The Product Manager vs. the Scrum Master

Scrum is the best-known and most widely-used agile software development framework. So, it is common for software development teams to include a “scrum master” — someone who keeps the team accountable to business goals and removes productivity roadblocks.

Scrum masters play a crucial role on product development teams. But since this is not a managerial role, scrum masters do not have authority to hire or fire team members. Instead, they act as high-level coaches. A great scrum master keeps the team accountable to achieving their business objectives. They also remove roadblocks that might impact the team’s productivity. This role performs an important function.

Yet, I’ve noticed a persistent problem over the last few years as I have worked with hundreds of product development teams: you could ask five product managers what a scrum master is and receive five different answers.

So, why does the scrum master role cause so much confusion? A big reason is because the scrum methodology recognizes three distinct roles. The product manager owns the product vision; the scrum master helps the team use scrum to build the best possible product; and the engineering team members build the product.

If all goes perfectly well, then each person finds their place and the team speeds along. But incorporating agile tactics into product development often leads to challenges, missteps, and miscommunications. When product managers, scrum masters, and engineering team members are not clear on who owns what, progress can be impeded.

And when there is a lack of team unity around scrum, it often has a root cause: the relationship between the product manager and scrum master.

In order for the scrum methodology to work, both people must own their responsibilities and have healthy respect for each other. That starts with understanding who is accountable for what.

Here’s how these two roles intersect — and how to keep the whole scrum team productive:

Product expert vs. methodology expert
The product manager is the go-to product expert on the scrum team. She facilitates communication between the team and stakeholders to ensure that the team is building the right product at the right time. She is also is a key resource for the rest of the non-technical organization. And she should be responsible for the overall success of the entire product experience. In short, she is the product master.

The scrum master ensures that scrum concepts are understood both inside and outside of the team. He helps people outside the team understand the process, as well as which interactions with the team are helpful and which ones are not. The scrum master must be fully versed in scrum values, practices, and applications. He must also provide a level of knowledge and expertise above and beyond that of a typical project manager. This requires strong understanding of the scrum framework and ability to train others to use it.

Product visionary vs. team coach
The product manager is responsible for maximizing the team’s value. This means that she is responsible for defining the product’s “why” and “what” based on a clear vision and set of priorities. In scrum, only the product manager is authorized to ask the team to do work or change the order (priority) of backlog items or features in the queue.

The scrum master helps the entire team enhance their performance. He helps the product manager understand how to create and maintain the product backlog so the project is well-defined and work flows smoothly to the team. He also works with the whole scrum team to confirm the definition of “done.” The scrum master owns the “how” and coaches the team on how to execute the scrum process. He helps them learn to use the framework so they can all say, “Done” at the end of each sprint.

Backlog owner vs. roadblock owner
The product manager owns the product backlog. She decides what goes into the product backlog vs. what does not. She maintains the product backlog and ensures that all backlog items deliver the highest value. She also works with the team and stakeholders to constantly improve the product backlog’s quality — and everyone’s understanding of the items in that backlog. Finally, the product manager decides when to ship the product, with a preference for more frequent delivery.

The scrum master drives the team’s self-organization and then removes distractions, impediments, or roadblocks to drive team progress. Impediments may be external to the team (like lack of support from another team). Or they could be internal, like the product manager not knowing how to correctly groom the product backlog. He may also facilitate regular meetings to ensure that the team is making regular progress.

Although responsibilities differ — driving the product vs. driving the team — the intersection of these two roles is essential. Software teams can’t use agile to deliver successful products if the product manager and scrum master can’t collaborate.

As the product manager, you are your product’s CEO. That means it is your job to make sure that everyone on your team understands who owns what — especially if your team is new to scrum at large. So, before you move your product development forward, invest time upfront in understanding — and respecting — what the scrum master will bring to the table.

Likewise, take the time to walk him through your responsibilities and show him how they intersect with his own. Knowing the basics will get you both closer to leading an exceptional agile scrum team.

About Ron and Aha!

Ron is a product guy. He is the VP of Product Management at Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software. He previously founded and sold his own company and has been on the founding team of multiple venture-backed companies.

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  1. Stefan-Adrian Bancu

    Great post for presenting each role in comparison. However, how would you advocate such responsibilities to a company that do not have well defined product manager nor scrum master in such manner?

  2. Phillip J Hubbell

    An interesting aside, often companies post job offerings looking for a Project Manager-Scrum Master as a position. The misunderstanding of roles goes to assuming they are they same role. In some companies this may be true. What they end up doing is combining them for economic reasons. A lot of companies have a hard time with resource allocation and parts of the project end up being run standard and other parts in an iterative mode. So sort of a hybrid process emerges where the project has subsets of scrum and waterfall merging at points. In my last position, the designers were agile and the developers were waterfall. (sort of counter intuitive) but the developers were less available to the process than the designers. So my project plans had to include “entry” into the iterations of sections or developed software to coincide with that the business end of the project was doing. It became sort of an external story with a deadline.


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