where the client may be unknown to the coach. Professional coaching focuses more on career coaching, leadership coaching, and life coaching, etc.

The coaching conversation is a conversation style, and agile coaches can master this art to coach people inside/outside the scrum team. Scrum Masters are coaching to the team members (product owner and developers) or stakeholders, and in those cases, they are known people to the Scrum Master. In such a situation, the Scrum Master doesn’t need a formal contract, and there is no issue with trust in most cases. Coaching topics are also around work rather than individuals, but the Scrum Masters should still focus on the person than the person’s problem.

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Where can a Scrum Master learns about coaching conversation?

ICF, C0-Active, ORSC, and EMCC are popular among professional coaching. Marshal Goldsmith and The Leadership Circle Profile famous for executive coaching, Honestly speaking, you don’t need to go there. I have been to ICF coaching, certified Marshal Goldsmith executive coach, and Certified The Leadership Circle Profile Practitioner. The ICAgile-Agile Coach Certification Program for three days is still good enough to get an excellent practitioner agile coach facilitating this training and navigating through a journey of an agile coach/ Scrum Master.

Naveen Kumar Singh

Naveen is a professional agile coach and has been working independently for a long time in the Asia Pacific. He works with the software development team and product team to develop awesome products based on empirical processes.

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