Scrum Master vs Project Manager

A Scrum Master is one of the three accountabilities defined in the Scrum Guide, and is a crucial part of a healthy, effective Scrum Team. Although some Project Managers work with Scrum Teams, they may or may not qualify as Scrum Masters.

So: Scrum Master vs Project Manager. They are two very different roles/accountabilities. How do we reconcile or differentiate the two?

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What is a Scrum Master?

A Scrum Master is a leader who serves the Scrum Team, the Product Owner, and the organization in general. They are accountable for the success and growth of Scrum Teams while managing the implementation and effectiveness of the Scrum framework. They cause the removal of impediments. They serve as a teacher, an advisor, a coach, a mentor, and anything else they can think of to lead the team to a better place without forcing them.

By definition, you might think Scrum Masters are a form of a Project Manager within the Scrum framework. That’s far from the truth.

Scrum done right, there’s no Project Manager because the entire Scrum Team collectively manages the planning, development, and delivery efforts. A quote from the 2020 Scrum Guide says 

The Scrum Team is responsible for all product-related activities from stakeholder collaboration, verification, maintenance, operation, experimentation, research and development, and anything else that might be required. They are structured and empowered by the organization to manage their own work.” 

As a result, no one person manages the project as it is self-managing. Collective ownership drives innovation and collaboration, finds issues sooner, mitigates risk faster, and delivers value much faster. 

Self-managing teams without a Project Manager can be difficult for many organizations to understand. How can a Scrum Team possibly handle all of the responsibilities of a Project Manager? Scrum Teams do so by producing transparency and supporting empiricism in general. They also do so by adhering to the values of Scrum such as openness, focus, courage, commitment, and respect. 

This is where your Scrum Master adds value: teaching the Scrum Values, supporting self-management, and enabling empiricism. Scrum Masters work to create a self-sustaining system that works with little intervention. 

Instead of a law enforcer, think of the Scrum Master as a therapist… or for the Star Wars fans, master Yoda. A spirit guide (or Yoda) would only point to the best path to help you reach your destiny. It is up to you to choose whether to follow the path, but it’s in your best interest to heed their warnings and absorb their wisdom, or else risk following the path to the dark side.

Core Responsibilities

The key responsibility of a Scrum Master is to enhance self-management while promoting agility and adaptability in complex and risk-oriented projects. A Scrum Master pushes the organization to think differently without traditional bureaucracies, leading to better products and happier people.

Scrum Masters achieve this through:

  • Teaching the Scrum framework to the Scrum Team to maximize value delivered and minimize the risk of solving complex problems
  • Influencing the removal of obstacles and impediments that may hinder the Scrum Team
  • Safeguarding the team from external distractions to encourage an effective flow of work
  • Facilitating team and stakeholder engagement as needed to prevent any communication gaps
  • Helping the Product Owner to find ways to maximize the value of the product through complementary practices and advanced strategies
  • Coaching and mentoring the team to self-manage
  • Encouraging room for growth and constant improvements
  • Ensuring maximum cooperation, teamwork, and good communication within the team.

No one reports to a Scrum Master. They cannot fire a team member, and most importantly, they have no delivery accountabilities. They’re merely accountable for the Scrum Team’s effectiveness.

What is a Project Manager?

A Project Manager is responsible for the execution of a project plan in accordance with a pre-determined timeline, scope, and budget.

Project Managers thrive in high-pressure situations and navigate the challenge of knowing when to zoom out from the details of the project work in order to capture changes to the bigger picture and project context. They are required to understand the interaction and relationships of all parties involved in the project. Managing sponsor relationships and knowing how to foster timely and relevant collaboration with project teams is a critical skill to ensure all parties are able to navigate and embrace change.

In many ways, Project Managers hold the keys to understanding the entire picture of the project at any given time and make adjustments when anything surfaces that could jeopardize the business results that the Project Manager desires to achieve.

Core Responsibilities

Many skills are needed to handle the many responsibilities of a Project Manager. They must continually adapt to an ever-changing environment to ensure their skills and knowledge stay relevant.

Project Manager responsibilities include:

  • Defining and maintaining the scope of a project
  • Planning and monitoring each task making sure all tasks are done on time
  • Managing project resources and people tracking and reporting team’s time and hours
  • Reporting continuously the status of every stage to corresponding stakeholders
  • Preventing and removing project dependencies and blockers 
  • Documenting each step in the process
  • Guaranteeing the best quality and success of a project

The Major Differences

Scrum MasterProject Manager
Facilitates meetingsWhen requested or needed
Reports status to leaders
Teaches Scrum to the team
Responsible for budget
Produces reports to create visibility 
Support and teaches self-management
Is responsible for project delivery success
Manages time, scope and budget
Accountable for team effectiveness
Causes the removal of impediments
Manages tasks
Creates estimates
Defines Scope
Stakeholder communication

In Scrum, where you see a Scrum Master does not perform the task, it is typically performed by the Scrum Team in some way. For example, Developers manage tasks and timelines. The Product Owner typically handles Stakeholder communication, reports progress to leadership, and manages Product Goals, problems to solve, value, and budget. 

So What?

The mix can be dangerous if not managed well

By now, hopefully, you’re picking up on the fact that a Scrum Master and Project Manager are not the same things. Each has their place in their specific context. Applying the accountabilities, expectations, and practices of one while in the context of the other can be disastrous. 

If we’re operating in a space with relatively few unknowns, and we can plot out the tasks that need to be done with a high degree of certainty and a low risk of change, then the tools in the Project Manager’s toolbox can work very well. 

Managing time, scope, and budget can make a lot of sense in this domain. We can use a Project Mindset with Defined Process Control to make sense of the work and track it to completion. A Project Manager controls the scope and organizes the people and tasks to ensure everything is done on time and within budget.

However, if we’re working in a space with many unknowns, unclear requirements, new or changing technologies, or other unpredictable conditions, we arrive at success very differently. Here we need someone who can coach, teach, mentor, and facilitate a team of people who are self-managing problem solvers. The idea of “controlling scope” no longer applies because there is no predefined scope. In this case, we need a Product Mindset with Empirical Process Control to sense and respond to the changing environment. 

Job Listings

When looking at a career opportunity, understanding the difference between Project Managers and Scrum Masters is critical – for yourself and for your potential employer. If you have a desire to step into only one of these two jobs, be sure that the people in the organization you’re interviewing understand the differences. 

If you’re looking to serve as a Scrum Master, ask questions such as:

  • Why are you interested in hiring someone to serve as Scrum Master?
  • Can you tell me how you measure a Scrum Master’s effectiveness?
  • Do you currently have any Scrum Masters, and if so, how do they bring value to your organization?
  • What skills would your ideal candidate for this position have?

If the answers to these questions have to do with directing tasks, increasing productivity, improving the accuracy of time estimates, controlling scope, or task reporting, you may be talking to someone who’s asking for a Scrum Master, but wants a Project Manager. 

A Scrum Master who acts more like a Project Manager to their team risks breaking self-management which greatly reduces the effectiveness of a Scrum Team. 

TIP: Look for job descriptions that confuse the two as an opportunity to teach your new company proper Scrum!

Typically, the reverse of the above situation isn’t a problem – that is, most Project Manager job postings are from organizations that understand the role they’re looking for and aren’t secretly looking for a Scrum Master. That said, Project Managers within organizations that are growing in Agility and maybe even starting to use the Scrum framework might be able to help their colleagues understand the accountability of the Scrum Master.

Your Current Role

Perhaps you find yourself in the unenviable position of SMiNO – Scrum Master in Name Only. You signed on to serve a team and organization as a Scrum Master, only to discover those around you don’t really understand the accountabilities of a Scrum Master and are asking you to be a Project Manager, either directly or indirectly.

While there’s no single perfect action to take in your position, your next steps will be more successful if those around you have a better understanding of the differences between a Project Manager and a Scrum Master. Your first actions include:

  • Sharing resources that help illustrate the differences (such as this blog post!)
  • Asking questions about the level of uncertainty in your domain and how much adaptability is required
  • Speaking about the Scrum Master accountability in the ways written in the Scrum Guide
  • Finding analogies or illustrations that help you clarify the value a Scrum Master brings such as a coach for a sports team, a gardener that cultivates an environment for growth, etc. 

Moving From One to the Other

If you’re a Project Manager looking to become a Scrum Master, there are several steps you can take on this journey, including:

Get There Easier

At the end of the day, the supremacy battle between Project Managers and Scrum Masters boils down to adaptability vs. predictability. Note that both roles are vital in their context, and neither is superior to the other. Organizations need to have a structured plan to complement both roles depending on the various projects.

Do you want to integrate advanced project management methodologies for your projects using an agile approach? I recommend using a team of professionals with the expertise to tackle sophisticated environments.

Our team at Responsive Advisors provides industry-leading training that shifts mindsets and provides new tools to get work done more effectively. We teach your team what Scrum is, help to launch it in your organization and provide ongoing support. 

We’re all about giving you the fishing pole and teaching you how to fish. We will work with you to transform your team from average to a productive, adaptable, and resilient self-managing workforce.

Robert Pieper

Robert Pieper has been a licensed Professional Scrum Trainer since 2014 and National Public Speaker since 2013. Robb holds an MBA from Marquette University and an Electrical Engineering Degree from Milwaukee School of Engineering. Robb has 15 years of professional software development experience with a passion for making Scrum work delivering real products and services
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