Leadership insights Roles in Agile Teams

With Agile Teams, Who’s the Boss?

Originally published on Linkedin by Paul McNamara
Co-Founder, Partner and Managing Director at Adaptovate

One of the hallmarks of agile is its flat organisational structure. Without a traditional hierarchy in place, it begs the question: who is the boss?

A boss is still needed, even with the most established agile teams, for several reasons. They can help individuals and teams:

  • Move in the right direction and work toward the same goals
  • Get better at what they do, draw upon best practices, and learn from mistakes
  • Support teams when they encounter obstacles or underperform
  • Give employees someone to look up to and emulate

It’s difficult to do all of these things well, and most bosses struggle with at least some of them. For this reason, agile organisations typically split the role of boss into three positions: the product owner, the chapter lead and the agile coach.

  • The product owner has control over the “what” – the team’s purpose, direction, and overall business objectives.
  • The chapter lead has responsibility for the “how” – the functional expertise, quality of work, standards, and innovative ways to deliver a solution.
  • The agile coach has responsibility for the “teaming” – the teaming expertise, helping the team become more effective and promoting continuous improvement.

Of course, with multiple bosses, this raises yet another question: who has the final say? This is where the coach comes in. We actually want there to be positive tension between the product owner and the chapter lead, and the agile coach helps to ensure that this tension is positive rather than negative.

The chapter lead will behave more like a traditional “boss” than the product owner. Of all the things a boss can do, arguably the most important is being the person that employees want to emulate—and this is primarily the role of the chapter lead.

Product owners aren’t going to play that role because they don’t necessarily grasp the details of people’s jobs. If a product owner is a business lead, he or she won’t have much insight into the work of a data scientist or growth marketer on the team. The data scientist isn’t likely to aspire to be a business focused product owner, but he or she might want to be a chapter lead some day. For this reason, the chapter lead fits more naturally as the primary boss.

This may run counter to the traditional view, which is that the business perspective should be uppermost in employees’ minds, and therefore the product owner should be the squad boss. But there are many ways for the product owner to carry weight—through quarterly business reviews, objectives and key results, and other mechanisms—without overshadowing the chapter lead.

With agile teams functioning more independently than ever before, the traditional role of the boss may be losing relevance, but there will always be an inherent need for employees to be inspired by role models and mentors—and the chapter lead should take that role very seriously. The future of agile teams depends on it.

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