Agile as a Team Sport: Scrum Master and Product Owners Are Critical to Success

Published July 15, 2018

There’s no question that Agile development methodology is dominating the software and technology world. In a recent survey of 1,300 companies published in Harvard Business Review, 8 of 10 said they are committed to embracing Agile within software development. Search LinkedIn Jobs and you’ll find over 116,000 results associated with the keyword “Agile.” Of course, Agile is not just for IT groups anymore. Leaders across the corporate landscape – from HR and finance to marketing and sales – are using it in unique ways to get closer to customers and make their teams more productive and nimble.

However, don’t confuse Agile’s popularity with simplicity or ease of adoption. To implement Agile successfully you’ll need the right people, processes and tools. Stakeholder education and organizational awareness campaigns are important, too.

The fact is, Agile is much more about people than many organizations realize. In reality, winning with Agile requires the infusion of specific skill sets and even a transformation of how project teams are structured. Agile is very much a team sport, with delivery hinging on the skill and direction of a few key roles, including product owner and scrum master.

There are other roles on Agile or scrum teams, including designers, developers and testers. All of these are important, but ensuring you have strong players in the product owner and scrum master roles is a key determinant of success, in our experience.

What Product Owners Do

Product owners set the vision of what the product should be, they define what work is going to be tackled and direct prioritization of tasks. At the onset of the project, the product owner creates a prioritized feature list called the product backlog. The team determines from the backlog what they believe can be accomplished within “sprints” lasting two to four weeks and then maps the way forward.

What Scrum Masters Do

Scrum masters control the scrum process and empower the team to adhere to the Agile framework in the most effective way. Each day during the sprint, the scrum master is responsible for keeping the team focused on its goals, as well as helping to resolve issues and remove obstacles.

Finding the Right People for the Right Role

For product owners, the most important traits are business knowledge, passion, servant leadership, organization and strategic thinking. Understanding the product and its features are critical to defining a vision to which everyone aligns. Passion is needed to inspire and drive the team forward, while organization is key for ensuring roadmaps are clearly defined and well understood.

Strategic thinking is important, too, as product owners must understand how the business works, recognize how their work fits in to the overall business landscape, and ensure goals are consistent with broader organizational objectives.

So what makes a good scrum master? In a word, flexibility. Scrum masters must be able to adapt to what works best for their current situation. Their overall goal is to maximize the amount of work that can be done and, since no two teams are the same, implement Agile practices that work best for their team.

Based on this understanding, scrum masters serve in temporary roles. Their job is to enable teams to become self-organizing. The most effective scrum masters make themselves obsolete and available to move onto new challenges. This doesn’t mean the role itself is obsolete; only that it provides an opportunity for new scrum masters to grow in a well-organized environment and learn from best practices.

Agile professionals are expected and encouraged to make horizontal moves throughout their careers. Many organizations allow scrum masters to rise in rank or level within the role (e.g., moving from junior scrum master to senior scrum master over time). Senior scrum masters may be tapped to serve as Agile coaches or as mentors to new scrum masters. They may also become product owners or even leaders of enterprise-wide Agile transformation initiatives.

Given the rise in Agile’s popularity, it’s no wonder that both product owners and scrum masters are in high demand (and increasingly well compensated). CNN Money listed product owner as the 59th best career for 2017, citing dramatic growth, great pay and satisfying work as the reason for its high ranking. Glassdoor estimates that scrum masters have an average annual pay of more than $100,000, while product owners earn more than $95,000 per year. Hiring for these roles is a critical commitment. That’s why many companies turn to consultancies to initially procure these critical skills, as well as coaching and guidance to train existing resources.

At Infinitive, we have helped many of our clients embrace Agile. That may include providing skilled and experienced resources to serve in key roles or training the organizations on how to “work and think Agile,” structure Agile program management capabilities or implement the methodology for specific projects.

Agile isn’t going anywhere. More companies are likely to embrace it or expand their use of it. Those that focus first on having the right people and skills and then on building a supporting infrastructure will be more likely to harness the power of Agile for their unique objectives and culture.