Agile Team Roles: What They Are and What They Do

An agile team is a self-organizing, self-led team that can quickly adapt to change. The team is made up of individuals with a variety of skills who work together to complete user stories within a sprint. While there are various agile roles and responsibilities, the most important thing is that everyone on the team understands agile principles and works together to achieve the goal of delivering business value. However, understanding the various agile team roles and responsibilities is still important to the success of an agile team.

While there are many Agile disciplines, one of the most well-marketed and familiar is Agile SCRUM. There are 3 core roles necessary for any Agile SCRUM team. In this article, I will give a layman’s view of each and some of the key attributes that individuals filling each role would benefit from.

Product Owner

The Product Owner acts as the voice of the customer (much like a Business Analyst in a waterfall project). They work with the customer to develop the product vision, write User Stories, and assist in building the initial Product Backlog (the living list of prioritized User Stories/requirements that forms the core of Agile SCRUM’s agility). The Product Owner is then responsible for maintaining and grooming the backlog, continually reprioritizing and adding/subtracting User Stories, to reflect the evolving value needs of the customer. This backlog grooming often happens in software like Jira.

Additionally, the Product Owner interacts with the team to ensure understanding of the customer vision and defined value. Within the recurring Sprint Planning meeting, they will help to ensure agreement from the customer on what User Stories will be moved to the Sprint Backlog and that the team understands the needs and resultant business value of the work that will be done in the upcoming Sprint.

Key attributes of a Product Owner are a strong understanding of the customer’s business, the ability to build a rapport with a wide range of customers, sufficient technical understanding to communicate equally with the Team, and the ability to easily uncover customer value needs. Like a Business Analyst, the ability to go beyond asking, “what do you want,” to guiding requirements conversations to uncover the customer’s value need is one of the greatest benefits a Product Owner can bring to the team.

Many Product Owners build their knowledge and skills with a Certified Scrum Product Owner® (CSPO)® certification. Through an interactive, 2-day training course offered by Project Management Academy, each student walks away with a new credential and is better positioned to thrive in the role of Product Owner. 

Scrum Master

The SCRUM Master’s focus is facilitating the success of the team in delivering the customer-defined value. Rather than taking a command-and-control approach, the SCRUM Master must be a servant leader. They don’t tell the team what to do but rather assist the team in maintaining focus, consistently following Agile best practices, and facilitating the multitude of meetings the team attends. While they guide the Daily SCRUM, it is not for the SCRUM Master to assign work but rather to work around the room ensuring each team member commits to work and demonstrates accountability to the work they have already committed to.

Additionally, SCRUM Masters work alongside the Product Owner to understand the customer’s evolving value needs. Whereas the Product Owner focuses directly on the customer’s needs, the SCRUM Master focuses more on meeting the Team’s needs. The SCRUM Master also tracks the progress of each Sprint through the use of Scrum Boards and Burndown/Burnup charts or other tracking/reporting tools – many of the features available in Jira software.

A SCRUM Master must be well-versed in Agile practices, develop strong meeting management skills, and use their influence to address challenges the team may encounter. Strong soft skills and the ability to communicate easily with internal and external stakeholders at any level of the organization are beneficial. Coaching/mentoring skills are also highly valuable to a SCRUM Master as is a willingness to put the team ahead of self.

Similarly, many Scrum Masters find it beneficial to seek their Certified ScrumMaster® (CSM)® credential to build their knowledge of the role and enhance their ability to succeed in their role. Through an interactive, 2-day training course offered by Project Management Academy, each student is prepared to pass their CSM® exam at the conclusion of the course (and the cost of the exam is included).

Team Member

Team members do the actual value creation work in an Agile project. All the technical skillsets necessary to develop the solution are incorporated into the team. A combination of deep technical expertise specialists alongside individuals with a larger cross-set of skills is highly desired. First, this allows the team to avoid single points of failure (where only one person knows how to do a necessary task). Second, cross-functional teams can adapt more readily to the rapid development and testing necessary for the multiple finite User Stories that the team must complete within a 2-4 week Sprint.

Since Agile Teams are self-organized and self-led there needs to not only be a strong understanding of Agile practices within the team but also a sense of ownership in the work. An individual’s ability to work well with others and avoid power politics within the team will greatly increase the team’s effectiveness. One of the key differences between a SCRUM team and a Waterfall team is the flattening of the Org Chart within the daily activities of the team. While there are certainly varied levels of experience within the team, each team member is essentially an equal in identifying the work they will take on and in holding themselves and other team members accountable.

Agile Coach

A final role that is not technically part of the team but may temporarily support the other Agile roles is the Agile Coach. The Agile Coach typically comes alongside a less experienced Agile Team (or one that is struggling to adhere to Agile best practices) to elevate the understanding and performance of the team. Not only should the Agile Coach have a very strong understanding of Agile principles, but a wide breadth of Agile experiences would be greatly beneficial so the Agile Coach can quickly identify existing challenges, based on robust past experiences, and then assist the Scrum Master and team in implementing viable solutions. It is important to note that the Agile Coach does not lead the team or supplant the Scrum Master. They do have to be able to pull the Scrum Master aside and professionally, but firmly, guide the Scrum Master in the instance that the Scrum Master begins operating from more of a command-and-control leadership approach rather than the Agile-prescribed servant leadership mindset. Strong confidence in the ability to guide and lift others is necessary to face the egos that sometimes must be dealt with.

Typically, an Agile Coach will engage with individual teams anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Though it may be a full-time position, the role should be a temporary one in its engagement with any individual team. The goal is to help elevate the performance of the core roles and then move on. Periodic check-ins may be desired after the Coach disengages to help alleviate drifting back to old habits. If your organization is interested in Agile Coaching support, reach out to our Project Management Academy team to learn more about how we can help.

The development of agile team roles within an organization is a continuous journey. As agile evolves, so do the team roles and responsibilities. However, regardless of the role, as with any well-run project, everyone should remember that the end goal is to deliver relevant, timely business value as defined by the project’s key stakeholders. This remains a key attribute to every role on an Agile project in alignment with the Paired Values of the Agile Manifesto. It is important to keep in mind the Agile Manifesto principles and values still serve as the foundation for agile teams.

Read our newest blog post to learn how the Kanban method can increase efficiency within Agile Teams. The Kanban method is another approach to agile that can be used in addition to Scrum.

Stephen Hoogerwerf, PMP
Stephen Hoogerwerf, PMP