Whose Job Is It Anyway? A Real-world Guide to Agile Roles and Responsibilities

When organizations scale or hybridize Agile, job roles and responsibilities often stray from textbook definitions. Address role overlap and achieve alignment on your product teams with this guide.


Toptalauthors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.

When organizations scale or hybridize Agile, job roles and responsibilities often stray from textbook definitions. Address role overlap and achieve alignment on your product teams with this guide.


Toptalauthors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.
Richard Abi Chahla
Verified Expert in Product Management
15 Years of Experience

Richard is a product manager and entrepreneur who has successfully bootstrapped multiple enterprises, SaaS web and Windows solutions, and mobile applications. He’s managed agtech products for companies such as Yara International and Varda. From idea to launch, he’s led and consulted at more than eight tech startups.

Previous Role

Agile Product Manager
PREVIOUSLY AT
Yara InternationalJTI
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In the swiftly evolving sphere of Agile software creation, executives and decision-makers can easily feel uncertain about how specific roles fit into their teams. Suppose your company is adopting Scrum or hybridizing it into a traditional framework. You may wonder how responsibilities for new product development should be allocated between your product manager and product owner, given that the Scrum Guide only mentions the second of these positions. You may have similar questions about project managers and Scrum masters. What responsibilities do these four roles have within Scrum’s framework?

I’ve witnessed this confusion firsthand on product teams at both corporate startups and large international organizations. I’ve applied for product owner roles and realized during the interview that the scope of work aligned more closely with product manager responsibilities. I’ve observed similar mix-ups between project managers and Scrum masters, and even between business analysts and product managers. When your organization hasn’t clearly defined these Agile team roles and responsibilities, your recruiter or hiring manager may inadvertently mislead prospective candidates, and, even worse, you may end up hiring the wrong talent for the position.

This article examines responsibilities for four common roles at organizations implementing a Scrum-inspired framework. I’ll cover the product owner and Scrum master, along with the non-Scrum roles of product manager and project manager, because they are often present in real-world organizations where teams frequently blend methodologies. The 2022 State of Agile Report found that half of respondents in the Agile community used hybrid approaches.

Of course, Agile development team roles are also crucial, but given that the composition of development teams varies according to product needs, I will instead emphasize how the other four roles interact with developers, stakeholders, and, most importantly, one another. By aligning roles and job descriptions at your organization with a standard set of definitions and practices, you will position your team to hire the right people and achieve Agile’s lightweight and adaptive benefits.

Product Manager vs. Product Owner

The product manager and the product owner are often confused within organizations—and for good reason. Overlap between the roles is inherent to Scrum, the most popular Agile framework. Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, recommends that teams assign product management responsibilities to the product owner, effectively eliminating the product manager role (or at least the job title) and ensuring that one person claims ultimate responsibility for the product. I’ve performed this dual function for smaller teams, but in practice, product managers still exist in many organizations that have adopted elements of Scrum.

As the names suggest, the product manager and product owner share an emphasis on product thinking, guiding the company to deliver value that fulfills real customer needs. Organizations often separate the roles when hybridizing Scrum into a more traditional framework or implementing it at enterprise scale. Likewise, a team may require both positions when deep knowledge is needed in specialized markets such as agtech or healthcare. When both roles are present, collaboration is vital to harmonize the strategic vision of the product manager with the tactical implementation of the product owner.

Arrows map the relationships between the product manager, product owner, and other Agile roles involved in product leadership.
The product manager and product owner are the nexus between customers, stakeholders, and the development team.

Essential Duties of Product Managers

The product manager is responsible for developing a product’s goals, strategy, and roadmap. The person in this outward-facing role performs market studies and evaluates customer requirements. Because of this emphasis, the product manager should possess domain-specific knowledge. I’ve managed products in agtech, for example, a sector in which product managers benefit from a strong background in agronomy, soil science, and related topics. When I started, I was new to these disciplines, but I made it a point to work with specialists who could assist with topical market research. I also invested in developing domain knowledge, recognizing that a specialized understanding of agtech would enable me to communicate effectively with users and comprehend their real-world needs.

The product manager should have a bird’s-eye view of the product, maintaining the decision-making velocity and ensuring that all work adheres to the overall product vision and scope. They coordinate with stakeholders, including executives and members of other departments, to rank features and enhancements. This coordination is especially critical when work on the product entails multiple projects running simultaneously, requiring separate Scrum teams. The product manager attends sprint planning and demo events, along with refinement meetings when needed, answering questions that developers may have about user stories and requirements. Without one product manager overseeing the operation, teams could become siloed, causing the product to be less coherent and shift from the original vision.

The product manager should guide the organization to adopt a product mindset. A company once hired me to manage a new product for which it had already conducted initial market research. The problem was that it had ended up with four different projects, four different sets of features, and four different end users. I identified overlapping requirements from each project, tested them with the whole spectrum of users, and prioritized features according to the user persona that benefited most from our proposed solution. We dropped the four initial projects and realigned the work to fulfill a single product vision. Based on this new approach, we built one product that met 100% of our priority persona’s needs while still satisfying many needs of the other users.

Essential Duties of Product Owners

In a by-the-book interpretation of Scrum roles and responsibilities, the product manager functions that I’ve described are subsumed into the product owner role, which has additional tactical duties related to Scrum ceremonies and artifacts. When organizations separate the roles, often for reasons of scale, expertise, or familiarity with traditional approaches, the product owner is generally responsible for crafting and managing the product backlog and for most of the direct interactions with the development team during the sprint.

In this case, the product owner and the product manager are key collaborators within an Agile network, in which individuals and teams work together with minimal top-down hierarchy, streamlining the decision-making process. While the product manager must possess domain-specific knowledge, allowing them to connect with users, the product owner needs technical skills to communicate effectively with developers. The product owner and product manager work together to transform research-backed market needs into implementable user stories for the product backlog. The product owner continually polishes the backlog in response to stakeholder feedback and shifting priorities, ensuring the work meets the expectations of the product manager and the target users.

The product owner participates in all Scrum ceremonies except daily scrums, given their emphasis on bigger-picture product thinking. Before the sprint even commences, the product owner meets periodically with the development team (and sometimes the Scrum master and product manager) for backlog refinement, ensuring that descriptions, acceptance criteria, and related tasks for each item remain up to date. Then the product owner, product manager, development team, and Scrum master meet for sprint planning. In this session, the participants identify work for the sprint based on the product roadmap, dependencies, and the team’s capacity. After the planning meeting, the team commits to a sprint scope and commences work.

At the end of the sprint, the development team demonstrates the work completed during a sprint demo (also called a sprint review). Often, the product owner reviews the work ahead of time, providing feedback that helps the team meet the acceptance criteria. If the work doesn’t meet requirements during the sprint demo, the product owner will reject those portions, and the tasks will return to the backlog for additional refinement. The product owner also participates in the sprint retrospective, a final meeting in which the Scrum team discusses the successes and challenges during the sprint, celebrating wins and promoting continuous improvement.

Who Owns the Product?

The Scrum Guide indicates that the product owner has ultimate ownership of a product—hence the name for the role. In practice, however, when an organization has both a product manager and a product owner, the product manager, whom many have previously likened to the CEO of the product, likely assumes ownership of the overarching product vision and decision-making for the product roadmap. Meanwhile, the product owner has ownership of the product backlog.

Your teams must be clear about where the ownership function resides. Otherwise, a breakdown in accountability can occur, limiting Agile’s benefits. If the product manager (or even the CEO) possesses the ultimate responsibility for the product vision, that individual must be willing to empower the product owner to make independent decisions about refining and prioritizing items from the backlog. Likewise, all team members should feel invested in the product and receive recognition for its success.

Scrum Master vs. Project Manager

Agile frameworks like Scrum are designed to encourage customer-focused product thinking. This may be one of the factors accounting for the rise of product management across industries, illustrated by a 41% increase in the number of C-suite product roles at Fortune 100 companies between 2020 and 2023. Given this product-led approach, you may wonder if your Scrum-inspired team still needs a designated project manager. The answer to this question depends on the size and complexity of your product, and also on your management team’s mindset and preferences.

According to Ken Schwaber, one of the originators of Scrum, the framework divvies up traditional project management functions among the other Scrum roles, including the development team. In practice, project managers are often present in hybrid or enterprise-scale implementations of Scrum and in situations in which projects require significant administrative work. The exact function of the role, however, can lead to confusion, especially given a perceived overlap with Scrum master responsibilities. I’ve seen numerous job listings that conflated the two positions, even though the roles are quite distinct. The difference between the Scrum master and the project manager becomes apparent in their respective relationships with the development team and other departments and stakeholders.

A Scrum master guides and supports the development team, while a project manager coordinates business needs across departments and teams.

Essential Duties of Scrum Masters

The Scrum master guides and mentors the development team, helping members adhere to the Scrum framework and norms. This person is commonly described as a servant-leader: They facilitate the development team’s work and self-organization but do not act in an official leadership role. Their foundational knowledge of the structure and flow of Scrum is crucial to the team’s success. Similar functions are performed by the Agile coach in other Agile frameworks such as Kanban.

The Scrum master should be skilled at fostering open communication. They run the sprint ceremonies, including the daily scrums in which development team members briefly recap the previous day’s work and highlight any obstacles. These short events (usually 15 minutes) promote transparency across the team. Between daily scrums, the Scrum master focuses on eliminating roadblocks raised by the team and resolving clashes that obstruct progress. Often, this involves contacting and collaborating with other stakeholders, thus protecting the team from unwanted interruptions and encouraging continuous advancement. While the role may appear administrative in nature, the Scrum master serves as a crucial agent of change within the team by enabling best practices.

In my experience, the most successful Scrum masters are flexible and open-minded. They know the Scrum framework inside and out but are also willing to shift from a prescribed mode of operation when necessary. Otherwise, the Scrum master risks delaying or blocking the team with administrative tasks. It’s important to remember that Scrum implementations can differ from one project to another, and even from one team to another.

Essential Duties of Project Managers

While the Scrum master focuses on the development team, the project manager advocates for the needs of the business. This is the person who says, “I’ve got a guy,” when work needs coordination across departments. If the team requires additional budget allocation, the project manager will confer with the finance team to see whether resources are available. When the team needs to hire new talent, the project manager arranges the details with human resources. The project manager also collaborates with the product manager to keep stakeholders apprised of project developments. In short, the project manager ensures a project is executed within the defined time, budget, and scope.

Given that the project manager is positioned to liaise with different parts of an organization, this role is essential for monitoring dependencies and sequencing tasks between teams and departments to guarantee deadlines are met. For instance, as a launch date approaches, developers may need information from the business development department before they can complete their work, and the marketing team almost certainly needs project specs from the development team. With these and other teams in the mix, work streams can become complex. The project manager guarantees each unit provides the necessary inputs at the right moments in the timeline.

Yet the project manager does more than align the moving parts of a project. They are involved in resource allocation and risk management. They monitor the budget for features and anticipate whether the project could run out of resources before the development team completes its work. If the finance team determines that additional funds are unavailable, the project manager will work with the product manager to refine the scope of work and determine whether features can be simplified or omitted.

How Does a Project Manager Fit Into Scrum?

If your team is shifting to Scrum from a more traditional methodology, you likely understand that a Scrum master will be essential. But what about a project manager? Obviously, the functions of a project manager are necessary, but can you reimagine Agile project management roles and assign the tasks to other team members, as many Scrum purists suggest? Often, I’ve seen product managers and tech leads handle hiring-related tasks. The product manager may negotiate the budget with other stakeholders, and the entire team will likely collaborate on the timeline.

Still, if you’re running a large or complex project, you should almost certainly allocate project management tasks to a dedicated person. In that case, let me reiterate the importance of Agile’s networklike management structure. The Scrum master should not report to the project manager, or vice versa. In my experience, the Scrum master often reports to an engineering manager, while the project manager is in the COO’s domain. Both roles should collaborate horizontally with the product manager and product owner without a traditional top-down hierarchy. (When both product roles are present, the product manager often reports to a head of product or the CEO, whereas the product owner reports to the engineering manager or the CTO.) The horizontal structure among these key Agile roles will help the team respond to feedback and make fast, iterative decisions.

The Importance of Role Clarity

The real-world confusion around roles and responsibilities in Agile isn’t altogether surprising. After all, even the academic community acknowledges that very little research has explored a question as fundamental as how product managers operate within Agile environments. While some teams strictly follow Agile frameworks like Scrum, many others adopt hybrid methods to suit their needs.

Whether you’re expanding your current implementation or venturing into the world of Agile for the first time, your teams can benefit from aligning with these common role definitions. Doing so will help you attract the best and most appropriate candidates and eliminate confusion surrounding which roles your organization needs. Moreover, it’s important to remember that the efficiencies derived from well-defined Agile roles will benefit more than your staff—they will streamline your client and customer services as well.

Understanding the basics

  • What are the roles and responsibilities on an Agile team?

    On typical Agile teams, product managers transform customer and business needs into a product vision. Product owners maintain the product backlog and define development tasks. Scrum masters (or Agile coaches) guide the development team on Agile practices and remove obstacles. Project managers coordinate work across departments and monitor business needs.

  • What are the job titles in Agile?

    Official job titles in Agile may not always align with roles, but Scrum, the most popular Agile framework, officially outlines three titles: product owner, Scrum master, and developer. In practice, many organizations also include a product manager and project manager.

  • Are there roles in Agile?

    Yes, Agile frameworks often outline specific roles for team members. The roles correspond with specific responsibilities and may vary depending on which Agile approach is used. For instance, the primary functions of a Scrum master may be assigned to an Agile coach in another framework.

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Richard Abi Chahla

Richard Abi Chahla

Verified Expert in Product Management
15 Years of Experience

Beirut, Beirut Governorate, Lebanon

October 24, 2019

About the author

Richard is a product manager and entrepreneur who has successfully bootstrapped multiple enterprises, SaaS web and Windows solutions, and mobile applications. He’s managed agtech products for companies such as Yara International and Varda. From idea to launch, he’s led and consulted at more than eight tech startups.

authors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.

Previous Role

Agile Product Manager
PREVIOUSLY AT
Yara InternationalJTI

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