Combining the role of Project Manager and Scrum Master

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Two titles proudly appear at the top of my LinkedIn profile: Project Manager and Scrum Master. It turns out that I am not the only one who fulfills these dual roles and I have noticed a lot of ambiguity about the difference (and the overlap) between the roles. I would like to take you through the characteristics of these roles and I will reflect on my interpretation of this dual role, based on my experiences.

In a nutshell, the differences are as follows: a Project Manager oversees the entire project, including planning, resources and budget. A Scrum Master coaches the team in following the principles of Scrum.

Responsibilities of a Project Manager and a Scrum Master

A Project Manager is someone who uses their organizational skills to ensure that projects meet their goals and are completed on time and within budget. They are often tasked with conducting meetings, preparing schedules and budgets, liaising between the team and stakeholders. Specific tasks include:

  • Defining the scope and goals of the project;
  • Maintaining communication with stakeholders;
  • Preparation of budget and planning;
  • Mapping and managing risks.

A Scrum Master is someone who makes it possible for the Scrum Team to follow the Scrum principles as closely as possible during the project. They can lead meetings, coach/support the Scrum Team and remove impediments where necessary. The Scrum Master is a “servant-leader”. The Scrum Master, together with the Product Owner and the Developers, are the three roles in the Scrum team. Specific tasks include:

  • Facilitating meetings, including Scrum Events such as the Sprint Planning, the Daily Scrum and the Sprint Retrospective;
  • Promoting good communication and teamwork within the team;
  • Coaching the team in upholding the Scrum principles;
  • Addressing impediments that interfere with the Scrum Team’s work.

In practice, Scrum Masters can be Project Managers and Project Managers can be Scrum Masters, but they are absolutely not the same. A Scrum Master is a role that can only be filled in a Scrum Team, while a Project Manager is usually a professional who can lead almost any type of project.

Within Scrum, many tasks that are generally done by a Project Manager are taken up by members of the Scrum Team. When it comes to the scope and goals of a project, the Product Owner plays a central role in maintaining and (re)prioritizing the Product Backlog. Communication and management of stakeholders is also mainly done by the Product Owner. The Developers have control over how they implement their solutions.

To put it plain: Scrum does not provide any place for a traditional Project Manager.

How a Project Manager and Scrum Master differ in leadership style

In general, the Project Manager fulfills a (more traditional) leading role. The Scrum Master fulfills a supporting role and leads on the basis of ‘servant-leadership’.

Traditional leadership is characterized by using power and control to drive performance, measuring success through output. Servant-leadership on the other hand is characterized by sharing power and control to drive engagement. Success is measured through growth and development.

My experiences: a mythical beast

In the digital agency where I work, I fulfill this dual role. During projects I often have to switch one role to the other. To give some insight: I work with varying teams (in varying compositions) on various development sprints for various clients. There is no continuous development, projects often arise from customer demand or a development budget. The Product Owner is a role that the customer usually fulfills.

A former colleague often described the double role as ‘two hats’ that you can put on during the project. One situation would call for a ‘PM‘, the other for an ‘SM‘. I see that as an kind of ‘schizophrenic’ attitude. In my view you will always remain one person with a mixed set of responsibilities. To me, it actually feels more like being a mythical beast. Two roles united in one person. A chimera, composed of parts of different animals.

Combining the role of Project Manager and Scrum Master

That does not necessarily sound like a positive thing. And I can imagine if you are in a transition period from traditional to agile, your dual role can feel as a multi-headed monster whose heads are trying to bite each other. When I look back to when I started at this agency (almost three years ago), I certainly understand that some of my (former) colleagues sometimes felt that way.

The best of both roles

Today the world looks vastly different. Over the years, the colleagues within our agency have increasingly mastered the principles of Scrum. Where the working method used to be more waterfall, it is now unmistakably agile. Over the years, the Scrum Masters (who have always fulfilled the Project Manager dual role) have incrementally improved the entire Scrum process within the organization. Where much was thought out beforehand, much more is now being thought up during the Sprints. Where in the past the Project Manager was the only one who talked to customers, nowadays the entire team is in contact with the ‘customer’ (in our case: the Product Owner and stakeholders). The Developers are much more self-managing and there is a sense of shared responsibility – and pride.

That does not alter the fact that in the form in which our agency utilizes Scrum, there are still tasks that are typical of a Project Manager. Projects still have to be budgeted and sold. Team members still need to be scheduled in our production planning. The project administration and agreements must always be up to date and transparent. And if a problem within a project or the collaboration escalates, there should always be someone in the lead to straighten things out.

In our agency, those will always remain the responsibilities of the Project Manager. So although the role is no longer interpreted in the traditional way, a number of responsibilities still remain. And these can be perfectly combined with the role of the Scrum Master. The better one applies Scrum within their organization, the better one can combine these roles.

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