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Project Manager versus Scrum Master

This is a controversial topic to say the least, so I thought I’d share how I feel about it. The point I’m going to be making is as follows:

If we want to change things we should stop asking how these roles are supposed to work and start asking how the structures outside of the Scrum team should work.  

I’ve read a lot about the PM role no longer being of value, that it has been replaced by the Scrum Master, Product Owner (PO) and team. In the traditional sense of managing a PRINCE2 waterfall project there are certainly major differences, such as allocating resources to tasks and building Gantt plans. However time has moved on and now we have PM’s running Agile projects, their responsibilities have changed, some would say they have been replaced with a new set.

Why is it so difficult to remove this role? Well let’s use synthetic thinking to answer that, “The explanation for a system always exists outside of the system”. A simple example of this would be a kettle, it has no value in itself, it is used to boil water for something (or someone), i.e. myself making coffee. In other words if I look at any outputs being produced I need to understand the reason for their existence outside of the system. On a project this means that when I see a report being produced by a PM or Scrum team I need to look outside of it to see what it is used for, it has no value on its own, it is used outside of the current system for something.

Organisational Structure

Back to the subject then, why does this matter in relation to a project manager role? The structure above the Scrum teams is often a programme team, they are the reason for the project manager role. The inputs needed from the programme team line up with the outputs from the project manager. When you break this model and stop providing those outputs the programme team can no longer function. Note that I am not passing judgement on the programme structure I am simply looking to explain how the parts relate.

Now consider how a Scrum team would interface with a programme team if there was no project manager:

  • Costs: The PO is now accountable for costs in Scrum
  • Progress: The PO is now accountable for project progress in Scrum
  • Risk: No-one is directly responsible for recording risks in a Scrum team. The programme board either have to accept this or modify Scrum.
  • Quality: The team are now responsible for quality via a definition of done. Rather than the PM reporting on quality some new form of communication must take place.

What we need to understand therefore is that the programme board is a structure that is set up to work with defined inputs and outputs if we want to change these we have to do one of two things:

1) Change the way the programme team functions to work with Scrum without PM’s,

2) or change the way the Scrum team functions to work with the programme team.

The PM is trained to interface with a programme board in a certain way, they are skilled in it and are a central point of contact for their desired inputs, that is why this works so well (for the programme team). Now let’s consider the other factors that need to be considered before removing the PM:

Skills

The skills of the various parties now need to be changed, you cannot ignore this aspect. As an example asking a PO to take accountability for cost outputs means they need to be able to manage cost. A PM is trained in this area and is ready from day one. A similar situation usually occurs in Scrum where the PO is a subject matter expert but not an agile requirements specialist and a BA is brought in to facilitate, in this case we recognise the PO may not have the skills to perform the role.

Accountability 

Programme boards that are set up to work with project managers being accountable will find it very hard to find the Scrum team accountable. In reality everyone has a level of accountability but this is not easy to put in place. When treating a PM as being accountable you will drive a particular behaviour as they seek to monitor and control, because if they don’t they will be punished for it. We split our roles and responsibilities like this and rarely would consider punishing an entire team, instead saying some people were good and some bad, but probably weren’t controlled (managed) well enough. In true Scrum accountability comes down to the PO for building the right thing, having met PO’s few would hold themselves accountable in the same way that a PM would. I have never seen a situation where a PM has not been affected by team failing.

Summary 

So that’s why I believe there is a place for the Project Manager or indeed a Scrum Master who takes on the additional responsibilities and accountabilities of a PM (i.e. Agile PM) in todays world of programmes. If we want to change things we should stop asking how these roles are supposed to work and start asking how the structures outside of the Scrum team should work.  

3 comments on “Project Manager versus Scrum Master

  1. Good explanation on the difference between Scrum Master and Project Manager. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Regarding the structures outside the Scrum team, I assume you mean the Program and Portfolio levels. For Scrum or any Agile framework to be truly effective in an organization, the organization also needs to be Agile at the Program and Portfolio level, a scaled agile framework (a.k.a SAFe) is the solution to what you’re describing, and within that framework is a role called the Release Train Engineer (RTE). Check it out:

    http://www.scaledagileframework.com/

    • Hi Vince, I am aware of SAFe and I like a lot of what it’s trying achieve. I suspect that it’s most suitable for long running value streams rather than single projects. Looks very like a project manager to me although I appreciate “servant leader” has been highlighted. Would be interesting to see it in practice especially if that person is accountable for the train.

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