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Power Play

The project manager in Scrum

30 July 2014

Mani Khanuja
Pitney Bowes

What is Scrum? Scrum is a framework for developing a product in small pieces in an incremental fashion. It's a small set of rules that are adaptive in nature, creating a structure that allows cross-functional teams to focus their innovation on solving a complex problem in a simple way. The basic idea behind Scrum is to empower the team to leverage its innate talent to do more and achieve more. Teams are self-organized to work together to produce outstanding results.

Roles in Scrum

  • The ScrumMaster removes impediments so the team can progress efficiently toward its goal. Although the ScrumMaster has no authority over team members, he or she does have authority over the process. Since the ScrumMaster has limited authority and acts as a "servant leader," the role can be more challenging than that of a typical project manager.
  • The product owner points the team to the right target, whereas the ScrumMaster helps the team get to that target as efficiently as possible. The product owner has the authority to set a goal and shape the vision of the team. For example, the product owner is responsible for defining and prioritizing the product backlog that expresses the goal.
  • The development team builds what is necessary in a sprint and then demonstrates it to the product owner, based on which the product owner decides what should be taken up in the next sprint.

Project managers in Scrum

The irony is that Scrum projects eliminate the untenable role of a project manager. Because the concept has now changed to self-organizing teams, there is no official role of project manager in Scrum. Does eliminating the role also imply that we can do away with the talents and responsibilities of a project manager? What about managing cost, quality, risk, procurement, and stakeholders?

In the real world, we cannot completely turn our backs on the role a traditional project manager undertakes, which is the primary reason project managers are still hired in organizations following Scrum. However, the way traditional managers used to work has changed a great deal since the introduction of Agile. Project managers must now overcome old habits of directing the team, making decisions for it, and sweating the details. Instead, the role now demands agility, making the leap from "master" to servant leader, from being an impediment to being the best catalyst, from placing an order to actually serving to the team. Project managers' contributions can help organizations excel and take their products to a higher level.

Project managers can:
  • Find strategic partners. PMs, with their experience in the industry, can help organizations expand their portfolios and generate greater revenues by finding strategic partners and new customers. They can collaborate with the presales team to leverage their valuable technical knowledge of the product in attracting new customers.
  • Coach the ScrumMasters. PMs can coach ScrumMasters in understanding the team dynamics and can teach them the science and art of getting work done from people. They can provide insight into resolving conflicts and encouraging and motivating the team to perform at higher levels of productivity.
  • Engage in strategic release planning. Releases are the new versions of an evolving product. Strategic release planning is concerned with selecting and assigning requirements or features to be addressed in a sequence of releases. It is always considered difficult to form a strategic release plan, due to varying constraints and uncertainties. A PM can help with what-if scenarios in support of replanning, including constraints related to risk, individual resources necessary to implement the proposed features, money, or technological dependencies, such that a high-quality and realistic plan is achieved.
  • Recruit. Since PMs are subject-matter experts in people management, they can help align the personal goals of a person to the organizational goals and ensure there is the right fit for the project.
  • Be the chief product owner. PMs can use their multitasking and communication skills by acting as chief product owner and synchronizing multiple product backlogs. This will benefit in two important ways: First, it will ensure that various products in the portfolio are aligned to achieve the organization's strategic goals. Second, it will help the Scrum teams visualize the holistic picture of the project, thus ensuring that the team is on the right track toward providing a win to the client.
  • Act as resource broker. As PMs operate from the top rather than the bottom, they can help form highly productive cross-functional Scrum teams. They can use their management skills in filling any resource gaps among various Scrum teams.
  • Remove blocks that Scrum teams are not able to resolve themselves. PMs can act as a bridge between top management and the Scrum team in resolving blocking issues. They can act as a voice of the Scrum team to the top management and clients to help remove impediments. This saves lot time for the development team, product owner, and ScrumMaster.
  • Provide performance evaluations and feedback. The ScrumMaster's role is primarily to remove impediments and make sure the team is following the correct process to achieve the right target. Since performance evaluation is a deviation, it can lead the ScrumMaster down the wrong path and undermine his or her ability to manage the Scrum teams well. Performance evaluation should be the responsibility of PMs, who are practiced in dealing with them. Also, since that would mean they are done by a person outside of the Scrum team, team members will feel they are being treated fairly.
  • Stay tuned in to industry news and developments. PMs can explore the various widely used tools available in the market, and they can keep an eye on upcoming tools and techniques to gain a competitive advantage. This helps the organization anticipate the training needs of the team.
  • Plan and manage budgets or financials. Budgets and cost estimation have always been pointed to as a nail in the coffin of Agile methods. Irrespective of gathering document binders full of requirements and getting the sponsors or stakeholders to sign them in blood, there is always the chance of going over budget, with product owners or users shouting, "No, that's not what we want!" PMs, who have experience with various estimation tools and techniques, are a good fit for such activities.
  • Help plan career moves for team members. To handle the ever-changing needs of the industry, employees must constantly upgrade their skills. Gaining knowledge that will not lead to anywhere is not a good idea for anyone. To make sure that the path followed is the right one and will produce the desired outcome, a mentor is advisable. PMs bring with them industry experience and they can be well suited to this role. They can help in providing the right direction and also in monitoring the outcomes. Once the goal is achieved, they can help make sure that the knowledge gained by the employee is leveraged for the benefit of the organization.
  • Be servant leaders. Last but not least, PMs can act as servant leaders, providing a vision to the team and at the same time empowering the team to find possible solutions and implement the one best for the project. Agile methods like Scrum represent the shift from traditional leadership, which generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by someone at the "top of the pyramid," to servant-leadership, where the leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leaders believe in drawing on the intelligence of the team members for making decisions rather than dictating decisions to them.


Scrum is an adaptive method that provides a set of rules for managing projects and simultaneously empowers team members to modify rules according to need, without diluting the content of the method. It can be considered a sponge to absorb everything that's best for your project and reject anything or everything that's not relevant to it.

In this article, I have presented the ways in which a project manager could become your best supporter in the Scrum framework. PMs bring with them great industry experience, and they have learned the art and science of management in ways that cannot be completely neglected. Instead, when used in conjunction with Scrum, their knowledge can help solve many organization-wide problems. Why look for solutions in an external frame of reference when we can have them by transforming the traditional ways?


Bin Saleem S, Shafique MU. A study on strategic release planning models of academia and industry.$file/MSE-2008-24.pdf.

Cohn M. Succeeding with Agile.

Deemer P. Manager 2.0: The role of the manager in Scrum.

Freedman R. Agile project management: Estimating the unknown.

Pichler R. Agile Product Management with Scrum.

Ruhe G. Software release planning.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.2 (5 ratings)


Zach Bonaker, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 7/30/2014 1:57:58 PM
Thanks for contributing this article! It's an interesting read and a good reminder of what could be...

...unfortunately, in my experience, the traditional PM is generally opposed to the change in mindset. I've seen a few PMs become wonderful contributors to Agile development, but many more that resisted change and could not let control of the "plan from the center" mentality.
Tim Baffa, CSM, 7/31/2014 4:35:44 PM
Mani, as a reformed PM, I can appreciate some of your trepidation around the typical PM role within a Scrum methodology.

I can certainly see the PM providing value to the organization in program and portfolio management, assisting with organizational budget and planning efforts, facilitating solutions to impediments through their working relationships, and working with the Product Owners to help them prioritize their backlogs. Usually this type of contribution is needed for quite a while as an organization makes the transition to Agile/Scrum.

I would concur with Zach however, in that it has been my experience many times that PM's are often tied to their own perception of worth and need to micromanage, and are often impediments to Agile/Scrum adoption.

What helped me greatly is something that PM's usually don't want to hear. Forget what you've learned, and what you've practiced in the past. You are going to undertake a huge learning effort to understand and experience an entirely new way of developing software, and unfortunately that learning effort is never-ending.

Are you up for that? You'd be surprised at the number of PM's that aren't. Then again, it may not be a surprise after all.

A few takeaways from your article:

* PM's cannot teach Scrum Masters (SM) how to get work done from people. It isn't the job of an SM to get a team to get work done. It's the SM's job to serve the team and help the team get better.

* Teams are self-organizing and ideally very stable in a Scrum shop. There should not be any needed effort to move people around or in and out of Scrum teams to try to optimize their diversity or productivity. Filling perceived "holes" deprives the team from growing and filling it themselves.

* Performance evaluation should be done at the team level if at all possible. Any individual evaluation may be done around growth or learning objectives and goals, and not around performance. Sometimes 360 reviews may be helpful, but I don't see the PM having any value to offer here.
Mani Khanuja, CSD,CSM,CSPO, 8/2/2014 9:19:21 AM
@Zach Bonaker - I do agree with you that most of the PM have difficulty changing the mindset and thats the reason of their non-existence in Agile.
To further add to it, those were the ones who even in Traditional methodology were not liked by their sub-ordinates.
The thoughts that I have mentioned are just to add to the significance of the experience that they hold and the possible ways it can be leveraged.
Robert Day, CSM, 8/7/2014 4:20:44 AM
In other words, the ideal would be to have a team member with the skill-set of a Project Manager, but not the mind-set.
Roman Shtekelman, CSP,CSM, 8/10/2014 6:35:53 AM
Although I agree with some of the points you made I would like to point out those which I don't agree with you.
Coach the ScrumMasters- I feel if the scrum masters are not able to (resolving conflicts and encouraging and motivating the team to perform at higher levels of productivity) then they dont do their job properly in the first place.
Remove blocks that Scrum teams are not able to resolve themselves- again predominantly a role of SM, he/she should be in position to remove all the obstacles internal or external.
Be servant leaders - this is a role of SM, PM is more about setting up the goals and demand that things get done.
Please let me know your thoughts.
Naveen Kumar Singh, CSP,CSD,CSM,CSPO,REP, 8/12/2014 5:53:40 AM
Mani, good article and you have explained the role of PM very well. I think you are pointing that PM can play a role of leader and can work with SM in removing impediments. I think it would be appropriate to say that PMs can share their learning with SM that may be useful for SM in resolving conflict instead of saying that they will coach SM.
Mani Khanuja, CSD,CSM,CSPO, 8/14/2014 1:53:58 AM
@Roman - Yes you are right that resolving conflicts, motivating team, removing impediments and servant leadership are primary roles of SM. As pointed by Naveen, PM can help SM by sharing their expert knowledge in performing their job well.
Being Servant Leader for PM here implies that they need to move out of the traditional box and develop the Agile thinking. They can very well ENABLE the SM so that they facilitate the scrum team better. PM in Agile world acts as a bridge by making sure that the work performed by the Scrum team is aligned with the organization's strategic objectives.
Muthaiya Nallalam Parasuraman, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 8/25/2014 10:51:11 AM
PMs can coach Scrum Masters in understanding the team dynamics and can teach them the science and art of getting work done from people.

--The science and art and the beauty of getting work done from people is what has made other people to think about something like scrum. The team and only the team will get the work done. No one tells the team how to get the work done(That is scrum).

Correct me if I am wrong.
Mani Khanuja, CSD,CSM,CSPO, 9/30/2014 11:08:33 PM
@Muthaiya Nallalam Parasuraman - Yes, I agree that TEAM and ONLY TEAM will get the work done and as a matter of fact that's true irrespective of using scrum. If today I don't feel like working on an assignment, then I won't work irrespective of the scrum master or PM pushing me. But if at the same moment, somebody motivates me and explains me the importance of my work at that hour, I might pull up my socks and finish it.

When I talk about "getting work done from people", I mean to use people management skills rather than authority. To understand each team member and factors that help to keep them motivated, which in turn enables them to do the work even better, thereby increasing the overall productivity!

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