What’s the difference between a Scrum Master and a Project Manager? It’s a great question with a couple of different ways to answer, from theoretical to practical. Before getting into what these two roles look like in practice, let’s take a look at them from a theoretical perspective.
A Scrum Master is a member of the Scrum team that is responsible for leading Agile principles and clearing any obstacles or roadblocks that might hinder the project. They support and coach the Product Owner and protect the team from outside distractions.
A Scrum Master acts as a Servant Leader for the team and Product Owner. Their goal is to make the team as successful as possible. The Scrum Master’s role and responsibilities are truly defined in the Scrum Guide. It’s the ultimate source for understanding the Scrum Methodology, and the players in this approach.
The tools a Scrum Master will bring to a project are the Scrum Ceremonies like Daily Stand Up, Sprint Planning, Sprint Demos/Reviews, and Retrospectives. They’ll also pull out a prioritized backlog, Sprint goals, story point sizing, user stories and acceptance criteria, and definition of done.
A Project Manager leads the team through planning and executing the project, holding team members accountable to deliverables as defined on a roadmap or timeline, and managing risk. Ultimately, a Project Manager is responsible to deliver the project on time, on budget, and with the right scope.
The Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) is the definitive resource for defining and detailing the role and responsibilities of Project Managers. It explains the many processes, tools, and techniques that Project Managers can apply to their projects and teams.
Some examples of these that are commonly applied include a Cost-Benefit Analysis, Change Requests, Dependency Management, RAID Log, SWOT Analysis, and RACI Matrices.
Scrum Master vs Project Manager In Practice
Taking a purely theoretical approach to answering the Scrum Master vs Project Manager question “ suggests that there can be no overlap between the two. It implies that, because they have different goals and people to which they are accountable, there’s a black and white distinction between the two roles.
A Scrum Master is accountable to the team, while a Project Manager is accountable to the client or organization. Some organizations might have the job title of Scrum Master, some might have Project Managers, and some might have both jobs.
But can one person do both?
While it’s tempting to pit Scrum Masters and Project Managers against each other, it doesn’t have to be that way. At MentorMate, we have Project Managers, who also serve as Scrum Masters. Rarely in technology, and in the world in general, are things so black and white. So, we serve as Project Managers who lead our development teams as a Scrum Master.
Recently, I led a project where I served purely as a Project Manager. I worked with the client to understand their approved budget. I helped ensure team members with the appropriate skill sets were on the team. I approved their timesheets and provided budget reports to the client.
Occasionally at MentorMate, clients have several scrum teams running simultaneously — which allows us to flex our Scrum Master skills. I’ve led a Scrum team through their Scrum ceremonies, partnered with the Product Owner to plan and roadmap, and work to mature our team’s Agile processes. I got to do all of these activities without the worry of staffing or budget reports or approving timesheets, which was overseen by the Project Manager on the account.
More often than not though, I get to roll both of these together — like in my current project. We’re working across a large-scale design effort and a Scrum development team to build a new suite of tools to help our client manage and engage its participants. I run the Scrum ceremonies, help plan sprints, conduct retrospectives, adjust staffing, report on the budget, set deadlines, and hold everyone accountable.
The need to hold both the interests of the client and the team in dichotomy ultimately serves everyone’s best interests. It allows us to produce applications and systems that delight our customers. The principles and pillars of Scrum — Transparency, Inspection, and Adaption — do add significant value to software development. For a Project Manager to dismiss these would be short-sighted.
Similarly, a Scrum Master cannot ignore that projects have budgets, timelines, and scope — the Iron Triangle will never go away. Looking in the Project Manager’s toolbox for ways to manage these constraints is a smart idea.
Ultimately, development teams are composed of real people — not just roles or job titles. As a Project Manager or Scrum Master, coming to the table with a toolbox full of options from whatever methodology helps ensure successful delivery. As Maslow’s adage goes “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.