A Scrum Master is NOT a Project Manager

By April 30, 2017 Scrum & Agile

Despite rumours to the contrary these are two entirely different roles.

For those new to Agile there is often an assumption made that the Scrum Master and the Project Manager are the same role. This is absolutely not the case. The two roles are very different and they each fit into approaches to projects that are wildly different. If anything, the Product Owner role is most closely aligned with the Project Manager role.

The traditional Project Manager is a leader, a decision maker, a planner who manages the project and his team and is the person accountable to the business for accomplishing the project objectives. The role of the Scrum Master is more a coaching and facilitation role, a role that sits between the project and the customer.

The Coach and the Scrum Guardian

The Scrum Master doesn’t manage the team that produces the work, instead he supports the Product Owner, coaches the team and makes sure that Scrum processes are adhered to. The Scrum Master is responsible for the Scrum process, its correct implementation, and the maximisation of its benefits.

Product Owners have a huge responsibility for the project. They are responsible for maintaining a product backlog that describes the product that must continue to fit with the requirements of the business. During any project, as more becomes known about a product, about customers, or about changes in the market, a product often needs to change in order to meet these requirements. The Product Owner has to adjust and re-prioritise the backlog to fit these changes and to steer the project. With many projects that’s a big task and one that many Product Owners can struggle with. The Scrum Master is there to help, to provide a consultancy role and to look at the project from all angles. While the project remains the Product Owner’s responsibility, it’s up to them to make the decisions. However, they’re able to look to the Scrum Master to help them answer questions about user experience, about issues with functionality, about feedback from users, about a need to realign the development to fit with changes outside the business. The Scrum Master helps the Product Owner understand how to effectively manage the work of the team using the product backlog and the planning and review meetings.

scrum board

Scrumboard: Image by Drew Stephens, released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

Scrum Masters can come from Project Management but that’s not a guaranteed fit. Business Analysts and team members can also fit the role. A lot of traditional Project Managers struggle with the transition because they’re stepping away from a very structured position, one with them at the helm steering the development and the team towards a pre-defined specification. The often overwhelming change controls imposed in traditional waterfall approaches are no longer there to protect the Project Manager from the risks associated with change. Gone is the over-analysing, form filling approach to change. The Product Owner now has to deal with change, often on a daily basis. Those changes don’t have to be a big shift but the decisions made to include them can have a big effect on the end product. Being able to make those decisions is important to the flow of the project to make sure that it A product definition can change massively from the beginning of a project. In fact, a product doesn’t need to be fully defined at the outset of an Agile project. That scares the pants off the traditionalists!

This is where the Scrum Master plays a vital role. While Agile is becoming a part of many projects, there are still many who shy away from it, are nervous of it or just don’t trust it. Often, they see the traditional Project Manager role as far easier to understand. What they don’t realise are the restrictions imposed by the old role and approach. The Scrum Master has to coach the Product Owner to help them understand how to achieve their goals and how to continually adapt and prioritise their backlog. He is the link between the Product Owner and the team. The team, depending on their experience will often look for guidance and help in solving issues and blockers. The Scrum Master needs to steer the development through these issues, to resolve any problems that are blocking the development and to involve those in the project with the skills and experience to resolve. There is often a lot of noise from within the business and it’s down to the Product Owner and the Scrum Master to protect the team from that noise. Changes in what is being developed should be communicated via the Product Owner, nobody else.

As a project progresses, the product evolves. What might have been expected at the start of the project is not necessarily what we produce. User feedback, for many products, is a great way to define a good, solid usable product. Organising product reviews and dealing with feedback from users is imperative for the success of a project and the product it’s producing. It’s really not enough to produce a product that the client thought was needed. It’s often too easy for individuals to define a product they think is right. In order for a product to work there has to be feedback from a wider audience and their experiences and feedback needs to be managed through the product backlog (provided the Product Owner considers them suitable for the product). Again, the Scrum Master can help facilitate these changes, helping the Product Owner to describe them, to understand their impact on the product, to communicate them to the team and to prioritise them in the backlog.

The team tasked with developing the product has a huge responsibility. They’re required to understand the requirements, break them down, accurately estimate, produce and then demonstrate the output. The Scrum Master is required to help the team by facilitating the reviews and planning sessions, but he’s not there to manage. The team is responsible for managing itself. In most teams there is a lead, generally the most experienced member who will steer the team, review proposed solutions and make decisions. The Scrum Master is there to support the team and to provide input and support when required.

scrum master not project manager

Scrum: Image by Eoin Gardiner, released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

The Scrum Master is not a Lead Developer

There are teams, particularly in software development who find it difficult to differentiate between the Scrum Master and the Lead Developer. Often a development lead is required who has particular skills and experience and is able to manage the team, to make their decisions. This is not a Scrum Master role, that is specifically a role required within the team. It’s up to the team to lead itself, either with a lead role or a collective togetherness. Thinking that the Scrum Master role is not required is wrong. The role is entirely different to the Lead Developer. The Scrum Master is there to facilitate and coach, to provide support. If the project requires someone within the team that can manage, lead and take responsibility for the development then that needs to be defined by the project. That lead role should be allowed to concentrate on the development and not be distracted by the wider project, those within the business and by backlog definition and prioritising. The lead role should be allowed to lead and to produce a product to the best of the teams ability. A successful scrum team is one that will manage itself into a form that works best for them.

Scrum Master Summary

So there you have it: The Scrum Master plays a very different role to that of the Project Manager, and the Lead Developer. You can be a Scrum Master and a Project Manager but only on separate projects.

An Agile project is defined by the Product Owner and developed by the team. The Scrum Master is there to facilitate, make sure that Agile processes are being followed and to support the Product Owner and the team.

It sounds like a cushy job, but it’s a very particular skillset, and takes the right person to make it work.

Ben Dobson

About Ben Dobson

Hi, I’m Ben. I’m an Agile Coach, Certified Scrum Master and Certified Product Owner from the UK focusing on all things Agile.

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