You probably have at least heard of, or know something about, Scrum Masters. It is one of the three core roles (or accountabilities) in Scrum. And is one of the fastest growing and well-paid jobs in Information Technology. However, the role “Iteration Manager” is much less well known. You might be wondering what that is, and if it is the same as a Scrum Master. This article will explain what an Iteration Manager is, and how it is different to a Scrum Master. (Spoiler alert: there are some big and important differences that you really need to know about!). So let’s find out right now.
Scrum Master is one of the core accountabilities in Scrum. A Scrum Master is accountable for the effectiveness of the Scrum Team. That does not mean they are a boss or a project manager! It means they are accountable for coaching the team and the organization on Scrum, its values and practices.
It is an unusual role and does not map easily to many existing roles or job titles, such as Tech Lead, Project Manager or Team Lead. Some describe it as a “servant leader” role (though the Scrum Guide has recently removed that term).
It is important to note about a Scrum Master though that:
The term “iteration manager” can be a bit of a trap. Many of the terms used to describe an iteration manager are terms you might find used in a Scrum Master job description too. But don’t rush in and assume that they are the same.
The first alarm sign is “Iteration“. This is not a term not really used in Scrum. The concept of iterations is definitely there, but they are called “sprint” in Scrum, never “iteration”. And there is no such thing as a “sprint manager” (at least not that I’ve ever seen).
“Manager” is also a bit alarming. Scrum Master is not a manager role, as we have seen. So what actually is an “iteration manager” and why do they need to “manage” the iterations? Well, that’s the problem.
In Scrum, nobody “manages” the sprints or iterations or whatever you call them. The team manages itself and the work. The Scrum Master does not manage the team or the work. They coach the team (and the organization) on Scrum and work to increase the effectiveness of the team.
You are probably getting an idea that these are very different roles. I believe that Iteration Manager is a trap and a sign that an organization is doing fake Scrum (and/or Cargo Cult agile).
Iteration Manager is typically a role for an organization that wants to do the trappings of Scrum (i.e. have visual management boards, daily Scrums, sprint reviews, etc.), but don’t actually want to change their organization.
They don’t want empowered or self-managing teams. How can this team be trusted to manage their work? Of course they can’t! We need an Iteration Manager to make sure they stick to the script!
If you look at the job descriptions for an Iteration Manager, you will often see things like “produce progress reports for senior managers”, “define metrics around delivery efficiency”, “create software delivery plans”. These are all major warning signs that there is no agile going on here at all.
(Some Scrum Master job descriptions also list these tasks, sadly, but that is another story).
One thing you will rarely if ever see in the description of these Iteration Manager jobs are actual Scrum Master tasks. Things like coaching the team on Scrum. Coaching the organization on Scrum. Improving the team’s ability to plan and prioritize work. Improving the team’s ability to consistently deliver value every iteration.
Actual important work that will genuinely improve the team. That is nowhere to be seen. Iteration Manager is usually all about micro-managing developers, producing loads of artifacts (plans, charts, reports, most of which will be never used, or be used to beat the team about the head). And going to lots of meetings with middle managers to show them these artifacts.
In case you haven’t figured it out, I am not a fan of these Iteration Manager roles. They are not Scrum Masters or anything close. I would avoid them if at all possible. And I would not think of them as a “junior” or “stepping stone” role to a real Scrum Master role.
As described, you will not actually be doing any real Scrum Master type activities in one of these Iteration Manager roles. So you will not be learning about or moving towards being a Scrum Master.
In summary, Iteration Manager is almost always a “fake agile” role that has little or nothing to do with Scrum. It helps organizations that want to stay Waterfall go through some Scrum theatre but make no meaningful changes.
Have you had a similar experience with an Iteration Manager role? Or do you have an alternative view? Let me know in the comments!