Terminology can be a tricky thing. Often, titles and similar job descriptions are seen as interchangeable, for instance. The titles and roles of vice president of human resources and chief people officer are one and the same. Responsibilities and position rank are the same from organization to organization. In this case, the title is changed to fit the naming structure of the organization.
There are times, however, where terms that are seemingly related or interchangeable prove not to be. For instance – the terms introverted and shy. While these terms are sometimes mistakenly used synonymously, they have fundamentally different meanings. A person who is shy is uncomfortable when meeting new people. An introvert is someone who recharges themselves by being alone and pursuing individual interests. Both have a pull toward being alone at some point, but they are vastly different in what that core drive is.
This is the case with Scrum masters and project managers. There are a lot of misconceptions about how similar these two roles really are. To be clear, project managers and scrum masters have two very distinctly different sets of responsibilities. While there are some fundamental characteristics common to the people performing either one of these roles, their primary focuses couldn’t diverge more than they do in practice.
Scrum is an Agile process framework that is most often associated with software development. The optimum team size for this framework is ten or fewer individuals. The team members break their work down into goals that can be accomplished within specific timeframes and meet daily to connect. These goals are called sprints and are ideally completed within two weeks. The framework is designed to promote self-organization within the team and to account for inevitable client preference changes and unforeseen challenges. The Scrum process assumes that the problem that is trying to be solved cannot be fully known upon the start of the project. Working in this mindset allows for the developing team to think quickly on its feet and operate outside the box.
This is a process that was intended to break the mold of traditional project management. The Scrum master position was required to help team members understand and operate within the agreed-upon framework. The Scrum Master ensures that team members don’t slide back into any preconceived notions or old habits for project management. For this reason, the conversation about the difference between the Scrum Master role and the project manager role is a valuable one to have.
It might help to start by looking at some of the characteristics that individuals who hold these two different sets of responsibilities could potentially have in common.
These characteristics are common to nearly anyone in an organization who garners the respect of their team members and those they are mentoring. They are essential traits for anyone assuming a position of authoritative knowledge. In the case of the project manager, this knowledge relates to budgets, timelines, and performance reporting. In the role of the Scrum managers, this knowledge deals with process, coaching, and how to motivate.
The core difference can be boiled down to this: project managers take on a tactical role and oversee the execution of an agreed-upon plan for a project. At the same time, Scrum masters are a support role that ensures the team is adhering to the agreed-upon process and Agile development approach. The project manager is driving the team to achieve a measurable timeline for delivering a finished product. The scrum manager is focused on the team itself and works to remove any impediments to their success.
Understanding the distinction between these two roles can remove ambiguity and allow for a clear definition of expectations. Asking a project manager who is not trained in the Scrum process framework’s methodology to guide a team through that framework would be irresponsible and ultimately ineffective. Likewise, asking someone who is a certified Scrum master to take on the myriad of responsibilities owned by a project manager and expecting that person to excel is also unrealistic.
Just as the words shy and introverts aren’t interchangeable, neither are the scrum master and project manager roles.
Project managers are certified professionals who are trained to manage the day to day activities of a project. They are highly focused on the project itself. A project manager invests a lot of time and resources into understanding and implementing the client’s specific needs. Additionally, project managers are responsible for the management of individual team members’ work and performance. Project managers can work with multiple teams and help those teams collaborate when needed. Some of the key tasks of a project manager are:
Project managers serve as the contact point for the project with anyone else in the organization. This includes reports to stakeholders on progress and the heads of other departments that may interact with the project. In essence, the project manager is more closely associated with the traditional ideas of thinking about management roles. This implies a sort of jack of all trades skill set that can oversee many different responsibilities and communicate with many different levels of the organization.
The primary responsibility of the Scrum master is to explain and coach the Scrum process framework. The word that best summarizes the scrum master’s role is a facilitator. They remove impediments that the team might encounter and encourage the team to improve. This is a role that is outside the scope of how traditional management is thought of in organizational structure. Some of the responsibilities that a scrum master takes on include:
Scrum masters do not have any responsibilities when it comes to the actual management of personnel. They are not responsible for coaching performance or holding employees accountable for production. This is a role that is reserved for the project manager. Any coaching that is performed by the Scrum master is related solely to adherence to the Scrum process and how a team can organize itself. Just as the project manager is a jack of all trades position, the Scrum master is just that – a master of the scrum process framework.
Since the roles for each of these positions have been established, it’s worthwhile to compare the two and look at their key differences.
A helpful analogy for these two positions can be drawn from analyzing the roles that head coaches and quarterbacks play for football teams. Both individuals play key roles in the success of the overall team. They are excellent communicators and display leadership to those looking to them for direction, and both parties are ultimately responsible to the team ownership and their fans for their ultimate success.
But that is where the comparisons stop. In this analogy, think of the head coach as the Scrum master. The head coaches’ role is largely defined by driving the units of his team to improve constantly. The coach is focused on how the team can grow and become more effective. They see the team as three distinct groups – offense, defense, and special teams – and empower those teams to achieve success. The coach guides the team’s process and holds them to that agreed-upon process. The head coach works with these teams individually and hopes to have them operate at their best to help the whole. They will conduct team meetings and events such as game planning and training sessions. Individual performance coaching is mainly the responsibility of position coaches. Instead, the head coach makes sure that those position coaches understand the entire team’s framework and empowers them to make the best decisions possible. The head coach is an agent of change for the football team.
The quarterback, on the other hand, is focused on achieving his team’s measurable result. In this case, that measurable result would be to put points on the scoreboard. To do this, the quarterback directs individuals on how and where to be, executes designed plays, and takes ownership over the end result. Just as a project manager has a myriad of skill sets and responsibilities, so does a quarterback. He is responsible not only for his own physical fitness and athletic ability, but also for reading defenses, foreseeing potential outcomes, placing the ball in the hands of the players he thinks can make the most impact, and managing the game clock to take the best advantage of late-game situations.
These two roles are clearly defined, and it wouldn’t be fair to the individuals or the team to ask the quarterback or the head coach to step into the other’s role without the proper training or understanding of what they do. They have been hand-selected for their roles and been cultivated so that they can perform those roles at the highest level. Both are seen as professionals in their specific jobs. Their success in those roles is directly tied to how closely they adhere to their defined job expectations.
These two roles can work in concert with one another. While they are fundamentally responsible for different aspects of leadership, they aren’t mutually exclusive in their end goal. It is important to remember, though, that no matter the common personality or professional traits between those who hold these titles, there remains a district difference in what it is they do.
Scrum masters work to remove impediments to a team’s work and serves as a resource and agent of change. They are entirely focused on keeping the team working within the Scrum process framework. Project managers are hands-on and project-focused. They are a sort of on-the-ground battle commander, working to make sure that everyone is in the right place at the right time and working as efficiently as possible.
Recognizing these defined roles helps everyone involved in projects and development to take full advantage of the skills in both roles. Confusing these roles will only foster confusion and, in the end, prove to deliver subpar results.
May 14, 2020