What are the 3 scrum roles in agile product development?

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Web Development

It feels like almost everyone either already works in a scrum or aspires to work in scrum. It’s not surprising: the framework may already be 30 years old, but it’s still one of the most effective approaches to solving complex problems we have.

The central part of scrum is the scrum team and its corresponding scrum roles: product owner, scrum master, and developer. Without properly implemented scrum roles, the whole framework would fall apart.

Let’s dig deeper to understand the specific roles, their responsibilities, and how they work with the other roles and stakeholders involved in the scrum process.


Table of contents


What is scrum?

Let’s start with a primer on scrum itself.

In plain English, scrum is a framework that helps teams deliver value.

According to The Scrum Guide, scrum is “a lightweight framework that helps people, teams, and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems.”

Let’s break down the definition of scrum.

‘…a lightweight framework…’

Scrum provides a basic structure and nothing more. It doesn’t tell us exactly how to solve problems, nor does it offer a step-by-step process. Rather, it’s a fundament that provides core principles and enables teams and organizations to build on top of it.

Scrum’s lightweight nature allows it to work effectively in diverse contexts.

‘…helps people, teams, and organizations generate value…’

The main objective of scrum is to maximize the value created by teams and organizations. Everything that exists in the framework is there for this very reason.

‘…through adaptive solutions for complex problems…’

Complex problems are those with a high level of uncertainty. Solutions for complex problems can’t be planned upfront — they’re discovered over time as the team works to solve the problem.

Scrum helps us navigate this complexity in a structured manner.

Scrum Process Complexity Spectrum
Source: scrum-tips.com

Scrum consist of five building blocks:

  1. Scrum theory
  2. Scrum values
  3. Scrum team
  4. Scrum events
  5. Scrum artefacts

In this guide, we’ll dig deeper into the third building block: the scrum team.

The scrum team

A scrum team is the fundamental unit of scrum. In short, it’s a small group of professionals working together toward the product goal.

To achieve its purpose, the team must be small, cross-functional, and self-managing. Let’s explore these three qualities in more detail.

Small

While it’s no longer a hard rule, the recommended team size is 10 people or fewer. The scrum team should be small enough to collaborate effectively. With bigger groups, it’s harder to align everyone and the communication overhead can dramatically reduce the team’s ability to deliver value.

If the problem is too big to be solved by a small team, consider creating multiple smaller groups working toward the same goal rather than building one big team. A supplementary framework, such as LeSS or Nexus, might help us achieve that.

Cross-functional

The scrum team must be able to achieve the sprint goal with minimal external dependencies.

Ideally, the team should have all skills necessary to deliver the end product. It includes design, development, testing, integration, and any additional polishments. While using external help occasionally is okay, it shouldn’t be a standard procedure.

Self-managing

The team is not managed by any external authority; it should be self-organizing. The scrum team is best suited to decide how to achieve the product goal and should have the full authority to plan its work and priorities.

What are the 3 scrum roles?

There are three distinct scrum roles in the framework:

  1. Product owner — responsible for maximizing value by ensuring the team works on the most valuable items
  2. Scrum master — responsible for maximizing value by ensuring scrum adoption and team efficiency
  3. Developers — responsible for creating value

Let’s dig deeper to see how each of the three scrum roles contributes to the agile product development process.

Product owner

Also referred to as a value maximizer, a product owner is responsible for ensuring that the scrum team focuses on the most valuable items. After all, there’s no bigger waste than working on the wrong thing.

The product owner achieves that by maintaining and communicating a clear vision for the product and owning a product backlog.

The product vision is what enables the team to self-manage efficiently. Without a clear direction, the team wouldn’t have any meaningful boundaries, and self-organization would descend into anarchy.

The product backlog is an ordered list of items that tells the team what to work on next. A properly groomed backlog is like a roadmap to the product goal.

How a product owner achieves these outcomes varies from organization to organization. For example, a product owner at a smaller company might be responsible for user research, market validation, and business planning on their own. In bigger corporations, they often serve as facilitators and work closely with business stakeholders to elicit and clarify the product requirements and vision.

Responsibilities of a product owner

Regardless of the setting, one thing remains constant: a product owner is the sole person accountable for the product backlog and thus the product direction. They might be influenced by external stakeholders and will likely delegate some responsibilities to other scrum team members, but the product owner has the final say.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important responsibilities of the product owner.

The product owner must be a:

  • Visionary — focusing on the future by formulating and communicating the product strategy
  • Collaborator — working closely with both stakeholders and scrum teams to ensure alignment
  • Customer representative — understanding their users’ needs and pain points and using that knowledge to guide the scrum team’s decisions
  • Decision maker — leveraging their expertise and authority to determine priorities and make crucial product decisions
  • Experimenter — helping the team devise experiments in pursuit of better ways to achieve the product goal; after all, everything is a hypothesis
  • Influencer — helping everyone not only understand the vision, but also feel and fall in love with that vision (i.e., product enablement)
Product Owner Roles
Source: QAgile

Skills required to be a product owner

  • Business acumen — To manage the backlog properly, a product owner must understand how the business works, including revenue sources, market dynamics, etc.
  • Stakeholders management — Especially in corporate settings, product owners must manage the expectations of multiple stakeholders
  • Storytelling — A product owner is a visionary for the product. How they present and tell that vision will impact the team’s drive and the level of resources the product can get

Scrum master

While a product owner maximizes value by ensuring the scrum team focuses on the most valuable items, a scrum master does so by ensuring the team’s effectiveness.

Scrum masters are so-called servant leaders; they radiate leadership by serving the product owner, the developers, and the organization.

Responsibilities of a scrum master

The scrum master’s primary responsibility is to coach everyone involved in product development on scrums adoption. In the end, scrum is one of those things that is easy to understand yet difficult to master. While most people can easily understand the basics of scrum, the scrum master ensures the team truly masters the framework.

It’s not only about having particular events and artifacts in place. The scrum master ensures that the team adopts empiricism by focusing on transparency, inspection, and adaptation. They also help people truly understand and live scrum values.

A successful scrum master is one who serves the team and wider organization as a:

  • Impediment remover — helping the team work effectively by removing obstacles
  • Facilitator — planning and running scrum events to ensure the team gets the most out of them
  • Coach — helping teams resolve problems and raise them to new levels by asking the right questions at the right time
  • Teacher — ensuring everyone in the organization understands scrum and agile theory
  • Servant leader — doing whatever it takes to help the team achieve greatness despite the scrum master’s lack of formal managerial authority
  • Manager — managing not people, but process to ensure that the team’s activities are effective
  • Change agent — working relentlessly to promote a positive change across the whole organization
  • Mentor — sharing their depth of personal experience with others
Scrum Master Roles
Barry Overeem

Skills required to be a scrum master

  • Facilitation — The scrum master not only helps facilitate most of the scrum events, they also facilitate the entire scrum process. They must be skilled in establishing the right structures and getting the most out of collaboration
  • Conflict resolution — Conflicts could help the team reach new levels or cause serious damage, depending on how well they are handled. As a servant leader, the scrum master should protect the team from self-destruction and guide it on a proper path toward success
  • Agile theory — The scrum master is supposed to help the team adopt scrum values and embrace an agile mindset. It should go without saying they should have in-depth knowledge of the Agile Manifesto

Developers

The name of this scrum role might be misleading. Many associate “developer” with a strictly technical programmer job — for example, Node.js developer. In scrum, a developer is any role that helps to develop the increment. Simply writing code is rarely enough to deliver a fully working product.

The developer role in scrum includes UX researchers, UI designers, QA experts, DevOps engineers, copywriters, etc.

For example, let’s say we’re building an informational product for the fintech industry. If our legal and finance specialists contribute product content to every iteration, they are also developers.

Responsibilities of a scrum developer

Developers are responsible for delivering a valuable increment each sprint. Let’s take a more detailed look at what scrum developers are accountable for:

  • Delivering increment iteratively building an increment; this is the primary role of developers in scrum
  • Achieving sprint goals — self-managing, cooperating with the product owner, and renegotiating the scope as needed in pursuit of the sprint goal
  • Ensuring quality adhering to the definition of done to ensure that the product quality meets standards laid out in the product vision
  • Work toward product goal — not only focusing on increment, but also helping the product owner refine requirements, talking to users, gathering information, etc.

Skills required to be a scrum developer

  • Technical expertise — Developers must have the skills required to build an increment
  • Collaboration skills — Scrum requires intensive collaboration among true team players to be effective
  • T-shape — For the team to be truly cross-functional, developers should be able to contribute in various areas, not only their area of expertise
  • Product focus — Scrum is a framework for building products that requires big-picture thinking and willingness to talk to a customer, help with analysis, etc. It’s not a place for people who prefer to focus solely on coding

Scrum roles vs. job titles

Scrum roles tend to bring about a lot of confusion. Questions like, “What’s the difference between product owner and product manager?” and, “Is there a place for a project manager in scrum?” come up every day.

It’s important to understand that scrum roles are not the same thing as job titles.

Your job title labels you as a specialist and can vary widely depending on the organization. Scrum roles describe how you contribute to the scrum team.

In other words, a scrum role is more of a hat you wear than an official job title.

For example, let’s say you’re a project manager with two teams assigned to you. Team A uses Kanban while team B uses scrum. In an organizational context, you are still a project manager, but with team A, you wear the hat of a service delivery manager. Meanwhile, with team B, you wear a scrum master hat. Each hat comes with a completely different set of responsibilities to its respective teams.

You also don’t have to be a product manager to be a product owner, just as you don’t have to be a programmer to be a developer. If you’re building a marketing product and the head of marketing is the most suitable person to prioritize the backlog and establish the product vision, then they are most suited to wear the product owner hat.

In short, your job title answers the question, “Who are you in this company?” while your scrum role answers the question, “What is your responsibility to the scrum team?”

Key takeaways

Scrum is a lightweight framework that maximizes value creation in complex environments. The five elements of scrum are theory, values, team, events, and artifacts.

The scrum team is a critical part of the framework. It’s a small, cross-functional, small-managed group of people.

There are three distinct scrum roles:

  • The product owner maximizes value by ensuring the team focuses on the right things. They achieve that by setting and communicating the product vision and prioritizing the product backlog
  • The scrum master maximizes value by ensuring the team truly adopts the framework, including its theory and values. They also help the team improve their internal processes
  • Developers are the ones building the product and directly creating the value. They might be UX designers, programmers, copywriters, quality engineers, and many other roles — whatever competencies are needed to achieve the product goal

It’s critical to remember that scrum roles describe an individual’s relationship and responsibility to the scrum team; this is separate from job titles and career tracks.

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