In this article, we explore the different components of Agile teams and the characteristics of people who sit within them. We will also explore the different roles and responsibilities and explain how each member contributes to running successful Agile projects.

The first point is that the people involved are incredibly important – probably the most important factor- for making the Agile project a success. (Arguably, the people involved are the most important factor for success in any project regarding its lifecycle, but they are even more important in the Agile project).

What is an Agile team in project management?

An Agile work team is a group of individuals who work together in an Agile environment to deliver a project. Unlike traditional project teams, Agile teams are characterised by scalability, flexibility, and methodological iterability. Agile teams often have cross-functional members with different skill sets, including developers, designers, testers, and other stakeholders. These teams work closely together in iterative cycles, often referred to as sprints for short, to deliver increased value to stakeholders in the project. Agile team processes emphasise self-organisation, collaboration, and responsiveness to change, enabling them to deliver superior products or solutions effectively and efficiently.

What are the characteristics of Agile team members?

1) Dedicated

Eh, excuse me? Indeed, all teams have people who are dedicated to the team/the business/the cause/the goals/ the task … what are you talking about?! The word dedicated can be a bit confusing. It doesn’t refer to the person’s motivation or emotional connection to the work. It takes about their availability to the project.

For the Agile team to be agile and move forward at pace, it cannot be held back by a lack of suitable resources or having to restrict work to certain days or hours (if we need to do that, we need to schedule that work in advance, and in that case, we might be better off using a linear lifecycle). Resources must be dedicated to the team in the sense that they must be available to the team at all (working) times.

In practice, this means the same individuals (and only those individuals) work on the project full-time for the entire project life. This is important for a few reasons:

  1. If you do not have certainty on who you have available and when, you will need to create detailed schedules in advance – this will restrict your ability to use Agile
  2. A benefit of using Agile methods is the ability to change, learn and improve. This includes improving the output and improving how the team works together. A dedicated team will jel together and learn to improve their ways of working and skills from one sprint to the next. If you do not have a dedicated team, you reduce the ability to learn (remember: people know, not machines or businesses or documents)
  3. In Agile, the way we think of project constraints (the triangle of constraints of Scope, Cost, and Time) is turned on its head. Rather than being scope-led (or constrained) as you would be in a linear project, you will be constrained by Time and Cost, and your scope will be flexible.

It is complicated to fix costs if you have variable resources.

Forming dedicated teams is challenging for many organisations and will restrict what parts of the business can do Agile projects, what people can be involved and what type of projects can be done Agile. This is essential knowledge because if you attempt to run an Agile project without a dedicated team, you will fail and be better off using a linear lifecycle.

2) Empowered

Again… what are you on about? Every company worth its salt these days will say its people are empowered—it’s likely mentioned somewhere in your corporate values!

Well… bad news… the kind of (shallow) empowerment most organisations give their employees is not enough for an Agile project to work.

Think about it: how will a team be able to move forward at a pace if they constantly have to ask for approval or advice from someone else? They will be in a constant state of waiting for permission to take action—not Agile!

In practice, empowered means that the team does not have to rely on anyone external, which includes executives, other business areas or managers, etc. The team will have the authority to make decisions and take action and also have the knowledge and skills to recognise what is the right thing to do (see below under Cross Skilled)

This is also challenging for many organisations because different layers of decision-making and power are built into the fibre of how the organisation works. This might upset the organisation’s ways of working and its culture and ruffle a few feathers.

If you think your organisation, team structure, subject matter, or project do not allow the team to be truly empowered, then Agile might not be the right approach.

3) Self organising

Following on from being empowered, the team also has to be self-organising. That means they take shared ownership of structuring how they work, what tools they use, who does what task, etc.

This requires knowledge skills, dedication (there is again) and empowerment (these are all connected).

It also requires a specific type of person. If your team consists of a bunch of people who are used to, and prefer to, be told what and how to do their job, the team will not be able to work in an Agile manner because every single person has to be able to step up and take equal place and responsibility. At the same time, a team of people who will only go their way without concern for others will also not work because that will not create a cohesive team where everyone is equal.

In practice, you need the correct type of people and the right culture.

4) Cross skilled

I outlined above why you need a dedicated team. For the dedicated team to work, the team members must be empowered and self-organised. And they also have to possess the right skills. The right skills, in this case, are whatever skills will be required to deliver the project, and it might include subject matter or technical skills, communication skills, procurement or legal skills, etc. The point is that the team can only be genuinely Agile if they can move forward at pace without being dependent on anyone else.

This doesn’t mean we expand the team to include everyone we might possibly need at some point (that would make the team huge, unwieldy, and very expensive). Instead, we try to pull together people with the right skills or look to upskill and cross-skill all team members.

In practice, this might restrict the type of projects the Agile team can take on. For example: for a project that requires particular skills at very different times that require very diverse skills that need years of training, it might not be possible or desirable to cross-skill the team, and in that case, you might be better off linearly running the project (or perhaps break it into several smaller projects that a small dedicated team can run each)

What roles are there in an Agile team?

Scrum is considered the most common method to deliver projects with Agile, in fact according to the most recent State of Agile Report 66% of teams that use Agile to deliver projects do so by using the Scrum methodology. Therefore, it makes sense to look to Scrum to understand who we need to have involved and their roles.

The scrum framework and its roles are outlined in the Scrum Guide.

Agile Team Members - Scrum Roles

  1. (Development) Team

This is the Dedicated, Empowered, Self-organising and Cross-skilled group of people who do the work to deliver the product.

Within this group, there is no hierarchy, and no one is more senior or more important. Each individual is equal, and their opinion, skills, and input must count as much as everyone else’s. 

  1. Scrum Master

This is an individual with a challenging and somewhat difficult-to-nail-down role. The Scrum Master role exists to help the Development Team do their job without disruptions. It involves facilitating team meetings and addressing any obstacles that might prevent the team from performing.

The Scrum Master is not a team leader or a manager. In fact, the Scrum Master has no power at all—they are a servant leader or even a “servant facilitator.”

  1. Product Owner

If the Agile project is going to work, the team has to be able to move forward at pace, and to do this (and ensure that the right things are worked on), the customer has to be constantly involved in the project.

This can be difficult for the Development team to manage without getting sidetracked or spending all their time dealing with the customer. This is where the role of the Product Owner comes in. Their role is to connect the development team and the customer and act as the customer’s voice regarding the project.

Other important Agile roles:

1) Customer

The customer has to make an active commitment to being involved in the project, to being available to test the product, and to making speedy decisions throughout the project.

This means your customer also has to be Dedicated, Empowered, Self-organised, and Cross-skilled. If the customer has to seek permission or ask for advice at every decision point, the project cannot be Agile. For this reason, who your client is, how they behave, and their culture should play into your decision about whether the project can be delivered using Agile or not.

2) Agile coach

Many organisations benefit from having an Agile Coach. This is typically an individual who sits outside any project team and can work on a more strategic level (as well as helping the individual teams at a tactical level) to implement Agile practices in a way that works for that organisation.

Organisations such as Spotify have reported huge successes from using an Agile Coach.

3) The PMO

The PMO is in a fantastic position to foster the right culture and practices across the organisation that help the Agile team do what they need to, in the way they need to, and how they need to do it.

This can include knowledge sharing, briefing stakeholders and looking at what tools can help support the Agile teams.

PMOs can also serve the organisation by helping to decide which projects should be done in an Agile way and which ones should be linear.

Is there a Project Manager in an Agile project?

Many people struggle with the idea that no Project Manager exists in an Agile project. At least not in a project delivered with pure Scrum. This is because:

  • All team members are equal; no one individual can decide what, when or how to do work
  • There is no place for some of the traditional project manager responsibilities since there is no long-term project schedule, minimal documentation, no formal management of people, more dynamic stakeholder engagement, and monitoring and controlling are built into the ways of working.

But if we step away from pure Scrum and into a somewhat watered-down but potentially more widely applicable version, there could be a role for a project manager-esque role for large and complex projects or projects with external dependencies. The project manager would then act more as a coordinator.

The traditional Steering Committee role is not listed in the Scrum guide, but in reality, most organisations (and projects) require and benefit from having a defined Steering Committee. In essence, it provides the same benefits, whether linear or Agile, i.e. providing strategic direction and control.

In an Agile project, the Steering Committee members must understand the differences between working methods to appreciate and carry out their role and the commitment required. They will need to know that the information they get will be different (shorter, briefer, or maybe even non-existent and not in the lengthy documents they expect once a month, and there won’t be any mention of scope!). They may be required to be available more often and make decisions faster than they are used to.

Upskilling and preparing the Steering Committee is crucial, or they can quickly become a blocker, preventing the team from being Dedicated, Empowered, Self-Organising and Cross-skilled.

Do you want to learn more about delivering projects using Agile methods? Look at Wellingtone’s APM accredited Agile Project Management – a unique learning experience delivered entirely as an Agile project where you get to step into the shoes of an Agile team from Day 1.

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By: Karin Maule

Karin Maule

Published: 28 September 2022

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