A common idea in software development is that scrum master are basically project managers. When an organisation implements Scrum, all the project managers do their training, put on a “scrum master hat”, and away they go. This article will explore this idea and answer the questions like can a scrum master be a project manager, if they are the same role, or if they are completely different roles.
In case you’re not sure about Scrum Master roles and responsibilities, or what is a Scrum Master job, let’s look at this first. Scrum Master is one of the three roles in the Scrum framework. The other two are Product Owner, and Developer.
This is what the Scrum Guide has to say about what a Scrum Master is and what they do:
The Scrum Master is accountable for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. They do this by helping everyone understand Scrum theory and practice, both within the Scrum Team and the organization.
The Scrum Master is accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness. They do this by enabling the Scrum Team to improve its practices, within the Scrum framework.
Scrum Masters are true leaders who serve the Scrum Team and the larger organization.
The last section on being “true leaders is one of the interesting changes in the most recent revision to the Scrum Guide.
The important thing here is what the Scrum Master does and does not do. Notice that they are “accountable for establishing Scrum”, and “accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness”. Nowhere does it say they are accountable for a project, product, or anything of the sort!
This is a clear sign that a Scrum Master is in fact, very different to a project manager.
Also remember that a Scrum Master is in fact in the Scrum team, not outside or above it. They are a fundamental part of the team. This diagram shows the three Scrum roles and illustrates that they are all in the one team.
A common misconception is that a Scrum Master is a functional manager, as opposed to a project manager who might be acting as line manager. A Scrum Master is not just a functional project manager – they are not really a manager at all, but more of a servant leader.
Wikipedia defines a project manager as someone that has “… the responsibility of the planning, procurement, and execution of a project, in any undertaking that has a defined scope, defined start and a defined finish; regardless of industry.”
The clear difference here is that project managers are responsible for the project itself, whereas Scrum Masters are accountable for establishing Scrum, and for the Scrum team’s effectiveness – not the project!
In fact, Scrum does not talk about projects at all – it is better suited for product-based work rather than project-based work, as I have talked about here. (And make sure you understand the difference between project manager vs product owner).
But even if you are doing projects, you cannot really expect the Scrum Master to be responsible or accountable for the delivery of the project.
You might immediately be wondering, well if the Scrum Master is not responsible for the delivery of the project, then who is? The short answer is the entire team.
Scrum is a framework that tries to move away from the traditional management philosophy that pieces of work can all be traced back to an individual person. It is more based on the idea that the best work is done by teams, and since teams can succeed or fail together, then teams should be responsible, rather than a single person.
This of course does not mean that nobody in Scrum really cares about delivery and success. In fact, one of the core values of Scrum is commitment – the team commits whole-heartedly to the delivery of their product increments. If they are not doing that, then they are not doing Scrum.
It is more about collective ownership and collective responsibility, rather than individual heroics, and the things that go with it – chasing rewards rather than pride in work, blame and shame rather than introspection and problem-solving.
The role of “project manager” does not exist in Scrum at all. You can do a Search in the Scrum Guide and it will come up exactly zero times. That being said, there are many organizations that have project managers and are doing (or trying to do) Scrum. This raises the question of what those people do (and the difference between Scrum Master and project manager).
Project managers in an organization that is moving to Scrum might find it somewhat difficult to fit into this new world. After all, the Scrum Guide does not mention their existence. Now, that does not mean that they all need to be fired! Scrum doesn’t talk about marketing or Human Resources or accountants either, but nobody is going to suggest that all those people disappear when Scrum comes along.
Scrum is a framework that describes the roles, events, and artifacts around a particular activity: building a product under conditions of uncertainty. There are lots of other activities that need to happen in a business that don’t come under that umbrella.
There is, for example, a lot of reporting that organizations do around their work, which project managers could do. The Scrum team probably don’t want to do much of that (and the Scrum Master’s job is definitely not to write reports and be a secretary/admin person, despite what some people seem to think these days).
There will still be risks and issues that need to be tracked. The team may or may not want to do this (and the project manager may have existing skills in understanding, defining and tracking these that the Scrum team may not have).
As far as scoping goes, this might be something that project managers are keen to jump in and do. However, I would recommend caution here. Scrum is totally opposed to the traditional project management approach to managing scope, where you try to define and estimate all your scope up-front, then track it carefully and apply change control processes whenever anybody wants to switch things around.
Scrum is based around the agile manifesto value of “responding to change over following a plan”, and encourages frequent rethinking and renegotiation of scope as the product is gradually built, sprint by sprint. The project manager’s approach and mindset mean they will probably cause more problems than they solve if they try to help with scope management.
As I mentioned, Scrum is better suited to a product-based organization, rather than a project based organization. One of the big challenges for project managers is going to be this shift from project-based thinking (where a project is a pre-defined piece of work, with a specific start date and a specific end date), to product-based thinking (where a product is a large asset that grows and changes over time and does not have a specific end date).
Most products in fact exist in perpetuity, i.e. are expected to continue indefinitely, until the business is dissolved at some point, or for technological or commercial reasons, the product no longer makes sense for the firm to continue.
Products that are put into “BAU” mode and never updated usually end up fading away and being overtaken.
However, project managers should be careful if they think they can just rename their job to “product manager”. Product management is a very different discipline to project management, and is much more focused on serving customers or users, rather than the organization.
As you can see, there are many differences between a Scrum Master and a project manager.
Project managers are responsible for the delivery of a project, which is a known piece of work with a (usually) fixed scope, and a firm start and end date. Scrum Masters exist to serve and coach a team, who are tasked with gradually building up a product. A product (in agile terminology) does not have a fixed scope or fixed end date, and is usually assumed to continue indefinitely.
Project managers are focused on serving the organization and more specifically, the project stakeholders. Scrum Masters are focused on serving the team, while also helping coach the organization on a move towards proper adoption of Scrum.
You might see the term “agile delivery manager” or “agile project manager”. You might be wondering about the concept of agile project manager vs Scrum Master. This is an increasingly common role that is something of a hybrid between Scrum Master and project manager. You will find that they fulfill the regular duties and responsibilities of a Scrum Master, while also doing some of the traditional project management work, such as reporting, scope management, tracking of risks and issues, etc.
This is attractive to many organizations today. They have decided (or been told!) that they need to “go agile”, and that an important part of that is to get some Scrum Masters or Scrum Master type people. However, Scrum Master does not fit into their existing neat organizational structure and methods.
So they go and hire some “agile delivery managers” – or give project managers that title, and send them on a three day Scrum training course. The problem is, these people often don’t really understand Scrum, and the organization is probably not prepared to make all of the other real organizational changes needed to implement Scrum and achieve some agility.
These roles are therefore a sign of an organization that is struggling in its adoption of Scrum. Or perhaps isn’t interested in properly doing it in the first place. Many firms are not willing or able to let go of their traditional management and project-based mindsets.
And sometimes a firm will call their role “Scrum Master”, but if you read between the lines, they are more looking for one of these hybrid roles. Or a straight-up project manager, but renamed. So before you go looking for a Scrum Master role in an organization, make absolutely sure to look at the Scrum Master job description (or the agile project manager job description), to properly understand what they are looking for.
As you can see, a Scrum Master is not a project manager. Scrum Masters and project managers are quite different roles with not just different tasks and responsibilities, but also exist in different organizational contexts. Firms need to understand the context and meaning and value of Scrum before just renaming project managers to Scrum Masters. A Scrum Master is there to enable the team to become empowered and self-managing, a crucial step to implementing Scrum and enabling organizational agility.