People & Culture

Increase Agile Software Team Productivity with Role Differentiation

Regardless of the industry, every team leader is always asking themselves the same question: "What can I do to make my team more productive?"

No matter how well your team is performing, there is always room for improvement. As a team leader, especially in an Agile environment, there are always actionable steps you can take to boost your teams performance

Recently, we ran across an interesting piece by Saeed Khan on the importance of differentiating roles within a product management team, which is especially relevant to increasing team productivity in an agile environment. This work inspired us to prepare a post on role differentiation that will help any IT team. We want to help teams of software engineers become more productive by inspiring their leaders.

Why You Need Role Differentiation

An agile software development team can accomplish tasks more productively if all team leaders understand how to effectively manage their projects. Your organization may define the roles of teams differently and give various discretion to leaders for breaking down projects into individual roles and assignments. We recommend that tech organizations assign work through role differentiation, which helps employees understand their jobs.

A General Rule of Thumb

One of the basic tenets of role differentiation in agile software development teams is simplicity. If people cannot see the roles that you define on a simple chart, your work isn't complete. Engineers must visualize their roles' components. They must comprehend the differences between one role and another on the same chart. You want to avoid blurred boundaries between roles. Your engineers can assist with role differentiation to reflect the current agile environment. 

The Background

For agile software development teams, recurring roles that members must perform aren’t the same as job descriptions in a traditional workplace. Some agile engineers might perform two or more roles at a time. Furthermore, some projects do not call for the participation of every role. Some projects also require agile leaders to create special roles because the tasks involved do not fit the normal work patterns of the team.

An Example of Role Differentiation

Khan offers an example of differentiated roles within a product management organization: technical product manager, product marketing manager, solution architect, and product manager. Each job has clearly defined roles and interacts differently with other teams, such as the engineering, sales, and marketing teams.

In a team environment, group members look to either their team leader or to the group as a whole to understand the nuances between roles. Leaders should explain differentiated roles before they begin to experiment with role sharing or role exchanges on each new project. Making these roles clear in sprint retrospectives is a helpful way to get the team aligned before a project begins. 

Defining Roles

Think of role differentiation as essential to defining the duties associated with every project and agile software development team performs. If members know the tasks associated with their roles, they can assume responsibility for their work. To define a role, a leader should consider how to best use a person’s time and talents and how upcoming tasks will contribute to a finished project. Sometimes, it’s best to list all roles and divide up tasks accordingly, ensuring an even distribution of work. At other times, it’s appropriate to keep roles general so that tasks may shift back and forth based on a project's time constraints.

Some roles require a team member to contribute more than others. Some employees seek those heavier roles because they want to be challenged, and other employees avoid them so they don't have to work as hard. Each member of a team may perform more than one role within the same project; it depends on what stage they're working on and how they've been assigned to tasks within the project management software.

Task Differentiation

Another way to think of assigning roles is task differentiation. In each project, a group divides tasks so all members are accountable for their respective deadlines. No matter how you differentiate between roles and tasks, a work team must understand the work involved and agree to shared deadlines. Everyone needs to take ownership of a portion of the project.

Key Takeaways

  • Breaking down projects into individual tasks will help get all team members on the same page, and improve their understanding of what they need to do to ensure successful delivery. 

  • For best results, make sure the roles and tasks are laid out in simple form and easy to understand.

  • The amount of ownership each team member has in a project may vary depending on the project timeline and scope. 

Want more ways to unlock your teams full potential? Improving communication in your team can be your organizations biggest competitive advantage. To learn how, download our free eBook, "Improve Team Communication With 5 Easy Steps" to start seeing results. 


*Editor's Note: This post was originally published in June 2016 and has been completely revamped and updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.