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Agile Project Management Roles

Although there is no formal project manager position in agile projects, under a scrum model, project management responsibilities are fulfilled through the following roles.

Product owner: The product owner has ownership of the why, the what and the when of a product.

  • Why: The product owner develops strategy and long-term direction for the product, setting both long- and short-term goals. Through the product owner, the entire scrum team, especially the developers, understands why they’re building what they’re building.
  • What: Through direct collaboration with stakeholders and customers the product owner establishes the product vision and roadmap and communicates its value throughout the organization. The product owner is responsible for gathering, managing and prioritizing product requirements through the product backlog.
  • When: The product owner also determines priority of the product backlog (in what order requirements will be started according to sprint goals), as well as when completed functionality will be released to the customer. The product owner decides when requirements get started, but does not dictate when they’ll be finished.

The key characteristics of an effective product owner are decisiveness and accessibility to the development team. The product owner’s responsibilities should be seen as their primary responsibilities, not just additional duties. An empowered product owner shields the development team from business noise to ensure the development team works effectively towards sprint and release goals at all times, by managing stakeholder requests and making difficult business decisions every day.

Development team: The development team’s responsibility is the how and the how much.

  • How: The product owner identifies ways to deliver value to the customer through requirements that support the product vision and presents them to the development team. The development team determines technically how to implement them, in collaboration with the product owner.
  • How much: Scrum teams ensure the people doing the work are the only ones estimating the work. Accountability for quality of the product is placed directly on the development team. They provide the product owner with data (estimations), and the product owner determines the release schedule based on that data. Development teams are self-organizing, so the entire development team participates in estimating the level of effort of the work to be done. Under a scrum model, a “tech lead” would not do the estimating for the team.

Development teams are also cross-functional, which means they consist of versatile (i.e. multi-skilled) developers—no less than three (to prevent single points of failure) and no more than nine (to minimize communication complexities). Ideally, each developer has more than one skill to contribute to elaborate, design, develop, test, integrate and document requirements to completion within the sprint, which ensures zero single points of failure to cause bottlenecks.

Scrum master: The scrum master ensures the rules of scrum are followed, facilitates interactions, shields the scrum team from interference and removes organizational drag.

  • Scrum masters are part coach and part referee. They ensure all scrum team members, as well as those who interact with the scrum team understand and play by the rules of scrum.

  • Scrum masters facilitate healthy interactions among team members as well as between scrum team members and others in the organization. They also facilitate each of the scrum events to ensure they stay within timeboxes and achieve desired outcomes.

  • Scrum masters shield and protect the scrum team from distractions so they efficiently work towards the sprint goal each day of the sprint.

  • Similar to how aeronautical engineers remove drag on an aircraft, scrum masters remove organizational drag at the team level, proactively removing and avoiding impediments preventing scrum teams from having the optimal environment for effectiveness and efficiency.

Since a development team is between three and nine people, one scrum master improves the performance of up to nine people. Likewise, the impact of a minor improvement in performance is also up to 9x.

Together, the product owner, development team and scrum master make up the scrum team. Each role is a peer to the other scrum team members. Ideally, the product owner comes from the business side of the organization, rather than the technical side. By having business and technical people working together daily, scrum effectively aligns business and technical priorities at both strategic and tactical levels.

Scrum teams are part of the broader project team, which is the scrum team plus stakeholders.

Stakeholders: Stakeholders are anyone with an interest in the project or who can impact the project. Stakeholders are not ultimately accountable for the scrum team’s output, but they provide feedback throughout the project and are affected by the project's outcome. The group of internal stakeholders is diverse and can include people from different departments (e.g. legal, sales, marketing, HR, finance, etc.). External stakeholders include customers, vendors or even different companies.

Explicitly acknowledging other non-scrum roles contributes significantly to the success of agile projects. These important roles include:

Agile coach or mentor: Agile coaches and mentors have experience implementing agile frameworks and methods they can share with the scrum team. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. So, starting correctly ensures a successful transition to a new way of doing things. This role is also important because high performing teams, just like sports teams, require coaching even at the highest levels. Agile coaches and mentors provide valuable in-the-moment corrections and advice, both to new scrum teams as well as to maturing teams, to help each perform at a higher level.

Functional managers: There is still a need for assembling teams, hiring and developing talent, providing continuous skill improvement opportunities and removing organizational impediments for scrum teams. Instead of managing how scrum teams do their work, agile leadership involves stepping back from the details to empower and enable teams to effectively collaborate and solve the tactical problems as self-organizing teams do best. Scrum masters remove drag within scrum teams. Functional managers remove drag at the organizational level.