A Scrum Master is not a Project Manager

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Those with little experience in Agile development may assume that a Scrum Master is simply a new and fancier name for a Project Manager. In truth, they couldn’t be more wrong. The two roles are worlds apart. If anything, it’s more accurate to compare the roles of the Product Owner and the Project Manager.

Let’s explore the roles of a Project Manager. Primarily, they plan and manage both the team and the project; they are the ones accountable for accomplishing all of the project objectives. In the most simplified terms, the Project Manager is the leader. This role couldn’t be further from the Scrum Master, who coaches and facilitates the team whilst supporting the Product Owner.

The Coach
Primarily, the Scrum Master’s main responsibility is making sure that the Scrum process is correctly implemented, maximising its benefits wherever they see fit. Their guiding and coaching role is heavily based around the support of the Project Owner. Whilst the Product Owner carries the responsibility for the project as a whole, the maintenance of the product backlog and re-prioritisations throughout, the Scrum Master is always there to help. The Scrum Master’s experiences allows them to provide a consultancy role, answering any questions on functionality, user feedback and user experience. Because the Product Owner’s task is an understandably arduous one, it is the Scrum Master’s role to assist them and to view the project from every angle. It’s possibly the Scrum Master’s role in assisting the Product Owner with effective management of the team that tricks people into thinking the role is similar to that of a Project Manager. Instead of assisting the team themselves, they coach the Product Owner which, in turns, helps them understand how to effectively manage the team.

Whilst some Scrum Masters do have a background in Project Management, it doesn’t mean that only those with experience in Project Management can fit the role. In fact, many traditional Project Managers struggle with the transition to the Scrum Master role, as they lose the heavy leader-based hierarchy and no longer lead their team towards a clear, pre-determined goal. Before, the waterfall approach would protect the Project Manager from the consequences of change. They’d have the ability to deal with any change in a strict form-filling fashion, protecting them from risk. On an Agile project, it’s likely that change will be addressed daily. For most traditionalists, this aptitude to change and the lack of product definition at the start of an Agile project is an off-putting trait.

The Scrum Master plays an essential role. Although Agile is being introduced to a lot more projects, there are still many who will shy away from its non-traditional methods. A lot of Project Managers are likely to stick to what they know, feeling it may be easier for them to understand. However, this means they are surrounded by the restrictions of the more traditional methods. When the Scrum Master begins working alongside the Product Owner, they’ll help them adapt – they’ll share their experience with prioritising the backlog and help them achieve their goals.

Similarly, the Scrum Master is also there to support the team. Becoming the link between the Product Owner and the team, they are there to guide them through any problems they may face. If they require assistance, the Scrum Master will coach them into using their skills, leading to a resolution of their issues without formally managing the team as a whole.
Although a Scrum Master will help the team by facilitating the reviews and planning sessions, it’s important that both the team and the Product Owner understand that their role is not managerial. The team is required to manage itself. The most successful scrum teams will have the ability to manage itself into a form that highlights what works best for them.

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