Scrum Master or Agile Project Manager: Pick One

Let me start off by saying the Scrum Master and Agile Project Manager are mutually exclusive in a mature Agile environment. I’d pick Scrum Master.

Let me also say that businesses will continue doing whatever they feel comfortable with; it’s their business. If they wish to do Scrum ceremonies and have an Agile Project Manager leading the Development Team, they will.

I was recently talking with a group of Agile practitioners and two of them said they left their jobs because the company wanted an Agile Project Manager to lead the team rather than a Scrum Master to serve the team. I had also left a company when the role changed from Scrum Master to one befitting an Agile Project Manager.

There’s a lot of published work about the transformation from traditional management and project management to an Agile environment. This from Ben Linders on InfoQ gives an idea of the effort and trauma behind an Agile transformation in a traditional Command & Control environment. However, there is little work about the opposite direction. I found this question on Agile Connections about transitioning from Agile back to a waterfall model and presumably, back to having a Project Manager.

When looking at job ads, you often see a ‘Agile Project Manager’ role description having “drive on-time deliveries” or “Ensure estimates are accurate”. The business has Scrum ceremonies but often want an Agile Project Manager to ‘facilitate’ these meeting. The Agile Project Manager runs the show and is accountable to getting on-time deliveries based on accurate estimates for the entire project, not just the next two weeks.

In Scrum, the Scrum Master helps the Development Team and Product Owner find ways to meet their sprint commitments. The Scrum Master helps the Scrum Team groom and prioritize work so the most valuable work is done sooner. The Scrum Master serves the Scrum Team and the Scrum Team, not the Scrum Master, runs the show. The Product Owner and Development Team together are accountable for their sprint results and value delivered to the customers.

Agile Project Manager

If a business is uncomfortable with Agile and unable to relinquish control to the Agile teams but they still want the buzzword ‘Agile’ somewhere, they create the role, ‘Agile Project Manager’. The title itself should tell you the company wants a project manager. I’ve heard the arguments for and against the Agile Project Manager but almost always, the argument ‘for’ tends to revolve around stakeholder management and/or the failure of the business to adopt an Agile mindset.

I was at a meeting recently where I asked the question about Scrum Master Vs. Agile Project Manager. One person pointed out the governance of a financial institution, regulatory requirements, and large number of business stakeholders to justify the need for an Agile Project Manager. However, it was also noted that stakeholder management in Scrum is the responsibility of the Product Owner. When I was Scrum Master at a financial institution, I had all the governance and regulatory requirements written as non-functional requirements, applicable for each sprint. I thought the Product Owner did a great job addressing the various concerns of the business stakeholders by working their requirements each and every sprint. So stakeholder management, even for a complex business, can be done using the Scrum framework.

The person from a financial institution also said that the rest of the business wasn’t Agile and therefore needed an Agile Project Manager to bridge the gap. In the group of 15 there was a lot of agreement but the agreement was for the business to adopt an Agile mindset. This isn’t easy but there are executive Agile Coaches who speak the language of the c-levels and can help them better see the business reasons for adopting Agile. Simply put, a Scrum Master often doesn’t have the title or clout or skills to shift the c-levels in most organizations.

To help avoid the Agile Project Manager role or to phase it out, the Scrum Master can educate and coach the Scrum Team, (Development & Product), on backlog management, backlog grooming, sprint planning, and better engagement with customers. This sounds ‘bottom up’ but positive results can help shift the executives to a neutral stance or even a pro Agile position. Where I was at, the CEO didn’t care what process the product development team followed but just wanted positive results. We adopted Scrum, had that positive result, and the CEO then asked why all the development teams weren’t using “that agile thing” (I did a guest blog post at Pragmatic Marketing called, ‘Agile: Don’t Sell It, Demonstrate It‘ which describes this).

In big institutions, it is unlikely that transformation to Agile and Agile adoption will be even in all departments. Assume it isn’t and prepare to be very visible with progress and value delivered. Visibly create several non-functional requirements that directly address the governance or regulatory concerns your business stakeholders have. The real advantage and value was by making the progress and artifacts created for governance and regulatory requirements extremely visible for all business stakeholders.

Summary

In the end, business needs will drive the adoption of a Scrum Master or Agile Project Manager role. In Agile, the Scrum Team assumes the role of project manager by taking on the responsibility to manager the value delivered in each sprint, something that solves or contributes to solving a customer problem.

If the business is adopting Agile from top down and the c-levels understand how the Scrum Team assumes the responsibilities and accountability once held by the project manager, they’ll probably go with a Scrum Master without too much drama.

If the c-levels are having difficulties seeing the advantages of Agile and Scrum, get an Executive Agile Coach to help with the transformation. Management will probably not allow the Scrum Teams the level of empowerment and autonomy necessary to function as a project manager and will likely go with a Agile Project Manager role.

 

Author: Robert Boyd

I'm a CSP (Certified Scrum Professional), CSM (Certified ScrumMaster), and CSPO (Certified Scrum Product Owner). For 30 years I've been streamlining processes and systems. I've introduced agile methodologies to software and product management departments, resulting in a 300 percent increase in feature deliveries.

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