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ScrumMaster Versus Project Manager

9 February 2016

As the popularity of the Agile/Scrum method continues to grow in today's business organizations, the distinction between the ScrumMaster and the traditional project manager is often confusing to organizational leaders, and this can have a negative impact on the effectiveness of these important roles. The goal of this article is to help clarify the differences between the two roles in an effort to deepen the understanding of how value is derived from these individuals. Because the roles are defined by the framework in which they operate, it is imperative that one has a basic understanding of the project delivery environments in order to fully appreciate the distinction between a ScrumMaster and a project manager. A brief comparison of the Agile/Scrum method with the traditional Waterfall model is also provided. Based on this understanding, business leaders can take steps to select the appropriate model and team roles to maximize the value attained.

The project manager role

Traditional project manager roles, as defined in most organizations, are individuals who lead projects to achieve specific goals and objectives for their organizations. The project manager role is typically defined in environments in which projects are governed by the triple constraints: time, scope, and resources or cost. In this type of environment, projects are often planned and executed by following the Waterfall method, which requires the project manager to manage against a project budget and the scope of work. This model can be used for nearly all types of projects in various industries, such as construction, product development, service providers, and so on.

Within this project environment, the project manager coordinates resources and oversees all project activities, which may involve internal and external personnel (e.g., vendors or contractors). Project activities are typically defined and organized in a sequential manner to maximize the probability of project success. Such projects are usually scope-bound, whereby the project is considered "complete" when all of its defined activities have been completed in accordance with the requirements approved by the project sponsors and stakeholders.

The project manager is typically responsible for the planning, analysis, implementation, and closure of the project. He or she coordinates all necessary meetings to define the project schedule and the corresponding activities to ensure that they occur at the appropriate times within the project implementation. In addition, he or she monitors project status and provides regular updates to sponsors and stakeholders. The project manager is often responsible for vendor management as well, which typically involves vendor selection and contract negotiation and management. When a project is completed and the sponsors have signed off on it, the project manager is usually assigned to a new project that often consists of different goals, resources, and constraints.

The ScrumMaster role

The ScrumMaster is an important role within the Scrum framework and functions differently from that of the project manager. One of the main reasons for this difference can be attributed to the two process models: Scrum and Waterfall. The Scrum model is built around a philosophy that all work done within the project is time-bound (timeboxed). This fundamental difference between Scrum and Waterfall affects how work is planned and executed, which in turn defines how the ScrumMaster and project manager contribute to and lead the project team.

To ensure the successful delivery of the project or sprint, the ScrumMaster facilitates daily meetings with the team and focuses on producing functioning software products as quickly as possible. The ScrumMaster also manages risks and issues but might not directly manage risk or issue registries, as a project manager typically would do. The ScrumMaster's priority is to remove impediments for the team so that team members can maximize their contributions on a daily basis.

Once issues or risks are identified through team discussions, the ScrumMaster generally empowers the team to resolve the issues/risks on their own and only intervenes when necessary. In contrast to the project manager, the ScrumMaster does not need to focus on monitoring or tracking tasks to a project schedule, because the time frame of each project/sprint is defined at the beginning of the sprint. Another reason for this is that specific timing of tasks and activities can vary from day to day and they're not critical to track at a granular level. Upon completion of each sprint, the ScrumMaster typically continues to a subsequent sprint, subject to the same timeboxed duration, usually with the same project team resources, to continue delivering value to the organization.

In terms of expertise, the ScrumMaster and project manager roles possess similarities and differences. Both roles require attention to detail and the ability to communicate and lead team members. However, a core skill set that is critical to a ScrumMaster is the set of technical skills (e.g., experience as a software developer), because a Scrum team is usually designed to deliver a technical solution. On the other hand, a project manager can often leverage domain knowledge to enhance his or her effectiveness; but such a background is less critical because fundamental project management techniques are generally transferrable to diverse industries and project types.

As organizations and leaders determine the optimal way to plan and execute projects to achieve strategic goals, it is increasingly important for organizations to be connected to the various project delivery methods as well as the necessary personnel in order to be successful. Naturally, this is a complex challenge due to several factors, such as the nature of the business/industry, types of product or service offering, organizational culture, etc. Both the ScrumMaster and project manager roles will be instrumental to the delivery of strategic projects for many years to come, but selecting the optimal model to leverage for a given environment will affect the level of success an organization will achieve.

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: 3 (2 ratings)


Abhishek Singh, CSM, 2/10/2016 4:56:48 AM
Nice Basic differences.

One more thing that SM doesn't have authority to Hire or Fire resources.
Jasdev Singh, CSM, 2/10/2016 7:38:26 AM
Nice article. In the end, the key question is - do you need a PM in a scrum project? How and in which areas of project management will a PM contribute while coworking with the scrum master?
Rajesh Pulaparambil, CSM, 2/11/2016 1:47:38 AM
Thanks Eugene for this nice article. Going back to the question Jasdev added, we still need PM role in scrum teams. Again it depends on team strength. I have seen a PM manages multiple scrum teams not with direct execution. Each team is having SM, but PM take care of operational activities like resource allocation, take care of training needs, project progress, proper risk and issues reporting to senior leadership and all other relevant activities. The PM will be relieved from direct project planning and scheduling but still he can contribute/help in those areas well. He is not directing daily execution of project works but ensure team and SM to get things needed on time.He monitors the project progress and is the direct POC for project health reporting to senior leadership.

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