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Let’s End the Debate Over Scrum Master versus Project Manager

FEATUREOct3rdOver the past several years, there has been much debate and confusion over the role of a project manager as the majority of organizations undergo Agile transformations. In fact, industry data suggests that approximately 53% of organizations are blending Agile methods with Waterfall.[1] 

The result of this seismic change has been that project managers have left organizations; PMO’s have been dissolved, – all because of the introduction of Agile development methodologies. And project managers are not alone. The introduction of Agile has also significantly impacted the product manager role as well; as organizations concurrently struggle to make sense of the product owner role.

I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read and LinkedIn postings I’ve seen on these subjects. The best material recognizes that a project manager is NOT a Scrum Master and vice versa. And although the description of the Scrum Master role is usually pretty clear in these discussions, nobody has done a really good job of explaining how the two roles (Scrum Master and Project Manager) co-exist or how this role confusion started in the first place.

To be honest, I really never understood the debate. I started executing projects back in 2001 using XP (Extreme Programming) and I never had any issues with team members regarding role confusion during project execution. Agile wasn’t evil – Agile worked. Well, fast forward to 2012 and the debate continues to rage on. I finally got sick of watching the continuous debate and decided to take action. I took the classes, passed the test, and became a Certified Scrum Master. And after all that money and time spent, I can honestly say with certainty, I’m not a scrum master – I AM a project manager! 

Fundamentally, I think the root cause of the debate is not based on scrum master versus project manager responsibilities but based on our fundamental definition of a project. In the Agile world of minimum marketable features (MMF’s), product backlogs, and continuous integration, the lines of the traditional project have now been blurred. I find that the Scrum team has no issues with their responsibilities back to the product owner and scrum master, but for some reason, the entire project team doesn’t feel accountable to the project manager.

My goal in writing this article is to end the confusion and the debate once and for all. To do that, I need to remind you of what a project manager is and how the two roles should co-exist. Let me get some quick definitions on the table to help structure our conversation:

The Scrum Master – The Scrum Master focuses on the development process and mentors the Scrum team. The key responsibilities of the scrum master are:

  • Maintains and removes impediments
  • Manages the Scrum process, making the process work
  • Plans the release
  • Plans the Sprints
  • Shields the team from external interfaces
  • Facilitates Scrum meetings as requested
  • Ensures crystal clear communication among everyone involved in the project

A Scrum Master is usually the team leader. A Scrum Master should ideally have a good balance of the following skills:

  • Technical expertise
  • Understands the Product Owner’s Intent
  • A good team player and mentor
  • Understands the teams capabilities
  • A good motivator
  • Problem solver

Now let’s take a closer look at the program and project management roles and responsibilities by defining a project and a program…

Project: A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. At most organizations, the boundaries of our “temporary endeavors” are defined through our business cases.

Program: A series of related projects designed to achieve a specific outcome(s).

To state it concisely, the role of the project manager is to manage all (Ideation to post-Launch Support) aspects of the project to achieve the expected outcomes identified within the established business case (investment) – not just the Scrum Team. The size, scope, and complexity of the business case will determine the size of the project. Achieving outcomes called out in the investment may take a series of related projects – called a program. At which point, the program manager is now accountable for managing all aspects of the program, with project managers and other accountable resources managing their smaller project portions.

Right now, there are three, possibly four basic categories of “temporary”:

    1. Product line execution – Temporary relative to a 1 year planning cycle. Basically covering minor incremental enhancements to an already existing product line.
    2. Big custom projects / new product development
    3. Within the product line – Specific temporary initiative/projects. For example, a SQL server upgrade.
    4. Cross organization initiatives – Examples that come to mind are rebranding, ICD-10 (healthcare), data center migrations, etc.

These projects / temporary endeavors at most organizations typically look like this:


And it looks like this…

And it looks like this…


If this is a project, then the project manager needs to be the one accountable person responsible for managing all of this work (or for understanding and managing HOW we’re going to get the answers to the questions above in each circle) – They are not responsible for answering the questions!

To put it simply – the project manager is responsible for managing all the boxes together to achieve the desired outcome. They may or may not be responsible for managing the individual boxes. Individual box responsibility is typically done by the subject matter experts.

As you can see, Agile development and the Scrum team are only one box!

Specifically, the project manager is responsible for:

  • Understanding the intended outcomes of the project and ensuring the outcomes are realistic and measurable. They need to understand the outcomes expected from the business case!
  • Collaborating with the team to define the scope of work (e.g. under each colored box above, what’s in it, what is the expected outcome), who is responsible for delivering it, and when will it be delivered. Specifically:
    • Deliverables required to complete all the project work
    • Cross-functional resource assignments
    • Estimates to complete the work and dependencies between work items
  • Understanding the point person from each functional team(s) associated to the work (each colored box) and how they have been allocated for managing their work. If allocation bandwidth issues exist, this person would be responsible for facilitation and ultimate resolution of the resourcing issue.
  • The job of the project manager is to remove ambiguity in roles and responsibilities by clearly mapping out activities against expected outcomes relative to time. Identifying the interdependencies between deliverables and functional teams up front will better determine what teams should be more integrated and when, relative to the overall product development process. 

Important note: if the scope of work is large enough, another project manager/person may be assigned to specific items (smaller box). The relationship would be a dotted line from this other person to the project manager.

Said another way, if each one of the smaller boxes above is large enough in scope to be considered its own project, then the program would consist of several related smaller projects rolled up underneath the program.

    • E.g. Hardware or software procurement, installation, and configuration – Application Operation Project Manager
    • E.g. Agile product development – Product owner/scrum master
  • Understanding the process and tools required to manage the scope of work relative to the outcomes identified in the business case. Understanding the metrics and the process for achieving those metrics/goals.
    • If an identified metric is that the project be completed within a certain capital budget, then the project manager is responsible for understanding the tools and processes required to forecast and track the work. They are NOT responsible for creating or establishing those processes – unless of course that creation has been identified as another project!
  • Project managers are responsible for the overall communication regarding the project (not just the development portion of the product). They’re the primary single authoritative source of information to ensure a shared understanding of all parameters:
    • Scope
    • Cost management
    • Timing
    • Assumptions / constraints
    • Risks / issues
    • Resources
    • Quality
    • Special considerations / exceptions
    • Development methodology considerations
    • Team members and associated roles and responsibilities
    • Policies and procedures

So, if you agree with all of the above, is there really a debate between the two roles?

There’s no way, going through Scrum Master training that I could be responsible for all the responsibilities of a project manager. It’s just not fathomable and would lead to ultimate project failure. To set the record straight, project manager is NOT synonymous with Scrum Master. A Scrum Master is critical to the facilitation and execution of the Scrum team. But they’re not responsible for all the components of a product development project. If anything, a Scrum master should be a dotted line to a project manager as part of the reporting structure. 

However, for all these relationships to work together, we also need to know what the responsibilities are of the team back to the project manager.

Essentially, the project manager has to know just about everything that’s going on during the course of a project in order to determine if the right action and the necessary progress is being made against the tasks and deliverables. It’s unrealistic for every meeting and every action to be in the project manager’s schedule. However, they still need to know what meetings are occurring and when communication and decisions are expected in order to ensure the team is working effectively and efficiently relative to the agreed upon scope and success criteria of the project.

This relationship between the project manager and the team is not meant to be based on command and control, but rather based on trust and optimizing collaboration. If the project manager has any chance in managing these responsibilities while not having authority over most, if not all, of the team resources, then they need to rely on those team leads for basic and fundamental information. The following are the characteristics of the entire product team including the project manager:

  • Openness regarding truthful task and deliverable progress
  • Frequent and constant communication
  • Commitment to achieving the success criteria
  • Courage to tell the truth
  • Respect for each other

Borrowing the page of Scrum team responsibilities to the product owner and scrum master, I’ve tailored the responsibilities so that they reflect the entire project team relative to the project manager:

  • Communication regarding the prioritization (and change) of requirements, MMF’s, sprint backlog items, and tasks
  • Commitments to results based on agreed upon milestones
  • Communication of estimates of effort to implement User Stories and tasks to complete all project deliverables
  • Communication of dependencies between tasks and team members
  • Identification of obstacles and informing the project manager when those obstacles may occur and when they have occurred.
  • Self-organizing – Individual teams within a project have to be self-organizing and can’t rely on a command and control style project manager. However, self organizing means informing the project manager on how the team is self- organized and how they intend to complete the work. Project manager’s need to have context for any of this to make sense.
  • The team has the right to do everything within the project guidelines boundaries to achieve the project goals.

In the product development world, project managers, more than ever, are critical in the successful execution and delivery of projects/products to market. Role clarity and collaboration is essential. The project manager and the scrum master are meant to work collaboratively with each other not against each other. If we can get our definition of a project correct and we can enforce the responsibilities of the team back to the project manager, then I can say confidently “Project managers, there is no need to worry about job security. You’re still a valuable member to your organization. If anything, your job just got easier by the introduction of the scrum master and product owner roles.”  Happy delivery!

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

[1] The Study of Product Team Performance, 2012, Actuation Consulting LLC and Enterprise Agility Inc. 

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