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A Complete Summary of the Roles and Responsibilities of a Scrum Team
Have you ever laid out a precise plan for a big project, only to have everything fall apart? Maybe weather threw the timeline off, or resources didn’t arrive in time. Or a critical team member suddenly left. And all your careful plans came to naught.
Or else, as it sometimes happens, a team completes a project on time and under budget, only to discover that it doesn’t meet the stakeholder’s expectations.
Back in the 90s, software developers Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber encountered these sorts of problems over and over again. They attributed them to the project management system waterfall, which locked people into following a prescribed plan laid out at the beginning of a project.
“The process was slow, unpredictable, and often never resulted in a product that people wanted or would pay to buy,” Sutherland writes in his book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.
In search of a better way, he and Schwaber put together the scrum framework. It’s designed to solve problems waterfall never addresses. This agile approach works closely with the client throughout the project, to ensure the end product serves the customer’s needs. Scrum also forces teams to look closely at its work processes, and continually identify ways to remove impediments and improve systems.
The scrum framework very specifically lays out just how a team must go about bringing a project over the finish line. This entails assigning certain roles to all team members, following several ceremonies, and using scrum artifacts. Sutherland and Schwaber update the scrum process periodically, most recently in 2020.
The three roles within a scrum team include the scrum master, the product owner and the development team. Let’s look into the responsibilities of each role, and the part each plays in working toward the product goal.
The Scrum Master
If you’re assigned the illustrious role of scrum master, it means you lead the development team to excellence and success!
This isn’t the traditional leadership exhibited by project managers, however, who monitor and oversee a project, and sometimes push their weight around to keep things on schedule.
First and foremost, the scrum master makes sure the team understands the scrum framework, and the principles behind all the ceremonies, roles and artifacts. He or she also communicates the process to the rest of the organization.
The idea of “servant leader” is often used to describe a scrum master. An agile environment cultivates an autonomous and motivated team. Ideally, the team is highly skilled and has a pretty good idea of what needs to get done and how to get there on its own. And so the scrum master’s role has more to do with enabling the team.
Here are some central duties of the scrum master:
Create an Agile Culture
The agile process is adaptive, and allows for adjustment and pivoting even late in development. The scrum master works to create a culture of mental agility, meaning the team is ok ripping into code and starting over if that means creating a better product for the customer.
Get Tools to the Team
At the beginning of each sprint, the scrum team selects a batch of work to complete over the next two weeks. The scrum master makes sure the team has everything it needs to complete its job.
Every day, the team meets at a daily standup to discuss how the sprint is progressing. This includes discussing anything that’s blocking something from getting done or impediments that are slowing things down. The scrum master carefully notes and works to remove these so the team can complete its increment.
Coach in Self-Management
When needed, the scrum master coaches team members. In essence, this means providing support and identifying how they’re getting in the way of their goals and objectives.
Offer Product Backlog Advice
The scrum master also helps the team understand the significance of keeping the product backlog updated with decomposed items, and works with the project stakeholders on making sure everything in the backlog is relevant to the project’s objectives.
The scrum master attends most ceremonies, including the sprint planning and sprint reviews, but need not always attend the daily standup, unless he or she is also part of the development team.
The Product Owner
The product owner manages and prioritizes everything in the product backlog, which is essentially the to-do list for a given project.
Although this role is simple to explain, it’s really a feat to pull off the duties of a product owner. Determining what tasks should be selected for the upcoming sprint means having a clear understanding of the product goal, and assessing input from all stakeholders, the client, and the development team.
Here are several characteristics and responsibilities of the role:
Know the Customer
The product owner communicates regularly with customers, and is almost like a product manager in this respect. He or she has a solid understanding of customers and what problem they are looking to solve.
At the beginning of a sprint, the product owner white boards everything out, with estimations of how long each item in the sprint backlog should take.
The product owner also looks 2-3 weeks ahead of the development team, and plans the upcoming sprint. The team looks to the product owner for this leadership. A good product owner is astute about mapping out future iterations, and may lose the team’s trust if he or she lays out one plan, then scraps it to lay out another.
This position is for one person only, and in order for the role to be effective, everyone must respect the decisions of the product owner. He or she may delegate work, but still remains accountable for everything in the product backlog. If others want to have a say in the items in the backlog, they discuss it with the product owner.
These central duties apply across the board. The product owner may be a part of the development team, but oftentimes isn’t a developer at all, and so doesn’t have this technical knowledge. In these instances, dealing with things like technical debt may require assistance.
The role of the product owner could easily be its own role; however, the person assigned this role often has a different day job as well.
The Development Team
The development team is at the heart of the scrum framework. It works to create the product goal for each iteration. There are no hierarchies within this team.
An effective development team generally has ten people or fewer. This allows everyone to communicate with each other frequently.
The development team is skilled, highly motivated and ideally has worked together for some time. The Agile Manifesto states: “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”
The principal responsibilities of the development team include:
The team collaborates with the stakeholders, the product manager and the product owner to identify what needs to happen in each sprint, and the team works together to create it.
Decompose User Stories
Together with the product owner, the development team breaks down the stories in the product backlog into tasks that can be completed within one sprint. Using a method called planning poker, the team estimates the complexity of each user story by assigning it points.
Participate in Scrum Ceremonies
The development team engages in all of the scrum ceremonies, including sprint planning, sprint reviews, retrospectives and the daily standup.
Develop the Definition of Done
The team outlines all of the criteria that increment must meet before it is passed onto the end user for review. Generally, this means the product is code complete, it has gone through extensive testing, and it has solid infrastructure.
Adapt and Improve
Agile’s iterative approach to project mapping is it’s great strength. During the reflection period at the end of each sprint, the development team looks at its processes and fine tunes things to ensure more efficiency the next time around. This is how agile teams become strong over time.
These are the central roles of the development team. In the instance that either the product owner or the scrum master are part of the team, they assume the role of developers in the daily scrum.
Success With Scrum
Becoming a high-functioning scrum team is tricky business. It requires fluidity and rigidity at the same time.
Follow the Framework
On the one hand, it’s critical to follow the scrum framework closely, particularly in the beginning stages.
As Sutherland states: “Changing the core design or ideas of Scrum, leaving out elements, or not following the rules of Scrum, covers up problems and limits the benefit of Scrum, potentially even rendering it useless.”
The framework is designed to prevent scenarios where problems get swept under the rug–for example, a team chronically creating defective code, or consistently delivering increment that doesn’t meet the acceptance criteria.
At the same time, a scrum team never has a “best practices” codebook. It’s continually looking for ways to improve. For example, it may realize it needs to develop a more complete definition of done, become more accurate with story point estimates, or identify a process for creating code that results in fewer defects.
As the team adapts and improves, it achieves something that Japanese martial arts call shuhari. This means that as the team identifies better ways to work together, it’s able to transcend some of the rules and work outside of them.
And so an experienced scrum team plays around with the framework. It may adjust the scrum board to better suit its purposes, blur some roles and responsibilities or eliminate or modify some of the ceremonies as it sees fit.
The scrum framework, when followed closely, allows a team to create products in tune with the customer’s needs. Jeff Sutherland even promises that, using his method, the work gets done in less than half the time as waterfall!
The three roles on a scrum team are the scrum master, the product owner and the development team.
The scrum master’s role is about enabling a team and ensuring they follow the scrum framework. The development team is highly autonomous and produces the increment during each sprint. The product owner acts as liaison between all stakeholders and the customer and lays out the priorities for the development team in the product backlog.
A high-functioning scrum team has worked together for some time. It has highly developed mental agility, and is ok with pivoting and changing course from time to time.
Between the other agile methods, including kanban, extreme programing, crystal and lean, scrum is by far the most popular. It also has more structure than the other methodologies.
Although it started with development teams, scrum has spread across all industries over the past decade. The framework varies within different contexts, but the principles and roles remain the same.
How does your team benefit from using agile?