What are scrum roles?
Product owner, scrum master, and the development team. These are the three roles prescribed by scrum — a popular agile framework that helps product development teams deliver products to market through a set of defined roles, artifacts, and events. Together these roles make up the scrum team — who share responsibility for managing and delivering work within sprints.
Every scrum team is a little different, but teams share a common goal: to deliver high-quality increments of software and more value to customers. Think of the scrum team like a group of characters on an important mission. It takes unique skills and contributions from each to successfully carry out the assignment.
This guide will help you understand the responsibilities of each scrum role, what to consider when establishing a scrum team, and how to scale your team. Even if you do not follow scrum, you can find helpful tidbits here on how to manage a lean team and embrace collective ownership.
An overview of scrum roles and responsibilities
Scrum teams are self-managing and non-hierarchical. Individuals must independently commit to the scrum framework — successful implementation relies on it. So it is crucial for everyone to understand the parameters of their role and accept the responsibilities.
In general, scrum teams are made up of five to nine people — one product owner, one scrum master, and a handful of developers. But note that scrum roles are not always job titles. For example, the role of scrum master is often a full-time position, but the role of product owner can be taken on by an existing member of the scrum team (like a product manager or developer). Deciding who fills each scrum role depends on factors like the size of the organization and team capacity.
Before leaping into the definitions of each role, let's clarify a few central scrum concepts that drive the work of a scrum team:
Increment: A scrum artifact that defines the usable functionality that will be delivered to customers. Increments are typically the end-goal of a sprint.
Product backlog: A collection of features and ideas that are designated as valuable to implement but have yet to be worked on.
Scrum ceremonies: A set of events (or meetings) that are time-boxed and recurring. Scrum ceremonies help teams plan, track, and evaluate sprints.
Sprint: A fixed-length period of work that lasts two to four weeks. In a sprint, scrum teams work to complete all items defined in the sprint backlog and deliver an increment.
Sprint backlog: The list of work items (in the form of user stories) to be completed in a sprint.
With these things in mind, here are brief descriptions and a list of common responsibilities for the three scrum roles:
The product owner is the champion of the product vision. They help determine what the development team will work on next and oversee implementation — while being an advocate for business and customer needs.
It is important to emphasize that product owners and product managers are not the same. Product managers do play a role in scrum but are not one of the roles explicitly defined within the framework.
As the most well-known scrum role, scrum masters help keep the team accountable to their commitments. Their main objective is to eliminate any bottlenecks and obstacles to productivity.
Scrum masters are leaders but not enforcers — think coach, mentor, or advisor.
After collaborating with the product owner and scrum master to plan the sprint, the development team completes the defined work items.
In addition to developers, a scrum development team will often include software architects, designers, testers, and any other roles required to complete the work.
What makes a good scrum team?
To implement an agile framework like scrum, you need a solid crew. Assembling a skillful scrum team starts with filling each role — but it is the collective qualities of the group that determine success.
So what makes a good scrum team? The list below will give you an idea. While these qualities can apply to any great software development team, they are particularly pertinent for scrum teams that are expected to be self-governing.
Adaptable: Flexibility is essential for successful scrum teams. Given all of the fixed rules, this sounds paradoxical — but in scrum, work is completed incrementally to ensure rapid response to change. Good scrum teams are open to making adjustments when new information is presented.
Collaborative: Even though scrum teams are expected to be self-sufficient, sometimes there will be sprint items with dependencies that require work from other teams. Scrum teams need to be proactive about cross-functional collaboration to ensure dependencies are resolved on time.
Communicative: Planning and executing on a sprint take a lot of coordination — scrum teams must communicate clearly and often with each other and with stakeholders to make progress as planned.
Continuously improving: Scrum provides a framework to continuously iterate on processes and increase efficiency. Good scrum teams will embrace events like sprint retrospectives as regular opportunities to improve.
Cross-functional: The members of the scrum team should represent all of the necessary skills to plan and complete the work (excluding dependencies that are outside the scope of agile development).
Customer-centric: The collective aim of scrum is to deliver functionality to customers at regular intervals. Customer needs and feedback should always be at the center of scrum team conversations.
Predictable: Good scrum teams are consistent — they try to establish and stick to a predictable velocity for delivering work.
Reliable: Scrum teams take full ownership of the sprint — once agreed upon, they commit to completing all of the designated work for the time period. This collective commitment establishes trust within the team and with stakeholders while ensuring progress.
Transparent: Because scrum teams are self-organizing, honesty and openness are vital. All team members and stakeholders should have a clear picture of how work is being managed.
How do you scale a scrum team?
Forming a good scrum team is commendable and a great place to start when implementing scrum. But what happens when your organization's needs exceed the capacity of a single scrum team?
There are a number of scenarios where it will make sense to scale your scrum team. Depending on the level of expansion, this could mean anything from building additional scrum teams to consulting an established scaling framework. The decision on how exactly to scale will come down to your company's goals, culture, and resources — but there are a few common paths forward.
Here are a few examples of challenges or inflection points where it may make sense to grow your scrum team, including considerations for how to scale.
Your product backlog is filling up too fast
If the main problem you are facing is a workload imbalance, your first inclination might be to continue adding more developers — but this can become inefficient. It is important to keep balance between the three main scrum roles as the team grows.
To increase capacity, consider forming additional scrum teams — each with their own product owner, scrum master, and development team (though sometimes one product owner will work with multiple scrum teams). Note that multiple scrum teams often work together from a unified product backlog.
Your organization is expanding its product portfolio
This scenario may also call for additional scrum teams dedicated to new products. This is especially true when it comes to the role of product owner — it is often a good idea to have product owners focused on singular products.
As you expand to new products and more scrum teams, many scrum practices will generally stay the same. The exceptions are certain new processes and events like a "Scrum of Scrums" meeting — a ceremony designed to coordinate the work of multiple scrum teams on the same project.
You are planning an enterprise-wide scrum adoption
Enterprise-level scrum expansion can be daunting — which is why many organizations turn to established frameworks for scaling agile and lean principles.
One of the most popular is the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®), which is used by dozens of Fortune 500 companies. SAFe® and other frameworks provide a tested and comprehensive approach for scaling scrum practices in complex enterprise environments.
Whether you are starting out, improving, or scaling — your scrum team will be the torchbearers of your scrum framework. And when scrum roles and responsibilities are clearly understood, you can count on your scrum team to efficiently deliver products that will delight your customers.
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