Who Owns The Scrum? Balancing Control Vs. Developer Empowerment

Defining the Tension Between Control and Empowerment in Scrum

Scrum roles and responsibilities

The Scrum framework defines three core roles: the product owner, the Scrum master, and the development team. The product owner is responsible for articulating product vision and priorities, managing the product backlog, and accepting completed work. The Scrum master facilitates Scrum events, coaches the team on Scrum theory and practice, and works to eliminate impediments. The development team self-organizes to produce shippable increments of product each sprint.

The product owner’s duty to prioritize and control the backlog

A key responsibility of the product owner is to maintain the product backlog – a prioritized list of desired functionality. The product owner decides what to build next based on customer needs, business objectives, and development team bandwidth. This control over the backlog is essential for aligning development work with broader product strategy.

The development team’s authority over implementation details

While the product owner decides what functionality is most important, the development team is empowered to determine implementation details. The Scrum guide states, “The how – the design, architecture, tools, engineering practices – is up to the Development Team”. Allowing engineers close to the code to make technical choices leads to better system design and feature delivery.

Finding the Right Balance

Allowing the product owner to dictate solution details reduces developer engagement

When product owners prescribe technical solutions, they disempower engineers from leveraging their specialized expertise. Mandating databases, languages, or software patterns hampers creative problem solving. Developers feel reduced autonomy and ownership, harming motivation, morale, and velocity over time. Excess control of implementation underutilizes skilled talent.

Complete developer freedom leads scopes to expand unchecked

Conversely, granting developers complete authority over backlog items and code quality has drawbacks. Engineers tend to solve root cause issues in the most elegant, future-proof manner. While positive in theory, elegant systems and over-engineered infrastructure rarely align with business priorities and minimal viable products. Left unchecked, developer enthusiasm expands solution scopes past the point of value delivery for stakeholders.

Best Practices for Harmonious Scrum Teams

Establish guiding product principles, not prescribed technical solutions

Product owners walk a fine line between necessary control and excessive restriction of engineers. The optimal path involves clearly communicating desired outcomes and experience without mandating architectural decisions. Defining target users, high-level flows, and guiding principles bounds development efforts while preserving space for emerging technical direction.

Involve all scrum roles in backlog refinement

Joint backlog refinement sessions provide opportunities for collaborative solution shaping versus prescribed specifications. Bringing together product owners, Scrum masters, and engineers to size items and map acceptance criteria enables shared understanding. Early alignment and awareness of potential scope creep instills healthy accountability across scrum participants.

Promote psychological safety for developers to voice concerns

Creating environments where any team member can openly critique plans without fear builds trust critical for agile development. Product owners must welcome constructive disagreement from engineers related to technical feasibility or solution quality. Voicing alternate paths should be met with curiosity, not defensiveness, from decision-makers.

Reserve veto power for truly misaligned work

As a last resort, product owners can leverage veto authority over development choices conflicting with business objectives or target user outcomes. However, such instances should be exceptionally rare among teams embracing frequent collaboration, open debate, and shared vision. Knee-jerk rejection of emerging technical directions strains working relationships and morale.

Case Studies of Healthy Control vs. Empowerment Balance

[Example 1]

A fintech startup building a mobile investing app adheres to lean principles of rapid experimentation based on customer feedback versus large upfront product specification. Their product owner provides user narratives for desired features but looks to engineers for lead on emerging capabilities around data visualization and predictive analytics.

[Example 2]

A Fortune 500 insurance company replaces outdated claims software with mandate to maximize straight-through processing and real-time adjudication. Architecture leadership works closely with business leaders,Solution focuses on cloud-native development supporting aggressive speed and stability goals while meeting necessary compliance controls.

Key Takeaways and Learning Resources

Harmonizing control versus empowerment across Scrum roles involves:

  • Clearly communicating desired user outcomes
  • Including all perspectives in backlog refinement
  • Promoting open, constructive debate
  • Restricting absolute mandates and vetoes

For more on fostering balanced partnership among Scrum teams, check out these resources:

  • Blog posts and training videos from leading Agile practitioners
  • Community forums to exchange wisdom with fellow Scrum masters
  • Books diving deep into Agile cultural transformation

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