Is there a difference between a Project Manager (PM) and a Scrum Master (SM)?

Some time ago we pointed out differences between Project Manager and Product Owner. For Scrum beginners, also the Project Manager and Scrum Master roles might seem comparable or even identical. Is it true? Let’s compare both and see the real difference!

Scrum Master (SM) - the mentor and ambassador

His role is defined, of course, in the Scrum Guide but we also delivered some essentials on the blog. What we can find there is that he is an ambassador of the Scrum in the whole organization, so he is responsible for promoting and supporting the framework. That means his primary goal is to help everyone understand its theory, practices, rules and values. He works not only with the Scrum Team but is also focused on relations between the Team and the rest of an organization too. In general his a servant leader who provides different services to specified persons or groups.

For the Product Owner

  • Helping to find the most effective techniques for Product Backlog management (including creating the appropriate items within it) and ensure that PO knows how to work with Product Backlog to maximize value.
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed.

For the Development Team

  • Working with the Team on their self-organization and cross-functionality.
  • Building the atmosphere of openness and boldness in communication and decision making.
  • Removing impediments to the Development Team’s progress.
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed.

For the organization

  • Planning, leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum implementation and adoption.
  • Helping employees and stakeholders (these externals too) understand and enact Scrum and empirical product development.
  • Working with other Scrum Masters to maximize the effectiveness of the Scrum in the organization.

Project Manager (PM) - guardian of the process

The role of the Project Manager is defined in a variety of publications and might differ based on organization needs and standards. In general, the Project Manager’s role is to align available resources with project requirements and ensure that at the end of the project these requirements will meet in a stakeholders-satisfying manner.

Principal responsibilities of the Project Manager are:

  • defining project scope with proper stakeholders,
  • creating project roadmap,
  • prioritizing features during the development process,
  • guarantee sufficient workforce,
  • managing budget,
  • mitigating risk,
  • analyzing dependencies and allocating tasks,
  • monitoring and adjusting plans and forecasts,
  • maintaining relationships and reporting to stakeholders,
  • ending the project.

A quick comparison shows that in general, Project Manager is more focused on processes than Scrum Master. Of course, it’s still true nevertheless the ongoing Agile transformation and new “be more leader than manager” approach change the vision of a good Project Manager.

So what are the differences?

First of all, even if we can define a common, overall, long-term goal which is a successful completing of each project, the way how they both going to achieve this goal is entirely different. Scrum Master ensures that the team members are following Agile practices in the right direction and surrounding of the team do not interfere in a destructive way which means that he or she is focused strictly on the team. There is no place for advanced statistics and measurements which Project Managers quite often do. Of course, it is legitimate for the reason that PM has to follow spent time, planned budget and scope or risks day by day to guarantee perfect project realisation. Project Manager is not only focussed on following specified framework or principles by the team but rather on the project as a whole big process. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that he or she will not count with the team and its needs!

And what if we, unfortunately, don’t achieve defined goals? In traditional project management, the great responsibility lies on PM but in agile, it is shared among the team. In Scrum, sharing the responsibility is not only a slogan. It’s a rule that requires maturity, accountability, and trust to each other in the team. We cannot confound it with blame shifting or blurring the responsibility to avoid unpleasant consequences.

A transition from PM to SM, is it possible?

Many companies try to do this, looking for “Scrum Master” whose role and responsibility are misinterpreted and almost the same as Project Manager. It’s not a crime but a profound misunderstanding the Scrum framework. What is more, both need particular skill-sets which are similar but not interchangeable, and that is the reason why that type of transition might be hard for some people. The agile approach requires a tremendous mindset change, and the role of a servant leader (SM) instead of the king of the castle (PM) is elusive without it.

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