A question was posed on my Mastodon instance this morning about combining the roles of Product Owner and Agile Lead (e.g. Scrum Master). The requestor felt that this was a bad idea but wanted to get feedback on whether it was, in fact, possible to do so and under what conditions would it not cause problems.
To answer the question, we need to understand the responsibilities of each role.
The Product Owner has the responsibility of collaborating actively with stakeholders to help them prioritize all the potential needs and wants which might be addressed by the product or service. They are also expected to spend significant time working with the delivery team to ensure they have a clear understanding of these needs and wants and to provide ongoing feedback on product ideas and completed work items by the team.
The Agile Lead is responsible for supporting the team in becoming as effective and efficient as they can be. While the role might facilitate delivery events (e.g. daily coordination events) for the team, their greater value is in the positive changes they are able to catalyze outside of these events. While they are expected to have sufficient delivery expertise to advise the team when they need assistance, the team is expected to define their way of working.
Based on these two sets of responsibilities, there are two main concerns with having a single individual play both roles: knowledge and capacity.
An effective Product Owner is expected to have sufficient product domain knowledge and organizational awareness whereas an Agile Lead is expected to have sufficient breadth and depth of delivery experience. It is rare to find an individual who ticks all of these boxes.
Most of the Product Owners I’ve worked with are overwhelmed just in their roles with the responsibility of spending enough time engaging with stakeholders and understanding product domain changes along with supporting the team daily. Adding the Agile Lead responsibilities to this mix usually means something will slip which could result in valuable input into product feature prioritization being missed or the team being neglected.
So is there any circumstance where the roles would be combined?
When a new company is formed, unless the leader has sufficient confidence, funding and foresight to fill positions appropriately right away, it is common that the leader plays both roles for at least the first product or service launch. However, in most situations, as the company grows, the leader recognizes fairly quickly that they need to step out of the daily tactical work of delivery and will staff the two roles.
Are there other contexts where you’ve seen this work? If so, leave a comment below…
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