New ScrumMasters or Project Managers often ask the question: "What's the difference between a ScrumMaster and a Project Manager?"
A project is still a project; it still has a set scope, there are risks to be managed, the proper resources to acquire, business objectives to achieve, quality to be controlled, status reports to provide in some manner or another (based on the organization in which you are working), and of course there's a budget that is usually driving how long resources will be committed to the project. All those concepts from the Project Management Book of Knowledge still apply. These things are all constants, regardless of if it is an agile or a waterfall project. It's the approach and mindset that are significantly different.
Below are some generalizations that I've observed, from my own transition experience and from noting the styles of other project managers.
Project Managers (PMs) will attempt to know all the details, they want to make the decisions, they want to know the answers to the questions up front. They view themselves as being in control of the project and have the Power and Authority in communicating the status of the project to upper management. Project Managers, in some cases, have the tendencies of being in the weeds and will bug the team for every detail, even if the information they seek is inapplicable to their work. They view themselves as getting things done. Sadly, I've seen some PMs also view themselves as the hero who saves the project from despair. They are likely to refuse to let a team fail or to make decisions on their own. Project Managers might be suspect of marching a team to certain burnout in order to meet a schedule. I think PMs have trust issues and are usually playing a "CYA" game in some fashion or another, or they tend to buffer the estimates in order to give themselves room for mistakes when management is unforgiving about missing deadlines. There are a few Project Managers who have a very soft approach in how they "herd cats". And there are some PMs, much to a team's chagrin, who will micro-manage as much as possible. It is possible to be a great project manager without being a micro-manager.
ScrumMasters who have truly adopted an Agile Mindset are in some ways an inverse to a traditional Project Manager. They are okay with not knowing every detail; they like for the team to solve problems on their own, but will guide and direct a team when they need it. Their work is knowing when to step in gracefully, versus always stepping in and stepping on toes, which can make a big difference in empowering team members. ScrumMasters will only take up the details of issues that they are handed because they speak to an impediment the team needs to have solved. For solving an impediment, ScrumMasters find out what they need to do, navigate an organization, and become a bull in a china shop when it comes to clearing the road for their team, and hopefully without causing issues for other teams. ScrumMasters like for the teams to self-organize and trust them to do the job, only escalating the issue when appropriate. ScrumMasters view themselves as enabling a team, and the best ScrumMasters I've seen will take no credit for the team's accomplishments, but simply redirect accolades to the team and sing their praises for the awesome work achieved. In some cases, while a ScrumMaster may also herd cats, it's with a long a set of guard rails rather than with a whip. ScrumMasters put the onus on the management to allow the team to build trust in what they will deliver and the time in which they will deliver it. These servant leaders will work hard to educate the stakeholders outside of a team about the proper expectations on working with an Agile/Scrum team and give the team space to exceed those expectations.
There are more specific tell-tale signs between a ScrumMaster and a Project Manager. A ScrumMaster, for example, will ask the team to iterate through the board, to plan their day without checking the status. A PM will ask for when tasks will be done, will call people out, will interrupt with questions, and will potentially take a stand-up off line. Project Managers may not know how to use the board or tool effectively. In a sprint planning session, a ScrumMaster will facilitate the discussion, confirm that all the estimates are there, and make sure that the team commitment is made. A PM is likely to burden a team in order to meet a commitment they've made on behalf of the team without the buy-in. Project Managers might try to lead retrospectives themselves, rather than ask the team to do so, and usually with very little variety. Worse, they may abandon the retrospective all together. ScrumMasters will usually have different activities planned for each retrospective and really challenge the team on their growth. A PM will likely view the retrospective as action items to follow up on personally, thinking that they have control over everything. Good ScrumMasters will hold the team accountable on those items for which they have control.
It takes time to really shift away from a command-and-control approach when it has been ingrained for a long time. Those who do achieve an agile mindset yield a servant leadership for teams who love to work together.
About the Author
Margaret Dessypris Thomas is a Manager with CapTech Consulting in Richmond, VA. She has over 16 years of experience in the IT industry, 12 specifically in healthcare. She has worked with an array of technologies in web development, service oriented architectures, and business intelligence. Her business focus includes process improvement, operations management, and organizational change management. In these IT and business projects, she has served as lead business analyst, project manager, scrum master, and product owner. Margaret earned a B.S. in Information Technology from Virginia Tech and an M.S. in Information Systems from VCU. She holds PMP, CSP, CBAP, SAFe Agilest, ICF, and Prosci certifications.