The Difference Between Scrum Master and Project Manager

Scrum Master Role of Servant Leader is Methodology and Mindset Shift

Many new to agile find it difficult to distinguish between a scrum master and traditional project manager. I’ve worked in both roles, and I can tell you that the two roles are quite different. The scrum master is more a servant leader, while the traditional project manager is more a task master. The project management techniques and approach are also quite different too.

Traditional Project Planning Focuses on Tasks

After drawing boundaries around project scope, the next step in traditional project management is to gather requirements and break down all the development activities that must be executed to meet those requirements into a hierarchical work breakdown structure (WBS). Tasks are defined to complete WBS activities and members of the project team provide estimates to complete each one. The team also identifies project dependencies between tasks. The traditional project manager enters all this information into a Microsoft Project Plan.

The traditional project manager assigns the tasks in the plan to team members, who work on them according to plan. The project manager tracks progress against the plan and closes tasks as they complete. When all tasks are completed, the finished application is user acceptance tested and delivered to the customer in production.

Sound familiar? Yes. Do projects always execute according to plan? No.

What happens when they don’t go according to plan? Risks management plans get executed, Issues and Action Items get raised and resolved, and Change Control attempts to rewrite requirements mid-project. The original project plan becomes meaningless. Much butt covering ensues.

Agile Project Planning Focuses on Completed Features

In agile scrum, after defining project scope, the next step is to break down the application into pieces of working functionality that meet customer requirements. The scrum master works with the team to identify what working functionality provides the highest value to the customer. These most valuable features delivered in a completed application are often referred to as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or Minimum Marketable Feature (MMF) set.

The team focuses on the MVP functionality first. They write detailed requirements or stories that describe the MVP functionality. The team schedules them for development, demo and release as soon as possible. The rest of the functional components are prioritized and organized into a release schedule.

See the difference in focus? Traditional project teams focus on tasks in the project plan, and agile teams focus on delivering features in the MVP. Traditional project managers focus the team on organizing and completing tasks, and the agile scrum master focuses the team on prioritizing and releasing the customer’s highest priority features as soon as possible.

When the team delivers valuable functionality to the customer early and often, the customer can provide feedback on completed features earlier too. If the customer is not satisfied, functional requirements can change and the team can pivot. The team has a better chance to meet its project deadlines than it does on a traditionally managed project.

Responsibility Shifts to the Development Team

The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership best describes the servant leader role of the scrum master: “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” When applied to agile, the “other people” include not only the customer but the project team too. The scrum master is responsible for ensuring the needs of both the customer and the project team are met.

This starkly contrasts with the traditional project management role. Although traditional project managers do not complete the work, the role assigns them primary responsibility for completing the project on schedule. The project manager’s responsibility to create a plan, report status, assign tasks and issues and action items often creates contention with team members if the project gets behind schedule.

Agile is all about self-managing teams. So in agile scrum, much of this responsibility shifts to the development team.

During an agile scrum project, it is the development team’s responsibility to:

  • Accept stories (detailed requirements and test criteria) as properly groomed, well-understood and correctly sized.
  • Decide how many stories to bring into a sprint (or time-boxed development cycle).
  • Complete all the stories brought into the sprint.

The scrum master’s responsibility shifts to adhering to the rules of agile scrum and removing roadblocks, so the development team can meet their sprint commitments.

Even if you do not understand anything about agile scrum or how to organize and manage an agile scrum project, you can clearly see the drastic difference between the 2 roles. As a traditional project manager, if you have transitioned to agile scrum and you continue to practice task management, you are not a scrum master. The transition from traditional project manager to scrum master is as much a mindset shift as it is a methodology shift.

If you have any questions about becoming a scrum master, reach out and contact us.

Cynthia Kahn

Cynthia Kahn

Cynthia Kahn  503.799.5500

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  1. Helen Ironstone says:

    Hello, thank you for a great article. Do I need a PMP certification in order to become a scrum master?

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      The PMP certification is through Project Management Institute (PMI) and the CSM is through Scrum Alliance. They are separate certifications from different organizations, so you do not need a PMP to get a CSM.

  2. Marilyn says:

    Thank you for this article. Is the only way to get CSM is through Scrum Alliance. Are you going to pursue CSP?

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      Yes, you can find out more information on the Scrum Alliance website. I personally do not plan on pursuing additional certifications at this point. They get expensive to maintain. The CSM is good enough to get your foot in the door. Real life agile experience is what gets you the job.

  3. payback 2016 results says:

    great publish, very informative. I ponder why the other experts of this sector do not
    realize this. You must proceed your writing. I am sure, you have a huge readers’ base already!

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      Thank you! Yes, our reader base is growing. We are super excited!

  4. Deborah Pettigrew says:

    Thank you for posting this. I can’t tell you how many ‘hybrid’ job postings I see that try to combine the two very different roles. At least 8 or 9/10. It astonishes me how so many companies have some knowledge about scrum and aim to find a Scrum Master yet know so little in also requiring the Scrum Master to create project plans, do feasibility analysis, budget tracking, etc.

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      I think that companies do not understand the roles. There is still a need for someone to fill the project manager responsibilities. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in corporate world.

  5. Marco Miranda says:

    Thanks for the article. It’s true, the original project schedule almost always changes during the execution. But I don’t see the problem there. Change is the only thing that is always present in human activities so It’s natural to have them during the projects. A professional project management should have change control and risk management procedures and contigency reserves. In my experience as PMP, CEOs and CIOs don’t understand a project that hasn’t a schedule before the execution. They understand a well managed project despite of It needs changes, risk and reserves to be followed.

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      True Marco. Projects need to be well managed with every development method.

      • Marco Miranda says:

        My only doubt is how CEOs and CIOs could understand an agile project that hasn’t a schedule for all the scope of the project. I don’t see disadvantage in traditional project management. Off course, this is only valid if the project management is conducted in a professional manner.

  6. Cedric says:

    Hi Cynthia,
    Thanks for your interesting article.
    As you mention, the ScrumMaster is associated to the development team, much closer than the PM. It is a problem too. A project is not only IT and development. The PM has much more responsability than just managing a development team : he is responsible for the change management (entreprise wise communication, training, process impact, etc…). IMHO, PM and ScrumMaster are complementary.

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      I agree. They are very different roles with different responsibilities.

  7. Marc Piescienski says:

    Well written. There are many folks who are used to a Waterfall approach simply cannot wrap their heads around Agile Scrum – this was me when I made the transition from Waterfall to Agile Scrum. Once you see it in action, and most importantly complete the product, it all falls into place.

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      I get it. The same thing happened for me. I thought that I understood agile until I worked at a company that hired an agile coach. It is just as much a mindset change as a process.

  8. Keith says:

    Thank you for a great article. Is it possible to switch between a traditional PM and an SM depending on the project needs? Or in your opinion, is being an SM a completely different thought process?

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      Keith, the answer is yes to both. I have both my PMP and my CSM. I have been agile for over 6 years and I believe that scrum is a better method to managing software development. For the right opportunity, I could go traditional. Because being an SM is a completely different thought process and role, I would not recommend that a company switch back and forth, depending on the project. Some companies cannot embrace the agile mindset. For those companies, I recommend remaining traditional with phased implementation rather than practice an inefficient hybrid we affectionately call “scrummerfall.”

      • Keith Browne says:

        Thanks so much for your detailed answer Cynthia. Obviously much to learn so I’ll be following along the other comments and questions.

  9. Leigh says:

    I have also worked in both roles, and love the way you’ve clearly explained the difference. It’s a completely different approach and mindset. Great write-up!

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      Wow Leigh! Thank you.

  10. Cathy says:

    Great article about the difference between scrum master and project manager!

    • Cynthia Kahn says:

      Thank you so much Cathy! Appreciate it.

  11. Xavier says:

    at the end Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is an scoping approach and not by itself a PM process and there are many misconceptions about the use of WBS within a planning and tracking process, like in the case at hand, where the fundamentals of tasks against a MVP are used in the same manner. It could be only a marketing tool to sell the same thing in new form but basically within the PM realm they are as many approaches as scrum managers …