What's the Difference Between a Project Manager and a Scrum Master?

Let’s just get it out there. The Scrum Master role and the project manager role are very separate and distinct. For someone new to Agile, the project manager and Scrum Master roles might seem similar, or even identical. But it is so important to recognize the differences between the two, recognize where some tasks may overlap, and recognize how they complement one another in large-scale projects.

So what’s the big difference? Let’s break it down.

A Scrum Master is a coach and facilitator. A project manager helps manage the project timeline, resources, and scope in order to meet business requirements. A Scrum Master, however, helps ensure the scrum team is successful. (Now, that doesn’t mean that a project manager doesn’t care about the team.) Furthermore, sometimes a project manager helps ensure that multiple projects within an organization are successful and meeting the business needs while a Scrum Master is generally focused specifically on one project team.

You might be wondering, Then how are project manager duties accounted for within the Agile framework? If you’re going through a transition from Waterfall, you might think that the project manager title just switches to "Scrum Master." However, the responsibilities of a typical project manager do not directly translate over to a Scrum Master role. Nor do all project managers have the skills required to be a Scrum Master.

When you switch from Waterfall to Agile, the responsibilities of the project manager are split among a variety of team members. Some responsibilities go to the product owner, some to the Scrum Master, and some to the team in general. For example, the Scrum Master will now focus on the process but the product owner will prioritize features. Overall, transitioning from Waterfall to Agile is not a direct (nor easy) process. Let’s take a look at some of the differing responsibilities between the two roles:

Project Manager:

  • Manages the budget
  • Reports to business leadership on project progress
  • Focuses on process
  • Allocates tasks
  • Prioritizes features
  • Manages risk
  • Coordinates with other dependent teams

Scrum Master:

  • Serves the team where needed
  • Removes blockers or impediments that hinder project progress
  • Coaches the product owner
  • Monitoring the progress of the sprint
  • Helps team estimate and increase velocity
  • Promotes continuous communication
  • Facilitates sprint planning and other scrum meetings
  • Monitors and helps improve team dynamics
  • Lends support to whatever part of the project needs assistance at a certain time
  • Motivates the team
  • Acts as the glue that holds the team together

Now, what I’m not proposing is that there isn't ever a time or place for a project manager. Large projects that cover multiple teams and also work with other dependent teams often greatly benefit from a project manager. A project manager can be very useful when there’s a need to coordinate multiple teams, combine timelines, collaborate on resource needs, and outline dependent features.

The Scrum Master role, however, is grounded in servant leadership tenants. You’ll notice that the responsibilities of the Scrum Master aren’t necessarily mapped directly to a deliverable. Why is that? Because the activities of the Scrum Master change daily based on the needs of the team. Great teams rely on and trust their Scrum Master to enable them to get their work done and shield them from outside forces, which helps them move as fast as possible.

This isn’t to say that the Scrum Master is all art and no science. It’s within the release planning and sprint planning processes that the Scrum Master gets more scientific in ensuring that the team takes in the right amount of work and is setup to execute on that work.

Ultimately a Scrum Master is a great tool to support a team to the finish line of a successful project. Sometimes those things that make a successful project are intangible. That’s why it’s so important for the team to have buy-in to the importance of the role and to be transparent about needs as soon as they arise. The Scrum Master can really be a deciding factor in a healthy, successful project team.

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