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Avast Combining the ScrumMaster and Product Owner, Matey!

A common question is whether it’s acceptable to combine the role of product and ScrumMaster and give both sets of responsibilities to a single person. In general, combining these roles is a very bad idea. To see why, let’s look back in history and the job of the 17th-century pirate ship captain.

In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (October 2010), Professor Hayagreeva Rao wrote about the results of asking his MBA students to design the job of a 17th century pirate ship captain. His MBA students designed a job that lumped together two area of responsibility:

  1. star tasks–the strategic work of deciding which ships to attack, commanding the crew during battle, negotiating with other captains, and so on
  2. guardian tasks–the operational work of distributing their pirate booty, settling conflict, punishing crew members, and organizing care for the wounded

The problem with this job description is that it mixes star and guardian tasks. As Professor Rao points out, there are very few individuals who excel at both types of task. Star tasks require risk-taking and entrepreneurship whereas guardian tasks require conscientiousness and consistency. A pirate captain good at identifying ships to attack and at leading his crew into battle would likely be bored by the administrative minutiae of the guardian tasks.

Professor Rao claims that people tend to spend most of their effort on the tasks they are good at (and presumably enjoy). My experience certainly bears this out.

Pirates avoided this problem by having a captain responsible for the star tasks and a quartermaster general responsible for the guardian tasks.

So what does the decidedly non-collaborative, non-agile environment of a pirate ship have to do with whether a ScrumMaster and product owner can be combined? Well, it turns out that the product owner is largely performing star tasks and the ScrumMaster is largely performing guardian tasks. And so, for the same reason that pirate ships had separate individuals as captain and quartermaster general, our agile software development projects should have separate ScrumMasters and product owners.

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