Since Scrum has become the most popular framework for agile software development, you might have worked with a Scrum Master. Or become one or thought about becoming one yourself. A lot of people are unsure what this role really is, and how it is different from roles like project manager or team leader. This article will clearly explain the difference between Scrum Master and Team Leader. So you can figure out what they really mean, where they overlap and where they don’t. Let’s find out!
Scrum Master is one of the three main roles or accountabilities in Scrum. (The other two are Developer and Product Owner). The Scrum Master is accountable for the scrum team’s effectiveness. They are also accountable for coaching the team, and the organization, on Scrum.
It is unusual role and does not map easily to many existing roles you may be used to. Such as project manager, tech lead, or team leader.
The role is definitely not a “manager” role, and the Scrum Master is not directly in charge of any person or piece of work. Earlier versions of the Scrum Guide emphasised this and referred to the role as a “servant leader” role.
This term caused some confusion. And led to some Scrum Masters becoming quite passive, focusing too much on the “servant” part of that term. And before we knew it, there were lots of Scrum Masters who were just there to set up meetings and listen to the team vent and complain. Which was not helpful for anyone.
While they are not a manager, and definitely not a project manager, a good Scrum Master is in fact a leader. They are meant to challenge the team and push them out of their comfort zone. They are not meant to be a passive listener and just a meeting organizer or facilitator.
Team Leader is an old and established role. Its real meaning varies from context to context. And from what type of team and what type of specialist.
In software development circles, a Team Leader is usually a senior developer. They might be involved in actual development tasks in the sprint. (If the team is doing Scrum). But they are often similar to a Tech Lead. That means they are responsible for overall technical and code quality of the solution being built.
This means leading the team in terms of technical outputs, capabilities, architectures. Plus other general enablers, such as pipelines, configuration management, and source code management or branching.
This role is more of a manager type position, as opposed to servant leader. Often though it is more about managing work than about managing people. A team leader or tech lead might be in charge of those technical domains, but not necessarily in charge of the overall project, or a people manager of the developers. (They might be, but not necessarily).
And note that they are rarely in charge of the actual scope of work (unless it is a technical product being built, like a platform or gateway). In Scrum, those decisions are usually up to a product owner (similar to a product manager). Outside of a Scrum context, it could be a project manager or program manager.
Now we have an idea of each of the two roles, let’s compare them directly. So we can understand the Scrum Master vs Team Leader distinction.
A team leader or tech lead will often be a manager of the technical work or capabilities of the developers. A Scrum Master is not a manager at all. Of work, or of people. They are meant to coach and guide and improve the team. But they are not managing the team, people or work.
Both of these are leadership roles. The Team Leader is obviously leading the team, in terms of technology. A Scrum Master is a leader, of Scrum and its adoption. Both in the team, and in the broader organization. (Scrum only succeeds if the organization makes changes itself, around the team, to support it and its adoption of Scrum).
A team leader needs technical and people skills. They need to know and understand the technologies being used, and how best to build around and enable them. They also need people or soft skills. They need to understand how to listen to people, how to understand them and motivate them.
A Scrum Master needs those soft or people skills too. But they also need Scrum skills. They need to really understand the mindset, values and principles of Scrum and agile software development. They need to understand ideas around customer value, feedback and inspect / adapt cycles, and backlog management. They need to also understand Lean ideas like reducing waste, improving flow, and continuous improvement.
A Team Leader might benefit from having those skills, but they are not required for their job. They are often too specialized in their technical domain to have that knowledge.
Which is why you might often see a team with both a Team Lead (or Tech Lead) and a Scrum Master. This isn’t breaking the rules of Scrum!
The Scrum guide only recognizes the roles of Developer, Product Owner and Scrum Master. That doesn’t mean that other people don’t exist! It’s just that those other roles or titles correspond to work not described by the Scrum framework. So a Team Lead or Tech Lead would normally have the Scrum role (or accountability) of Developer.
You might sometimes see a Team Leader also carrying the Scrum Master accountability. But it is usually a bad idea to have one person doing multiple Scrum roles.
So in summary, there is a clear distinction between a Team Leader and a Scrum Master. A Scrum Master is focused on coaching the team and organization on Scrum and agile principles. While a Team Leader is usually managing the technical work of the developers on the team. They might also be line managers to people on the team. (Which a Scrum Master might be also). Hopefully this makes sense! If you still have questions, please leave them in the Comments section below. I will reply to every one!