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  • Jeremy Willets

Are Scrum Masters The New Project Managers?

Introduction

I recently spent some time auditing collateral from a major consultancy on the role of Scrum Master. This included multiple levels of job descriptions and competencies. Before I even read a word, my initial reaction was, “why do we need this? The role is already defined in the Scrum Guide, and that’s been around for a good long while.” But then I started reading the job descriptions and competencies. The word “project” was everywhere. That was the first red flag. As I continued reading, I was struck by just how diametrically opposed some of it was with the Scrum Guide. As I thought through some of the competencies that were described, I could do some mental gymnastics to make the case that they were indeed applicable to a Scrum Master. But it took some work. And a lot of explanation. The whole experience got me thinking whether Scrum Masters are slowly being turned into the new project managers. Let’s explore this topic in the following sections.


The Role of Project Managers

Let’s get something straight right out of the gate — I have nothing against project managers. I know a few project managers. I even had that job title at one point in my career (albeit, I spent all of my time playing the role of Scrum Master). For me, the job title brings to mind some very specific words — words like waterfall, scope, schedule, staffing, resources, etc. You get the idea. A lot of these words aren’t words that people think of when they think of Agile. And that’s where I am with the role of project manager — I don’t think of project managers and Agile in the same breath. I don’t necessarily think of them as opposing forces; I just think of them as serving different functions. So now that you understand my perspective on the role of project managers, let’s dig a little deeper.

Projects vs. Products

There’s been a lot of writing in recent years about how product thinking is something that successful businesses master. Mik Kersten’s “Project to Product” book is one example, as are writings from people like Marty Cagan and Jeff Patton. This type of thinking has become so en vogue that even the Scaled Agile Framework has taken to emphasizing how this type of thinking is core to the mission of Business Agility. Even though this type of thinking has become more visible in recent years, folks in the Agile sphere have long touted product over project thinking. Concepts like long-lived, cross-functional, teams speak to the notion of thinking about products and values streams; not finite projects. The idea of assembling a team, doing some work, and breaking up the group at the end of the project doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in a world where products are king. After all, it’s called “product development,” not “project development.”

The Role of Project Managers in Agile

The role that project managers play in Agile can vary depending on the business and the context. Here are two patterns for how project managers interact with Agile teams and programs:

  • The Project Managers Become Scrum Masters

  • In this pattern, the organization decides to fill the role with project managers. This can happen, for example, when a company decides to begin an Agile transformation and needs to staff the Scrum Master role. Instead of hiring an arsenal of Scrum Masters, the company looks around at who they already have on the payroll and pick out project managers to fill the role. Project managers may end up filling the Scrum Master role on a temporary or permanent basis. Additionally, the project managers may also be filling the role on a full-time basis or part-time basis. For example, it’s possible that the project manager is in charge of a project, while also serving as Scrum Master for an Agile team. They’re essentially splitting time between two different roles. This pattern is common, but also risky. If project managers don’t embrace the role of Scrum Master, and are incentivized to fill the role well, they’ll likely flip back into old habits. That will likely have a detrimental impact on the Agile teams and programs they’re supporting.

  • Project Managers As Conduit to The Business

  • In this pattern, project managers exist outside the periphery of the Agile teams and programs. Responsibilities include things like prioritization of large chunks of work, managing customer communication, budgeting, collating large sets of data for senior leaders, etc. These are responsibilities that likely fall well outside the scope of the Scrum Master role, yet need to be done by someone to keep the business running efficiently. This pattern is also common, but not without risks. The chief risk is whether this pattern promotes an “us vs. them” mentality — where it’s the Agile people vs. the PMO. Even though everyone’s still working for the same company, friction can exist in this pattern because each side thinks they “know best.”


How Scrum Masters Differ From Project Manager

I won’t spend time here describing the Scrum Master role. If you’re not familiar with the role, please go read the Scrum Guide. It’s the body of knowledge where the role was originally described, and it continues to offer a concise and clear vision of what the role looks like. There is much more writing than the Scrum Guide, but that’s the place to start. In terms of skill sets, there is undoubtedly some overlap between the skill sets of Scrum Masters and Project Managers. For example, both would likely need to be excellent written and verbal communicators. Being detail oriented is also helpful. But this section is meant to explore the differences. So let’s do that.

  • People vs. Project

  • Scrum Masters operate with the interests of the people they support in mind. They’re team builders and coaches at heart. In my experience, project managers are focused on project execution. In extreme examples, they treat people as “fungible resources.”

  • Leadership Style

  • Scrum Masters operate with a servant-leadership mindset, and that’s something that doesn’t seem as integral to project managers. Their focus is often on crafting a plan to get the work done as efficiently as possible (“on time and on budget”). That’s not to say that they never serve teams; it’s just not the primary mindset they bring to the table.

  • Emergent Work vs. Planned Work

  • Scrum Masters embrace the core principles of Agile around flexibility for the purpose of better serving customers. As work is done, people and teams learn more. Scope may grow. Scope may shrink. New solutions are identified. Old approaches are scrapped. Operating in this fashion is “table stakes” in a true Agile environment. Project managers accept that scope may ebb and flow, too, but are often very focused on putting together a plan and then managing to that initial plan. Are things going “to plan” or does there need to be a “change request”?

Why Scrum Masters are Being Portrayed as Project Managers

Now that we’ve juxtaposed the Scrum Master role with that of a Project Manager, let’s discuss why both roles seem like they are being treated as synonymous. The following factors are at play:

  • Project Manager is a Well Understood Role

  • Project managers have existed in organizations for decades. To give you some perspective, the Project Management Institute was founded in 1969. Project management is taught all around the world, and has applications outside of IT and software development. Go up to any person on the street and ask them what a project manager does and they’ll likely be able to give you a semblance of a coherent answer. People know what project managers are supposed to do. Which leads me to our next item…

  • Scrum Master is Not (Yet) a Well Understood Role

  • The Scrum Master role is nowhere near as long-lived as that of Project Manager. Nor is it as widely understood. Ask that same “person on the street” what a Scrum Master does and you might get a laugh. You might also get some discussion of rugby. The role sounds somewhat mystical in nature. When I describe the role to someone who has no idea what it is, I often describe it as a person who works with people and teams to build great products. I sometimes gravitate to the phase “team-building.” I think it’s a good differentiator between Scrum Master and Project Manager.

  • Companies Already Have Project Managers

  • When companies are exposed to things like Agile, Scrum, and SAFe, they often wonder whether they can shift to that way of working with their current staff, or if they’ll need to hire people for roles that didn’t previously exist. In many Agile transformations, Project Managers are asked to become Scrum Masters. It’s a marriage of convenience for both parties — the company fills the Scrum Master role with someone already on staff, and the Project Manager gets to remain gainfully employed.

  • Blending Terminology

  • If you do a search for jobs on LinkedIn or GlassDoor, you’ll find postings for Scrum Master. But you’ll also likely find a bevy of the following permutations — Iteration Manager, Agile Process Manager, Agile Project Manager, Iteration Lead, Agile Coach, etc. The job descriptions themselves include the phrase “Scrum Master,” but it might not. These job titles often serve for companies to bend the Scrum Master role to fit their own vision of what the role is intended to be. These job titles can also be a way to layer additional responsibilities on — for example, maybe they want someone that has Kanban skills. Or maybe they want a Scrum Master that’s also going to manage people.


Conclusion

Despite what some large consultancies would have you believe, Scrum Masters are not the new Project Managers. While there is undoubtedly some overlap in skill sets, the roles are different enough to warrant their own spots on the organizational chart. As more firms transition to an Agile way of working, there will be a wider awareness of the Scrum Master role and what good Scrum Mastership looks like. This transition will also to a catalyst for some Project Managers to diversify their skill sets and become Scrum Masters. But there will also be opportunities for Project Managers to continue doing what they’ve previously done.

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