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SCRUM Master vs. Project Manager – Who to hire?

The Manager and the Master: Choosing Between A Scrum Master and Project Manager

What’s in a name? When it comes to Agile software development, does differentiating between a Scrum master and a project manager really matter?

To be brief, yes, it absolutely matters, and no, they are not the same. 

Understanding the differences between a Scrum master (SM) and a project manager (PM) requires us to clear up a few things first:

  • They might be “similar,” but they’re not interchangeable; Scrum masters and project managers are mutually exclusive
  • One person cannot (and should not) fulfill both roles. 
  • It’s way more than just a title — The “SM” and the “PM” are actually psychologically and professionally conflicting
  • If transitioning from a Waterfall method of development to Agile, don’t expect roles to simply move over in a one-to-one alignment
  • Without a Scrum master formally assigned, management has more of an incentive and ability to veto any optimizations or Agile behaviors that might challenge their vested interests

Source: Unsplash

While both operate from a similar base of knowledge, their roles and functions are different, so their focus and their vested interests are different too. 

To quote Ghostbusters: “Don’t cross the streams!”

Why the mix-up?

Because Agile project management is the noted industry standard today, associated rules, roles, and practices have not only exploded, but they’re being adopted across the board — often, without a sound understanding of the 12 Agile development principles in practice. 

Similarly, the term “Scrum master” has become a buzzword. And it’s not just customers who want to see it in action — plenty of teams are following the trend of instituting a Scrum master. 

But what we want isn’t always what we need.

The new-and-shiny-object syndrome afflicting the Scrum master seems to have left the role of project manager in the dust. Often the latter is now seen as archaic, “old-fashioned,” and constantly at risk of slipping into obscurity. 

But this perception is far from the truth. 

In fact, this “perception” fails to understand the important distinction between the two roles. 

There are moments where only a Scrum master can do what needs to be done, and there are functions that only a project manager should be handling. 

Let’s take a look at what these specific roles are, when teams should rely on each, and what operating in the “zone of genius” for each role really looks like. 

What does a Scrum Master do?

Between the project’s development and the customer’s requirements sits the Scrum master. They are coaches, facilitators, guides, defenders, protectors and nurturers of ideas and processes within the Scrum.  

Within Agile project management, the responsibility of the Scrum master is narrower than the project manager. 

The Scrum master supports the product owner (who is the supervisor and could very well be the project manager as well) by guiding the Scrum process, its proper implementation and the optimization of its benefits. 

As part of a larger team, Scrum masters are responsible for daily standups and the tasks related to this. 

It’s up to the product owner to refresh and maintain the product backlog, which describes the product, its requirements, the customers it is serving and more. 

The Scrum master then handles the operative tasks that respond to the product backlog and these requirements. They also handle the development tasks surrounding the changes in requirements, which naturally evolve as more information comes to light and the project progress and evolves. 

In this support and facilitator position, the Scrum master can help “dodge bullets,” so to speak, keeping developers focused on their main priority: developing and problem-solving to iteratively create the best product they can. 

Source: Unsplash

When the product owner adjusts and re-prioritizes the backlog to fit changes and steer the project, it’s the Scrum master who, working as a ship’s first mate, guides the operation, looking at the project from all angles. 

The ultimate decision-making power, however, rests with the product owner — it’s their responsibility to ensure the project is moving ahead. 

However, when in doubt, and for clarification, they’ll turn to the Scrum master to help answer questions about user experience, deal with issues on functionality, to gain feedback and insight from users and when they feel the need to realign development to fit with business changes. 

If a customer provides a skilled project manager or product owner on their side, then the Scrum master will be someone on the development team who will need to handle these kinds of operative tasks. 

Luckily, the role of the Scrum master is to help this individual understand better how to effectively manage the work of the team using the product owner’s own product backlog, planning, and running review meetings.

What does a project manager do?

You might notice that, while describing the role of the Scrum master, we ended up defining the role of the project manager. Oftentimes, the product owner is the project manager, and they are responsible for communicating with the customers on a daily basis, identifying the concrete development tasks.

The project manager then returns to the development team and must constantly and consistently outline and feed the team with these tasks. 

Decision-making is ultimately (and firmly!) in the hands of the project manager, and they must finalize the feasibility of the development along with the customer, then break it down into concrete and executable tasks for the development team.

Source: Unsplash

It’s also within the project manager’s purview to prioritize these tasks while working with the Scrum master about the deadlines, used and remaining resources (which are, most likely, development hours).

The project manager is responsible for maintaining and running all functions, approval, and task-management related to a project management tool like Jira, Trello, ASANA, etc. They validate change requests (CR) with the customer, having a stronger customer viewpoint (and, thus, a stronger interest) than a Scrum master.

When to choose which?

So how do you know which you need? 

You need a Scrum master if:

  • You have a product owner in-house, and you are breaking down the development into small tasks
  • You are using Agile methodology exclusively
  • Your developers can work without strong supervision

You need a project manager if:

  • You want to give higher authority (e.g., decision making) to a designated person
  • You are using mixed methodology (elements from Agile and Waterfall)
  • You need someone who can maintain your backlog, your task list, and the administration

It should be clear why the two roles cannot cross: They have fundamentally different focuses. To cross them would produce a conflict of interest. Their operations also require vastly different viewpoints. 

Source: Unsplash

The project manager liaises with the customer and the project, actually handling its progression, keeping the customer’s interests and needs in mind. However, the Scrum master must focus singularly on the operations, the “meat and potatoes” of the development process, going between the project manager and the developer team. 

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