Agile Delivery

Scrum Master vs Project Manager

October 31, 2020
  •  
7 mins read
Ben Willmott
Founder

Why is it Important to Separate These Roles?

A Scrum Master is not a Project Manager, and a Project Manager is not a Scrum Master, the roles are very different as they have a different set of responsibilities and approach to working with teams.  

Scrum Master vs Project Manager is not about putting these two roles up against each other, but to clearly explain the differences.  

Both roles are critical in the right environment and project, but knowing which role to use for which project type, can make or break your project.  

More and more projects are now being run using Agile approaches versus the more traditional Waterfall methodology.

Project Management is a must when using Waterfall as it involves a high amount of upfront planning. Agile projects are more iterative, so the planning falls more to the team and is facilitated by the Scrum Master.  

When moving from Waterfall to Agile, Project Managers don’t just become Scrum Masters, as a Project Manager role is a leadership role, versus the Scrum Master which is a servant leader to the team. Merge these two roles, and you’ll get a confused team, not knowing how to work with this role.  

Project Managers run projects and Scrum Masters work with products.  

It’s essential to know the difference, as unsurprisingly a Project Manager works with Projects (a series of tasks that have a deadline) and Scrum Master works with Product development, (potentially no end date, just iterating and improving the product).

The Differences Between a Scrum Master and a Project Manager

There are many differences between a Project Manager and a Scrum Master, but also some similarities. 

  1. Both roles are ultimately trying to deliver success and value for the project or product they’re working on. 
  2. They should always be aware of what’s working and what isn’t for the team so they can continuously improve quality. 
  3. In both roles, you have to be great at working with people of all kinds of different backgrounds and experience.
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What skills are needed as a Scrum Master?

The skills and knowledge needed as Scrum Master may vary depending on the product that is being developed. Still, there are some fundamental skills, behaviours and knowledge a Scrum Master will need for any product development.

A Coach: The Scrum Master has to be able to coach the team as one of the main objectives for a Scrum Master is to continually improve the team.   

A Facilitator: There will always be some sort of issues within a team, whether that’s clashing personalities or there is that one guy who is talking over others in the team meetings.

You need to be a great facilitator to manage these situations, so you’re in control but at the same time allowing the team to resolve their problems.

A Learner: Being a self educator and having a passion for always learning something new is vital as a Scrum Master. 

The role of a Scrum Master in the Scrum Guide is pretty simple. The hard part is dealing with all the nuances of working within teams and the dependencies outside of the team, then coming up with new ways to improve the whole approach. 

An Agile and Scrum expert. This is a given as you’re the coach of the team. The team will come to you for knowledge and help and often this expertise is also needed to coach others outside of the immediate Scrum team.

A Servant Leader mindset. You need to have the mindset that the team always comes first. How can you help the team become better? 

This doesn’t mean you’re the runner for the team as it works both ways, but the more you improve the team, the better the environment and the quality of the product increases.

An Organiser. Although the team needs to self organise, this doesn’t mean they don’t need organising. 

As a Scrum Master, you need to be continuously thinking about how can I help the team get better, what will stop them from being productive and what problems do I need to solve. All of this results in ongoing organising of workshops, 121’s, plans etc.

Whats skills are needed as a Project Manager?

Although some of the skills, behaviours and knowledge overlap with a Scrum Master, how they’re implemented will vary.    

A Leader. Not only does the Project Manager need to act as a leader, but they also need the skills to be a leader. They’re the role that oversees everything, so you need to be in control, motivate the team and support or protect them in some cases.  

Stakeholder Management. During any given project, a Project Manager will need to manage stakeholder requests varying from adding more scope to reducing the timeline. Knowing how to manage these conversations is critical, as if you say yes to everything, your team will quickly lose faith in you.  

The Project Manager has to bridge the gap between managing the expectation of the stakeholders with what is realistic for the project and its team.

An Organiser. Similar to the skills needed as a Scrum Master, the Project Manager needs to be a great organiser but at a larger scale. They need to organise not only their project team but also 3rd parties, stakeholders and any other dependencies within the project.  

Commercial awareness. Being commercially aware is critical as a Project Manager as you need to know the impact of change which will inevitably happen at some point of the project. You’ll also need to be able to manage the budget covering every aspect of the project, including profit management.    

Risk Management. As a Project Manager, you must always be thinking about what could go wrong. With this mindset, you’re able to think about the risks so you can then plan how to mitigate them. Being able to balance the different levels of risk is also important, how likely is this risk, when could it happen etc.  

Resource Management. In Project Management, the team members are often called resources as they’re grouped with every other aspect of a project. As a Project Manager, you need to be able to manage the project’s resources covering scheduling, costs and time.

Can a Scrum Master and Project Manager work together?

Yes in some cases a Scrum Master and Project Manager can work together. This is when you have a large complex project with multiple teams, many of whom are not using Scrum.  

This situation isn't ideal, but the Project Manager can support the Scrum Master when it comes to resolving dependencies or issues raised by the Scrum team. They can be that access to the broader project teams or 3rd parties so that the Scrum Master can focus purely on the Scrum team.  

In some cases, you can do both roles in the same company, just not at the same time. This may make some Scrum Masters spit out their tea while reading this, but it can work as I've experienced it. It's not ideal though.  

Within a digital agency, your team member must first have the skills and experience to do both roles. Then the key for those team members is to be able to flip their approach from one position to another.  

A good team member will always have the servant leader mindset whether you're a Scrum Master or a Project Manager. If they have this along with the skills and experience, they can flip between the two.

Can a Project Manager become a Scrum Master?

A Project Manager shouldn’t just try to be a Scrum Master by assuming they can do it with no training or experience.  

In some companies, it’s treated as the same role, but they’re very different as this post describes. It takes time, experience and effort to become a Scrum Master, so it’s not just a mentality change.  

If you act like a Project Manager while doing the Scrum Master role, the whole Scrum approach will quickly unravel. Transitioning from a Project Manager to a Scrum Master can at first feel like a loss of control and in some cases seniority, but that isn’t the case.  

The Scrum Master role is hugely fulfilling as it not only gives the individual making the change huge scope to learn and improve, but they also get the satisfaction of helping others and the team do the same.  

As a Scrum Master, you’ll quickly learn the power of the team is far greater than the individual, and by working together, you can all achieve high satisfaction and increased responsibility.

Recommended Sites and Articles for further reading

Mike Cohn’s site blog is a rich source of information for any aspiring Scrum Masters or experienced ones. Fantastic training options and free resource to read through. 

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This post by Sjoerd Nijland is a couple of years old now but I still it’s still a really valuable read. It highlights some watch-outs for Scrum Masters when either working within a company or looking to join them. Are they actually doing Scrum?

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The Digital Project Manager site has been going for nearly a decade now and is full of content spread across guides, tools and podcasts to name a few, A great source of information for any Project Manager working in the digital industry. 

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The Girls Guide to Project Management is another fantastic site full of useful information for any Project Manager. Elizabeth has been in the Project Management industry for 20 years so has experienced it all.

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Ben Willmott
Founder
Ben is Head of Agile Practices at the London based creative agency Karmarama where he creates bespoke ways or working for his clients and teams. Ben is also the founder of The PPM Academy specializing in coaching Project Management, Agile Delivery and how to be more productive at home and work.

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