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Roles on Agile Teams: From Small to Large Teams

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Two common questions of people new to agile will ask include "what are the roles on an agile team?" and "how do you organize an agile team?" The goal of this article is to address these questions by examining how you would do so for a relatively small agile team, perhaps of 15 or less people, and for a large agile team, perhaps of 50 people or more. For teams in between these sizes you will need to tailor a solution somewhere in between.

The roles and organization structures described in this article are meant to be representative -- your approach may differ slightly because you are in a different situation. But, if you think that your approach needs to be significantly different then you likely haven't yet fully given up on the thinking behind traditional IT roles and are likely putting your agile adoption at risk as a result. Also, this article does not address enterprise-level roles.

There are several key differences between the agile approach to team organization and the traditional approach.

  1. Agile teams are "whole teams". Whole team is an Extreme Programming (XP) practice that advises you to have sufficient skills within the team itself to get the job done. The implication is that the development team has the requisite testing skills, database skills, user interface skills, and so on and does not rely on external experts or teams of experts for these sorts of things.

  2. Agile teams are formed (mostly) of generalizing specialists. A generalizing specialist, sometimes called a craftsperson, is someone who has one or more technical specialties (e.g. Java programming, project management, database administration, ...) so that they can contribute something of direct value to the team, has at least a general knowledge of software development and the business domain in which they work, and most importantly actively seeks to gain new skills in both their existing specialties as well as in other areas, including both technical and domain areas. Obviously novice IT professionals, and traditional IT professionals who are often specialized in just one area, will need to work towards this goal. Generalizing specialists are the sweet spot between the two extremes of specialists, people who know a lot about a narrow domain, and generalists who know a little about a wide range of topics.

  3. Agile teams are stable. Agilists understand that changing team structures -- this iteration Sally is part of the team but next iteration she's pulled off to help another team -- is detrimental to team success. We strive to keep our teams as stable as possible, a goal that is much easier to achieve if people are generalizing specialists.

Small Agile Software Teams

There are several roles, which have different names depending on the methodology being followed, common to agile teams. Roles are not positions, any given person takes on one or more roles and can switch roles over time, and any given role may have zero or more people in it at any given point in an initiative. The common agile roles are:

Figure 1 overviews the structure of a small agile team. What you typically read about in the agile literature is how a team of developers, lead by the team lead, works closely with a product owner to build a high-quality working system on an incremental basis. What you don't hear about as often is what I call the "supporting cast":

Figure 1. Organization structure of a small agile team (click to enlarge).

Small agile team structure

Figure 2. Product owners represent a range of stakeholders (click to enlarge).

Product owners

Large Agile Software Teams

When the size of an agile team gets to be around twenty or more you discover that you need to divide and conquer and take a "team of teams" approach. The typical strategy is to organize your larger team into a collection of smaller teams, and the most effective way to do so is around the architecture of your system,. Each subteam should be responsible for one or more subsystems, enabling them to work as a small agile team responsible for delivering working software on a timely basis. This strategy is often referred to as Conway's Law after Melvin Conway who introduced it in the late 1960s, and is one of several lean development governance strategies.

The additional roles on agile teams at scale include:

As Figure 3 indicates, on large agile teams you need to coordinate several critical issues:

  1. Team coordination/management. At scale it isn't sufficient to simply focus on team leadership and allow self-organization to address key management issues. This may work on the individual subteams, but across the entire initiative the activities such as project management, such as dependency management, contract management, personnel coordination, and vendor management become critical. The team coordination of Figure 3, sometimes called the program management team, is comprised of the team leads from the various subteams. Their goal is to coordinate the management aspects of the overall team. This team is likely to have a short coordination meeting each day, referred to as a "scrum of scrums" in Scrum, where current status is shared and issues are identified.

  2. Architecture coordination. The architecture coordination team is comprised of the architecture owners from the subteams and is responsible for architecture envisioning at the beginning of the initiative to identify the initial technical direction and provide a basis for organizing the subteams. In the first week or so of the initiative (sometimes several weeks on more complex efforts) their goal is to identify the subsystems and their interfaces, a strategy called "managing to the seams", reducing the coupling between subsystems and thereby reducing the amount of coordination required by subteams. Once the interfaces are well defined it is possible for the individual subteams to focus on implementing the innards of those subsystems. Throughout the initiative this team will meet on a regular basis to share ideas and resolve technical issues, particularly those surrounding changes to the interfaces of subsystems. They may choose to meet daily, this is particularly common at the beginning of the initiative, but as the architecture stabilizes it is common to see them meet once or twice a week.

  3. Requirements/product coordination. The product coordination team is comprised of the product owners of each subteam and is responsible for coordinating the requirements effort across the subteams. They will need to negotiate requirements with the larger body of stakeholders whom they represent and divvy them out among the subteams appropriately. They'll also need to negotiate the inevitable disputes between subteams as to who should do what and what a requirement actually means. They also manage the requirements dependencies between subteams and strive to minimize overlapping work between subteams.

  4. System integration. System integration is important for any size of software team, but it is often absolutely critical on large teams (which often address complex problems). The complexities of large initiatives often necessitate the addition of a system integrator, or several (sometimes called build masters), to the team. System integration occurs throughout the entire agile lifecycle, not just at the end of the initiative during the system integration test phase of a traditional initiative. During the first development sprint an important goal is for the subteams to create mocks of their subsystems according to the interface specifications agreed to earlier . The goal is to do a complete, end-to-end build of the mocked out system to ensure that the subteams are working to the same technical vision. You'll undoubtedly discover that you need to evolve the interfaces a fair bit at this point as you run into technical issues that you hadn't thought through during Sprint 0. There are several advantages for making mockups of the subsystems available early in the initiative. First, the individual subteams can now move forward on their own work with few dependencies on the other subteams. Each team will evolve their subsystems throughout the effort, replacing the mocked out portions of code with real working code. These new versions are made available to the other subteams, who in turn will choose when they want to integrate these new versions into their own environments. In my experience earlier is better than later but you want to wait until you know that new versions are stable, one of the advantages of having an independent test team, until you integrate it into your own work. Second, your independent testing team can now test against the entire build as they see fit. Granted, at first they only have mockups of the system but they can at least start organizing their test framework(s) for the system at this time. Third, you can similarly put together your integration framework to support your continuous integration efforts across the entire system as well as integration efforts on individual subteams. Fourth, individual subteams will promote their code after they've tested it within their own environments. On large-scale agile teams these new subsystem builds are often vetted by your independent testing team before they're made available to the other subteams, a process that should be done quickly and often. The test team will often do a full system integration test, something that may be difficult for subteams to do due to timing considerations (integration tests often take a long time to run) or due to resource restrictions (the test team typically has a more sophisticated platform to test on). Subteams may choose to use pre-approved subsystems at their own risk, depending on your organization's culture.

Figure 3. Organization structure of a large agile team (click to enlarge).

Large agile team structure

I'd like to share some observations:

  1. An interesting feature of Figure 3 is specialists often become members of subteams/squads. These roles are examples of a general need by some subteams to include some technical experts that are specialized in a given activity. By organizing the teams around the architecture some subteams become focused on certain aspects of the overall system and as a result it can make sense to include some "overly specialized" people to address the specific aspects of the subcomponents being addressed by the subteam.

  2. As the size of the team grows, there is very little difference in the day-to-day activities of developers. They are insulated from the complexities of large teams by activities of the coordinators and may not even know that this is occurring.

Where Did All the Traditional Roles Go?

As you saw in Figure 1 and Figure 3 many of the traditional job roles, such as project manager, business analyst, and designer (to name a few). The leadership activities of project manager are taken on by the team coach and many of the technical skills are performed by members of the team through self organization. Agile analysis occurs, but instead of being performed by specialized business analysts it is instead taken on by product owners (many BAs choose to transition to the role of product owner) and developers collaboratively. Agile design occurs, but instead of being performed by a specialized designer it is instead performed by agile developers who may or may not be led by an architecture owner.

The point is that although the roles may have changed that the activities taken on my traditional roles are still occurring. This isn't completely accurate, what's really happening is that the goals addressed by the activities taken on by people in traditional roles are now being addressed by activities taken on by people in agile roles. For example, the details behind requirements are being explored but they're being done so in an agile manner by product owners and developers instead of in a traditional manner by business analysts. This can be disconcerting at first, particularly if it goes against the training and education which you've received over the years and more importantly against the belief system that you've built up based on your traditional experiences. Moving to agile requires a paradigm shift, and part of that shift is the acceptance that the team roles have changed (for the better).

What About Enterprise-Level Roles?

The focus of this article has been on the role and organization structure of agile delivery teams, not on the supporting enterprise-level roles such as enterprise architect, enterprise administrator, or portfolio manager to name a few. The need to become effective at enterprise disciplines is an important consideration. The good news is that it is not only possible for people in enterprise roles to become more agile it is both desirable and necessary.

Suggested Reading

Choose Your WoW! 2nd Edition This book, Choose Your WoW! A Disciplined Agile Approach to Optimizing Your Way of Working (WoW) – Second Edition, is an indispensable guide for agile coaches and practitioners. It overviews key aspects of the Disciplined Agile® (DA™) tool kit. Hundreds of organizations around the world have already benefited from DA, which is the only comprehensive tool kit available for guidance on building high-performance agile teams and optimizing your WoW. As a hybrid of the leading agile, lean, and traditional approaches, DA provides hundreds of strategies to help you make better decisions within your agile teams, balancing self-organization with the realities and constraints of your unique enterprise context.