You can get to the bottom of most things in life by asking the three magical questions: “What?”, “Why?”, and “How?”. 

If you work Agile, for example, any user story you create will be far better if you answer those three questions. 

But did you know that you can also get a better understanding of your R&D organization if you associate each of these questions with a key role? Take for example your: 

  • Product Manager 
  • Product Owner
  • Scrum Master

Each of these roles represents one of these three questions. Thinking about it that way puts things in a different light, and you gain new insight into what is important for the roles to work well together.  

Product Manager: The WHAT

The Product Manager is responsible for the product’s business, vision, and roadmap. He is the final decision maker of WHAT gets implemented. The Product Manager is also ultimately the best expert on exactly who is the target customer or user. The WHAT is heavily influenced by this.

Product Owner: The WHY

The Product Owner is responsible for the backlog and prioritization. The backlog contains the work for the team and must be in prioritized order. Since you can’t just add every single request that comes in for the product, the Product Owner has the power to accept (or reject) something to the backlog. 

This power means he will have to force the organization to answer the question WHY something is needed. Only by understanding WHY, can you truly estimate the value of a request. By forcing this question, the Product Owner creates what I call a “prioritization challenge.”

Scrum Master: The HOW

Granted, your developers really control HOW the work is done. But if we were to choose a single person to represent the development team in terms of HOW that would be the Scrum Master. 

The Scrum Master is responsible for coaching the team to perform better, to make sure the team obeys its own rules, and protect the team from itself. Too often teams try to do too much. In this sense, the Scrum Master is a “sustainability governor” that exposes the true performance that the team can achieve.

Key problems when these roles cooperate

Now that we know who does what, let’s have a look at some common problems these three roles face when trying to cooperate. 

The Product Manager spends too little time with the team 

This can be the result of too many other products that are in different stages of development or the product lifecycle. Also, visiting customers and travelling takes the PM far from the team. This can hurt the team if they do not get enough feedback and direction from the Product Manager.

The Product Owner does not use his/her authority to accept or decline backlog items 

To prioritize right, it is essential that the PO exercises her authority to decline requests to enter the team backlog. If everything is always accepted and added to the backlog, you will end up with a swollen backlog that is difficult to manage and estimate. 

Also, approving an item to the backlog should mean something: a higher level of commitment to deliver.

The Scrum Master does not facilitate and control the team’s own agreements on how to work 

These agreements can be: 

  • Work in Progress (WIP) limits 
  • Definition of Ready or Definition of Done agreements 
  • how to handle interruptions  
  • when to have deep work time 

This lack of team discipline will lead to erratic velocity, difficulty in forecasting, and a lack of trust within the three key roles.

What good cooperation looks like for the three roles

Demos and sprint reviews are used to their full potential 

These generate feedback for the team, an overview of the current status, and plans. Teams that place high value on these ceremonies, usually do well in the three-role cooperation.

Scrum Master and Product Owner weekly prioritization moment 

It is good practice for the PO and Scrum Master to have short, regular chats about which items need to be at the top of the backlog. This ensures that the correct items are fed into the team refinement process

The three key roles meet also outside the steering meetings 

With regular (even informal) communication between the Product Manager, Product Owner and Scrum Master, it will be far easer to plan and make realistic forecasts. Problems and bottlenecks will be brought to the surface, and the team can get the support they need.

Developing the roles must be done in balance

For your product organization to perform at its highest level, you need to develop all three aspects: the WHAT, the WHY and the HOW. Do it at the same time. If you only focus on one of them, you will only see marginal results. 

This is why I think individual (and mostly certification-oriented) training solutions, while useful, do not result in fast and huge performance improvements. Custom training solutions, where all the roles are participating, are better.

Published: Sep 2, 2022

AgileProduct management