Editor’s note: This article was updated 11 May, 2023 to update information and re-organize information within the article.
It feels like almost everyone either already works in 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?
- What is the scrum team?
- What are the 3 scrum roles?
- Product owner
- Scrum master
- Scrum roles vs. job titles
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.”
Essentially, 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 has core principles that enable teams and organizations to use and customize to their own organization. It works by scrum teams committing to delivering and executing a set of product features within a brief period called a sprint. Sprints, or iterations, adapt to any necessary changes in the features delivered, based on market demand.
Scrum consists of five building blocks:
- Scrum theory
- Scrum values
- Scrum team
- Scrum events
- Scrum artifacts
In this guide, we’ll dig deeper into the third building block: the scrum team.
What is the scrum team?
The scrum team is the fundamental unit of scrum. In short, it’s a small group of professionals working together toward the product goal — scrum cannot function without the team. To achieve its purpose, the team must be small, cross-functional, and self-managing. Let’s explore these three qualities in more detail.
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.
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.
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?
Collaboration and adaptability are key, and the roles within the scrum team are designed to support these principles. The three distinct scrum roles in the framework are:
- Product owner, who is responsible for maximizing value by ensuring the team works on the most valuable items
- Scrum master, who is responsible for maximizing value by ensuring everyone is following the scrum methodology correctly and that the team is working together efficiency
- Developers, who are responsible for creating value
Let’s dig deeper to see how each of the three scrum roles contributes to the agile product development process.
Also referred to as a value maximizer, a product owner is responsible for ensuring that the scrum team focuses on the most valuable items. This person is accountable for outcomes, not outputs. 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 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. Their primary responsibilities that follow the expectations of the scrum framework are to:
- Define product goals so that the most important backlog items are raised for achieving the objectives
- Set sprint goals to provide scrum teams with an aligned and comprehensible mission to follow
- Maintain the product backlog, ensuring it is refined to optimize the value derived from these tasks
- Lead sprint planning by effectively conveying the team’s expectations and requirements
- Facilitate sprint reviews to involve stakeholders and update them on the progress made
- Host refinement sessions aimed at fostering a mutual understanding among team members
The above points tell us how the product owner keeps the scrum framework alive throughout the process. However, the product owner also has secondary responsibilities that span beyond scrum and speak more to their abilities as a product person. On top of the above responsibilities that are essential to the role, a great product owner is also involved in:
- Product vision, setting medium- to long-term goals, establishing an overall mission, and communicating with the team
- Product strategy, defining boundaries and constraints to enable the team to make decisions efficiently
- Go-to-market strategy to get products to users quickly
- Product discovery to prioritize ideas and figure out what users really want
- Measure results to continuously change and adapt the process as needed
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.
- Stakeholder 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
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. Their main role is to ensure that the scrum framework is being implemented properly.
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.
Scrum masters are hands-on. They lead many of the scrum ceremonies, such as daily scrum meetings, backlog refinement sessions, and sprint retrospectives.
A successful scrum master’s responsibilities are to:
- Remove impediments by eliminating obstacles and challenges to assist the team in working effectively together
- Facilitate scrum events to follow the scrum framework and maximize its benefits for the team
- Provide coaching to support teams in problem-solving and growth by asking timely and relevant questions.
- Educate on scrum and agile to ensure everyone in the organization has a solid understanding
- Exhibit servant leadership by going above and beyond to help the team achieve excellence, even without formal managerial authority
- Manage processes and oversee team processes to ensure effective and efficient workflows
- Promote positive change by working to encourage and implement beneficial change throughout the organization
- Serve as a mentor and share insights to help others grow and develop in their roles
Skills required to be a scrum master
- Facilitation — The scrum master not only helps facilitate most of the scrum events but 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
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 developer on a scrum team
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 developer on a scrum team
- 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.
To the first point, the product manager and product owner roles are mutually important, yet distinctly different. The product manager focuses on building the right product. The product owner focuses on building the product right.
It’s also 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?”
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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
- The scrum master
- The developers
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.
Featured image source: IconScout
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