Great Project Managers are Different than Great Scrum Masters

Photo by Robert Higgins

Photo by Robert Higgins

When agilists talk about the differences between project managers and scrum masters, it often sounds like "scrum masters good, project managers bad."  I've attempted to explain the differences before, and I've gotten some criticism for it.  99u posted an article on Top 10 Characteristics of GREAT Project Managers that I think can help differentiate between the two roles, so let's look at their list and compare:

1. Command authority naturally.

The article elaborates that a great project manager doesn't need borrowed power to enlist the help of others and is valued by the organization.  Great scrum masters are servant leaders who remove impediments for their teams and organizations.  Rather than command "authority," I think they command respect.

2. Possess quick sifting abilities, knowing what to note and what to ignore.

Great scrum masters listen to their intuition and trust their instincts.  Listening and observing a team's interactions, they sense when there is conflict or confusion.  Most importantly, great scrum masters are not tied to their own judgments or interpretations; they frequently ask the team questions to foster a shared understanding and encourage the team to own decisions.  They also help protect the team from distractions during the sprint, so the team can focus on the sprint goal.

3. Set, observe, and re-evaluate project priorities frequently.

To me, the difference between a project manager and a scrum master is what they are focused on.  Project managers are focused on the project work, and a scrum master is focused on fostering a high performing team.  There are absolutely project managers who also foster high performing teams, and there are certainly scrum masters who work very closely with their product owners and teams to help them manage projects.  But what I experienced as a project manager who transitioned to a scrum master, and what I see for those I coach to make the same transition, is that we get triggered and revert back to some old behaviors--not just command and control behaviors, but also ones where we feel the need to understand details or reprioritize work for efficiencies or offer solutions.  The product owner is responsible for setting priorities in scrum (not the scrum master).

4. Ask good questions and listen to stakeholders.

Scrum masters do ask questions--powerful questions that push the team's thinking to create possibility.  They inspire and motivate and move the team closer to what they desire.  In fact, many of the questions that a scrum master asks might not be for him to understand better--it is for the team to gain a better understanding.  The scrum master is listening to what is being said and what is not.  He notices how in tune the team is with the product owner, stakeholders, and customers.  A project manager often asks questions to gain clarification for herself and for her project team.

5. Do not use information as a weapon or a means of control.

Scrum is based on transparency, and scrum masters also do not use information as a weapon or a means of control.

6. Adhere to predictable communication schedules

Scrum masters may uphold the team's sprint cadence and set some regular communications.  I've also noticed that great scrum masters are communicating regularly and don't wait for a meeting to provide information.

7. Possess domain expertise in project management as applied to a particular field.

Scrum masters need some expertise in scrum and may not need to know deeply about the particular field or domain their team is working in. When hiring a scrum master, experience in a given field is rarely a requirement.

8. Exercise independent and fair consensus-building skills when conflict arises.

Scrum masters expect constructive disagreement within their teams and facilitate conflict as needed.  Their goal is to help the team to process the conflict and come to a consensus.

9. Cultivate and rely on extensive informal networks inside and outside the firm to solve problems that arise.

This is a must in order for scrum masters to remove impediments.

10. Look forward to going to work!

I hope this is true for Scrum Masters too!  

Transitioning from a project manager to a scrum master is like learning to dance--some people pick it up quickly, and others take longer.  The dance is in figuring out when to teach, when to facilitate, when to coach, and when to mentor.  It is challenging, and I think that's what makes it interesting.  A project manager role is different from a scrum master role, and that's not to say that one is better than the other: they just have different expectations and responsibilities.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.