When your PO is also your manager…

I don’t know that any good can come of it.  As a Scrum Master, you’re there to teach Scrum to the team and coach them both as a team and individuals.  The Product Owner is included in the team you, as the Scrum Master, are coaching.  Except, how awkward is it to have to tell your direct manager (the person writing your review) that they are not being a good product owner and hurting the team?

Well, I’ll tell you.  It’s very awkward and if I’m being very honest, not very smart for you as a performer.  However, if you don’t have that conversation with your manager the team will be hurt.  Ideally, someone in your organization is very wise and does not allow this to happen. But, if it does happen, how do you have that conversation in the least awkward way possible?

I found one way that seemed to work.  It’s straight-forward and takes the emotion out of it. 

  • Make yourself a table with 4 columns 
  • Label the first column “situation” 
  • Label the second “Scrum Master Hat” – This will be to articulate your response when wearing this “hat”
  • Label the third column “Direct Report Hat” – This will be to articulate your response when wearing this “hat”
  • Label the fourth column “Impact” – This will be to articulate what the impact to the team is when you’re not able to wear the Scrum Master hat
  • Have as many rows as you need

Then, think of actual situations that have happened.  Here are some examples:

  • The Product Owner asks the team to take on another story in the middle of a sprint because it’s really urgent
  • The Product Owner isn’t available for grooming sessions
  • The Product Owner questions the teams estimates on stories
  • The Product Owner wants to tell the team HOW

If we take the first one and think through it it’s easy to see where the challenge is. As a Scrum Master, you need to point out the team cannot meet their commitment AND bring in another story.  So, you would ask for a discussion as a full team regarding impacts to the sprint plan, what trade-offs could be made and what future sprint impacts might be.  As a direct report you want to say “Yes.  Sure.  We will do that.”  The impact to the team is signing them up for work they haven’t had time to think through, hurting their current sprint plan and throwing their commitment out the window.  Finally, the team loses some trust in you because you’re not protecting them. 

Hopefully, your manager sees the light and transitions to another Product Owner. If he doesn’t, find a new team.  You won’t be able to be truly effective for your team NOR will you grow your skills as a Scrum Master.  I will say the same thing applies when any role is asked to wear multiple “hats”. I’m interested to hear thoughts on this one. 


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