7 Areas Scrum Masters & Agile Project Managers Differ

These days you often see ads for Agile Project Managers mixed in with ads for Scrum Masters. Both the Scrum Master and Agile Project Manager will operate in a Scrum setting but these are not the same role. They’ll both want successful projects but how they achieve that success is different. Below I highlight 7 key areas where the roles of Scrum Master and Agile Project Manager are different:

  1. Authority
  2. Project Planning
  3. Sprint Planning
  4. People Management
  5. Reporting
  6. Resource Management
  7. Measure of Success

Before talking about the differences, here are definitions for a Scrum Master and an Agile Project Manager. I’m making the assumption that the Agile Project Manager is a Project Manager working within the Scrum framework.

Scrum Master definition

Mike Cohn defines a Scrum Master as responsible “for making sure a Scrum team lives by the values and practices of Scrum” and “as a process owner for the team”.

The Scrum Guide defines the Scrum Master as “responsible for ensuring Scrum is understood and enacted … by ensuring that the Scrum Team adheres to Scrum theory, practices, and rules.

Project Manager definition

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines effective Project Managers as having, “full responsibility and accountability, must apply lessons learned, must define roles and responsibilities, must lead project planning and tracking, must perform risk management, must apply best practices, must communicate to the project sponsor and team, must promote client involvement, must mentor, must promote good working relationships, and must make things happen.”

7 Key Differences

1 – Authority

Project Managers operate in an environment where they are in control of the team and have authority to assign tasks to them. The Project Manager is accountable for the success of the project by meeting schedule-scope-budget. The best Project Managers skillfully apply Command & Control over the developers to achieve results.

An example of authority for a Project Manager:

Facilitating the daily standup

  • Ensure that all team members attend
  • Keep track or tasks and gather a high-level understanding of the tasks.
  • Track if people are constantly underestimating when they will be finished with a task: Raise it with the team leads and work with team leads to resolve the issues.
  • Use a better understanding of the technical issues to know when to pressure deadline and outcome vs just asking the questions.

Scrum Masters operate in an environment where they have no authority over anyone. A Scrum Master is a coach, mentor, and trainer to the Scrum Team, helping them to adopt Agile practices and becoming self-organized. The Scrum Master helps too by removing impediments that can slow the development team. The Scrum Master will help other parts of the business understand their relationship with the Scrum Team including how they can best support the team.

The same meeting from a Scrum Master’s perspective:

Ensure a daily standup happens

  • The Development Team uses the Daily Scrum to inspect progress toward the Sprint Goal and to inspect how progress is trending toward completing the work in the Sprint Backlog.
  • The Scrum Master ensures that the Development Team has the meeting, but the Development Team is responsible for conducting the Daily Scrum.
  • The Scrum Master teaches the Development Team to keep the Daily Scrum within the 15-minute time-box.
  • The Scrum Master enforces the rule that only Development Team members participate in the Daily Scrum.

One quickly sees that unlike the Project Manager’s perspective, the Scrum Master is helping the team become self-managing, self-organizing. One can also quickly see that the Project Manager’s version of the Daily Standup will happen if the Development Team resists taking on these responsibilities.

2 – Project Planning

For the Project Manager, project planning and the resulting project plan is the most recognizable activity and artifact. The project plan becomes a contract for services and deliverables to the business. In the plan, the Project Manager sets down incremental delivery dates for products and services. These dates are based on upfront estimates and are usually incorporated into the company’s business plans. The project risk registry usually has these delivery dates listed as a critical risk to the project if missed. The Project Manager is held accountable to these dates and commits the development team to deliver based on these dates.

For the Scrum Master, project planning, or more often called release planning, is an act of participation with the Scrum Development Team and Product Owner. All estimates are given by the Development Team. Epic user story estimates are usually based on similarly sized user stories from past projects. The release plan is updated at the end of each sprint as the team learns more. There is little accountability for the upfront estimates as these are not thought reliable and dates slipping to the right is not considered a significant risk. The importance of this release planning is to get a team understanding of the most valuable work and ensuring it’s done first. In Agile, it is often the case that scope changes to fit a release date.

3 – Sprint Planning

The major difference between the Project Manager and Scrum Master during sprint planning is who is in control.

The Project Manager will drive the planning session to ensure compliance with the overall project plan; to meet the project schedule and commitments. The Project Manager usually provides direction to the Development Team and will often assign tasks to the members. It is the Project Manager who pushes the developers to take on as much work as possible.

The Scrum Master will ensure sprint planning happens. The Product Owner and the Development Team usually run this meeting with the Scrum Master helping to keep the meeting on time. The Product Owner will present the highest priority user stories to the Development Team but only the Development Team determines how much work they can do in a sprint. The Scrum Master helps Development Team use previous sprint results as a guide for the team’s capacity as they ‘pull’ in work from the Backlog. The Development Team plans how they’ll do the work necessary to meet the goals of the sprint. It is the Product Owner who often pushes the Development Team to take on as much work as possible but the Scrum Master is there to help guard against the team over committing.

4 – People Management

The Project Manager has traditionally had direct control over the people working on their project. The Project Manager often provides day-to-day work assignments and decides what tasks to do and when tasks are complete. This is done in accordance with the project plan. In most of my experiences with project managing, the Project Manager is less concerned about the growth of people working the project and more concerned about costs and schedule.  However, in some organisations the Project Manager is also the manager of the individuals on the team providing professional and salary reviews.

The Scrum Master has no direct control over the any members of the Scrum Team. The Product Owner is accountable for what is done and the Development Team is fully empowered find the best way to implement. However, the Scrum Master uses coaching techniques to help the team and individuals maximize their effectiveness. Some of these include ‘powerful questions’, ‘impact feedback’, mentoring, and one-on-one or team Agile training. The Scrum Master is there to serve the Scrum Team, to help them be more and more successful.

Agile and Scrum place great emphasis and responsibility on the Product Owner and Development Team. The Product Owner and Development Team become the primary decision makers in all product work. Making the Scrum Team the decision makers will often directly conflict with one or more managers in the organization.

5 – Reporting

I’m not aware of any company that doesn’t have measures and metrics to see how work is progressing. The major difference is how these measures come about and are communicated.

The Project Manager generally is required to report upward in the organization based on the reporting or communication section of the project plan. This is traditionally from the business’s and Project Manager’s perspective. The developers will have little or no input to this nor will they have much say in how these measures are used.

The Scrum Master too is likely to report upwards information about the team’s progress to date, issues or impediments, and new-found risks. However, this is information the Development Team and Product Owner have already provided openly to all. The Scrum Master often packages the information in a format desired by management. If management wants a specific metric, Velocity comes to mind, it’s up to the Scrum Master to help educate the business on the value of such a metric and prevent abuse.

6 – Resource Management

The Project Manager is responsible for costs and generally needs to track daily charges against the project. The Project Manager will negotiate with the business to acquire additional resources necessary for the project if needed. Project resources are usually specialist for a specific area of development and can come and go as the specific need comes and goes.

The Scrum Master does not control the resources of the within the team. In Scrum, the Development Team is thought to be cross-functional; having all the knowledge and skills in place upfront to do the work. If there arises a situation where the team is unable to do the work because of a skill or knowledge gap, the Scrum Master helps resolves this by getting the right training to the team. This advantages the team as the team grows with this new knowledge.

7 – Measure of success

The measure of success between a Project Manager and Scrum Master is very different in context, one’s about an individual, the other is about a team. For the Project Manager, it’s very much about this single person’s ability to make the project happen, hit all the delivery dates, and provide a product as promised up front. For a scrum master, it’s how well they’ve trained the Scrum Team to be responsible for their own success, getting customers involved with each sprint, and delivering each sprint a potentially releasable full or partial solution for the customers’ problem.

Project manager measures of success are often the same measures for a successful project. These are interconnected, interdependent, and generally you can’t have one without the other. Did the project come in on schedule and on budget? Was the promised scope delivered? Are the customers satisfied with the product? Does the product work as promised (quality)?

Scrum Master measures of success are most often directly related to how well the Product Owner and Development Team do in their sprints. Does the Development Team have potentially releasable sprints? Does the business respect that the Development Team is responsible for making the results of each sprint potentially releasable? Does management respect that they no longer give the Development Team direction (no distractions)? Does all work flow through the Product Owner? Does the business respect the Product Owner’s authority of the Backlog? Does the Scrum Team groom the Backlog for ‘sprint ready’ user stories? Are the customers happy with the sprint results at the sprint review? Does the team grow both as individuals and as a team?

Summary

In the end, business culture and needs will drive the hiring of a Scrum Master or Agile Project Manager. A lot of companies adopt the ceremonies of Scrum, (Sprint Planning, Daily Standup, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective), with positive and beneficial results. Jeff Sutherland once told me that just having a Daily Standup should see a 20% – 30% increase in productivity.

So it comes down to having an individual or a team run a project. Agile supports the team as the source of new and better ways of thinking (see Steven Johnson’s video on Where Good Ideas Come From).

In Agile, the Scrum Team assumes the role of Project Manager by taking on the responsibility to manage the backlog, ensuring the most valuable work is done first. The Scrum Team is also responsible to deliver, in every sprint, something that solves or contributes to solving a customer problem. However, this takes time and it might be many months before the team takes on full responsibility for sprint outcomes.

If the business is determined to have an individual held accountable for results then they’ll probably go with an Agile Project Manager. This is especially appealing as there’s little ramp up time needed; the Project Manager is directing the team from day one. A major drawback is an effective Project Manager is often a domain expert. Finding the combination of excellent project management skills along with domain expertise can prove difficult in an increasingly specialist and niche product environment.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.