Agile and Scrum are nowadays an upcoming trend in the business and IT world. Many firms opt for Scrum to manage their projects successfully. But are they aware of the separate key roles within the Scrum framework? Will those roles automatically contribute to successful projects? How important is the interaction in Scrum? This article describes the different Scrum roles, the interaction between those roles, and the possible problems and solutions.
The Scrum team
Scrum is a framework within the Agile methodology to address complex goals and to deliver products (or increments) with the highest possible value. The framework is usually used in the software development process but it could also be applied to all kinds of teamwork. Scrum recommends three roles that contribute to the success of the project; product owner, Scrum master and the development team. Each role has its own defined functions and responsibilities, and only by working together and interacting closely, they can finish the project successfully. The Scrum team as a whole is responsible for the delivery of the product.
The product owner is the role focusing on understanding the client’s requirements. He has a long-term vision, represents the final client best interest, and has answers to the what and the why questions. By managing and prioritizing the items in the product backlog, he has the authority to decide which features will be in the final product (maximizing the product value). He is solely accountable for the product backlog, and he ensures that the product backlog is visible, transparent and clear to all, so the development team can plan what to take in the coming sprints. In other words, he forms the bridge between the business and the development team.
The development team consists of professionals, such as developers, functional analysts, designers and testers who develop and deliver the increment of the product. The team is usually a small stable cross-functional group of professionals that has the required skill sets to deliver the product. As the team has a self-organizing aspect, the team manages their own work, without depending on instructions from others. They review how to accomplish their work, and select the items from the product backlog which are achievable to deliver in the next sprint, and therefore add value to the final product.
The Scrum master is the role facilitating the teamwork and guiding the development team through the project process. He acts as a servant-leader for the team, removes any impediments, coaches and helps the team to progress. He supports the product owner to define the value, and aids the development team to deliver that value. The Scrum master further promotes the Scrum framework and assists everyone to understand the rules, the values and the practices in Scrum. Eventually, the Scrum master guards the team from external (urgent) requests and disruptions.
Interaction between Scrum roles
As there are different roles within the Scrum team, each with their own responsibilities, it is crucial for the team members to interact with each other in order to reach the project goal. There are many examples where communication occurs frequently in the Scrum environment:
- The Scrum master works closely with the product owner to have the product backlog clear and visible for the next sprints
- The Scrum master facilitates the daily Scrum meetings and the sprint planning with the development team
- The Scrum master ensures that there is sufficient and good communication between the product owner and the development team
- The Scrum master brings insight to the product owner, following an unsuccessful sprint, helping to make the next sprint more in line with reality
- When the product owner shares information on a regular basis, then the development team can react accordingly and implement it faster. The sooner the feedback, the easier and cheaper to implement.
Though, the roles of the product owner and the Scrum master overlap in some areas, but in the end, both have the ultimate goal to deliver the final product. They are working as partners in order to get the best possible result from the team, and should collaborate closely in the following fields:
- Both can enhance the communication. The Scrum master works daily with the development team. Therefore, the product owner can share the required communication and the product vision to the team via the product backlog. Conversely, any feedback from the development team could be directed via the product owner to the upper management and other teams outside the Scrum team.
- Both can improve the team morale. By working together throughout the project, the product owner and the Scrum master can keep the morale and the productivity at the highest level, by keeping the communication channels open. Any progresses and/or obstacles can be communicated within the Scrum team and a faster response can occur.
- Both can promote the product vision. Although it is the responsibility of the product owner to communicate the strategic vision of the product, it is the job of the Scrum master to bring the team on board and make that vision a reality. The Scrum master must ensure that everyone on the team understands the vision and the product. That’s why, it is relevant for both the product owner and the Scrum master to be fully engaged in the vision and be able to communicate it clearly.
Beside interaction within the Scrum team, there is certainly interaction outside the Scrum team as well. External stakeholders should not interact with the Scrum team directly. Instead, the product owner is the liaison between the Scrum team and the upper management and/or other departments that have an interest in the project’s success. The product owner should communicate and collect all the requirements, which on his turn communicates them to the Scrum team via the product backlog.
In essence, the Scrum framework helps teams to work together. Within the Scrum team, interaction is an indispensable key to success. The team members continuously collaborate and therefore interact with each other, to reach the goal as one team.
Communication problems and solutions
Scrum is a team sport, and effective communication is an essential key to success. Poor or lack of communication will probably cause both the Scrum team and the project to fail. It is up to the Scrum master to notice when the communication is failing. The following characteristics are symptoms of poor communication: monologue instead of dialogue, no respect for other’s opinion, vague or no direct answers to questions, no feedback or ideas during meetings, no updates, and so on. As result, this would probably lead to conflicts, trust issues, lack of understanding, lower product quality and/or reduction in team efforts and efficiency.
Poor and lack of communication will not lead to successful projects, and that is definitely not what the management wants. Certainly, there are ways for the Scrum master to improve the poor interaction within the team:
1. Transparency should be improved. Lack of transparency of information deters active communication, while enhanced transparency helps the team to establish the context for interaction, and enables the quick decision-making process. Thus, team members should be encouraged to practice and promote transparency.
2. Interaction should be facilitated. The Scrum master should observe what is limiting the interaction, and should construct meetings and environment for easy face-to-face interaction among the team members.
3. Clarity in the communication should be encouraged, because it correlates directly to the success of the Scrum team. The Scrum master ensures that the team members understand the basic rules of Scrum, their roles and their responsibilities. Having a clear understanding of the requirements, the dates and the backlog items contribute positively to the team’s result. It will also lead to a decrease in passive communication and deterrents.
4. Trust should be created, as lack of trust among team members will directly impact the communication and openness. The Scrum master must create an environment where team members feel safe to share their ideas and ask questions without being judged. However, the Scrum master cannot do this alone and it requires efforts from every team member. The Scrum master can coach them to be responsible and truthful, even though it is a slow process.
5. Visual communication helps the understanding process. A lot of miscommunication happens when the message has not been transmitted correctly. Sometimes the speaker does not express his thoughts properly, and the listener may end up interpreting the message differently. This miscommunication could be bridged, by visualizing the communication using whiteboards, flip charts or other visual aids. These tools help visualizing the ideas and context, allow dialogue among the team members, and therefore move the team away from passive communication into valuable rich communication.
Notwithstanding, a good Scrum master understands that conflicts are not always wrong and should not always be avoided. Healthy conflicts and constructive disagreements can be used to build a stronger team. Hence, the Scrum master should be capable to read and respond to sudden situations. Obviously, not all projects that use Scrum would lead to 100% success rate. There are various reasons for failing, such as friction between the product owner and the Scrum master (due to overlapping areas), the Scrum master is not capable to guide the Scrum team, or the development team does not understand the vision or the final product.
For clients that are new to the Agile and Scrum framework, this could create confusion and possible friction among the employees, as each role might not be clearly defined. That’s why, it is relevant to be clear and transparent from the very beginning. In addition, it is also not easy to immediately accept the change in the working environment, thus change management also plays a role in this process.
In the Scrum framework, three roles are recommended for a successful project; product owner, Scrum master and the development team. Each of them has his own role and responsibilities, but nevertheless, those roles work together and interact closely with each other, in order to deliver the product. Hence, interaction among the team members is crucial, as poor communication would probably lead to the failure of the product. Surely, there are ways to improve the communication obstacles.
Clients that adopt the Scrum framework should be aware that Scrum does not guarantee successful results. Roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined and communicated to the team members, as transparency is a key aspect of Scrum. Only by interacting closely, impediments could be removed and increments could be further finetuned, so the team’s efforts would lead to successful deliverables.
About the author
Andrew Tang, CFA has 10 years of experience in the financial industry, from Asset Management to Securities Services, both in Brussels and in Hong Kong. During his career, he has developed an extensive knowledge of various financial products and markets. Currently, he is gaining knowledge in the insurance sector to expand his scope of expertise. Andrew joined Initio in 2018 as senior consultant.