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Project Management Basics: Scrum Master vs Project Manager

By Jide Williams, a Tech Professional with a Product Development Background:

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You’ll be hard-pressed to find a greater tussle among neophyte project managers than the contention between who a project manager is and who a Scrum master is. Depending on who you ask, especially if they’re relatively new to project management, a Scrum master is simply an Agile project manager.

But anyone who is fairly experienced in project management knows better. They know that even though, on the surface, both roles appear to be similar, they couldn’t be more distinct from one another. This begs the question: what are these differences?

Right off the bat, I should clarify that a project manager is NOT a Scrum Master and vice versa. In fact, there is little overlap between both roles. So why the confusion? Let us find out.

Who is a Scrum Master?

A Scrum master is an individual who has a complete understanding of the Scrum framework. Scrum is a project management framework designed to help build, deliver, and sustain complex products and projects.

Unlike the project manager, who takes on the role of the leader in a project, the Scrum manager operates more like a facilitator in a Scrum team. A Scrum master oversees every Scrum process that occurs throughout the project. They coordinate the Scrum team members and deploy Agile principles and resources towards the development and sustenance of a product.

What is Agile?

The role of a Scrum master cannot be fully understood without first understanding Agile. The term ‘Agile’ refers to a project management methodology that deviates from the traditional approach to project management. It was developed by two Japanese professors named Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi in 1986.

Image Source: Oak Interlink Company

As its name implies, Agile is an ‘agile’ methodology. Being agile means it is flexible, and this is the underlying principle that sets it apart from traditional project management methodologies like the Waterfall model.

Unlike the Waterfall model, where the execution of one stage of the project development cycle is contingent on the completion of the preceding stage, Agile allows multiple stages of the project development cycle to run simultaneously. These various stages are usually broken down into shorter cycles called “sprints”.

Responsibilities of a Scrum Master

A Scrum master is responsible for the efficiency of the Scrum team. They often enforce compliance to Scrum principles by:

  • Managing product backlogs effectively and formulating strategies for reducing backlogs
  • Adopting the iterative scrum methodology and sticking to the implementation according to standard scrum rules
  • Ensuring the whole of the development team is harmonised and working together seamlessly
  • Working with the product owner to maximise value through product backlog optimisation
  • Leading sprint planning, hosting daily standups, and monitoring the sprint progress

Who is a Project Manager?

A project manager is responsible for the planning, organising, monitoring, controlling, as defined by the standard completion of specific projects. Project managers usually work within an organisation or business. They handle the logistical details and focus on tangible elements like personnel, resources, and budgets. Project managers ensure that projects are completed within the stipulated scope, within budget, and on time—the major KPIs.

The project manager is in charge of the entire operation of the project, usually from inception right until it wraps up. The position may end once the project is completed. On the other hand, it could be a semi-permanent or permanent role.

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A project manager’s role in a business is a vital one. In fact, as much as 97% of organisations believe that project management is essential for business and organisational success.

There are several job titles along the project manager career spectrum, with each title having varying levels of responsibilities and expectations. They include:

  • Project Coordinator
  • Project Scheduler
  • Assistant Project Manager
  • Project Manager
  • Senior Project Manager

Sometimes, a project manager role comes with no formal title, especially in the case of short or medium-term projects. Project managers with several years of experience can climb up an organisation’s corporate ladder to high-level positions overseeing operations.

Roles of a Project Manager

So, now that we know who a project manager is let us discuss what they do. Below, you will find a breakdown of a project manager’s responsibilities. It is important to note that these roles combine and overlap to ensure the project’s success.

Development and Planning

Every project is first conceived as an idea. The project manager’s job is to flesh out the concept with other internal and external stakeholders and give it a definition and purpose. This foundation forms the basis for a project’s execution and completion.

The project manager must ensure that important questions that pop up at this stage have answers. The scope, duration, cost, milestones, risks, and other essential aspects of the project must be considered and agreed on at this stage.

Leading a Team

The project manager plays a supervisory role over a team. This makes their ability to assemble, lead, and mentor team members a core skill. Throughout a project’s life cycle, the project manager will have reasons to delegate tasks, communicate effectively, and play to his team members’ strengths.

A good project manager will reward productivity as that is an excellent way of boosting it. How well the project manager can handle this responsibility plays a crucial role in how the project turns out after closing.

Risk Management

There is an element of risk to every project. That being the case, it is the project manager’s responsibility to oversee the risk management process throughout a project’s lifecycle. The project manager has to identify, evaluate, and create a plan to prevent risks and alleviate their impacts. This effectively cuts down on undesired outcomes ruining the project.

Execution

The project manager sets about to handle and complete the work marked down for each stage of the project. In this phase, the project manager’s responsibility is to assign tasks and then make sure that they are well completed.

Project execution must happen within its scope and take place with budgets and deadlines in the project manager’s mind. The project manager will assign clear responsibilities to team members and implement course correction whenever the need arises to ensure success.

Monitoring and Control

Follow-through is a significant part of a project manager’s responsibilities. Project managers not only assign tasks; they track and review them to ensure they are carried out within stipulated specifications and meet deadlines.

Plans are great, but they are rarely flawless. Consequently, the project manager must anticipate forks in the project’s objective, no matter how well-developed it is. When undesirable outcomes eventually happen, the project manager must be flexible enough to handle them. And then, the project manager must adapt to the changes, sticking as closely to the original plan as possible.

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Manage the Budget

The project manager and other stakeholders determine the project’s costs at the development and planning stage and then revise them when necessary. It is up to the project manager to make sure that those revisions come about as little as possible.

This involves ensuring that there is cost efficiency throughout the project’s execution. The project manager compares the expenses to the budget and reports any disparity to other stakeholders. If the project needs extra funds or can be completed with less than allocated, it is up to the project manager to re-allocate them.

Performance Evaluation and Maintenance

The responsibility does not simply end as soon as the project is done. For one, performance evaluations follow to confirm that the project meets up to quality standards. This is a thorough process involving the review of success indicators, such as completion time, cost disparity, and scope creep.

Project managers also formulate plans for maintaining completed projects and troubleshooting for issues. That said, the actual responsibility of maintaining a project after completion does not always fall to a project manager.

Jide Williams

Project Manager Skills

Considering how wide-ranging project manager responsibilities are, a solid set of skills is necessary to help in handling them. These are some of the skills good project managers should have in their repertoire:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Time, budget, and risk management
  • Organising and scheduling
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Delegation
  • Active listening
  • Adaptability

Scrum Master vs Project Manager

Image Source: Vitality Chicago

Scrum masters and project managers share a few similar skills, such as leadership, communication, and organisation. Sometimes, organisations have individuals play the role of Scrum master and project manager when the need for either arrives. And at other times, job postings have both roles tied together.

However, it is essential to understand that both roles are very different. Let’s briefly look at just how different they are, using a few parameters.

Focus

The Scrum master’s primary focus is on the Scrum team and team members and ensures that processes and tools are effective. On the other hand, the project manager primarily focuses on successfully managing the project and following the plan as closely as possible.

Scope and Tasks

The Scrum master assembles, onboards, educates and coaches Scrum teams. Additionally, the Scrum master facilitates Scrum meetings and sprints, supports the product owner, and resolves impediments to the smooth functioning of the group. In contrast, the project manager’s responsibilities lie in ensuring that different aspects of the projects operate at optimal levels so that the project closes successfully.

Reporting

The Scrum master reports to the product owner or the development team. In contrast, the product manager is more client-facing and will report to the stakeholders/clients.

Methodology

Unlike a Scrum master who can only work on Scrum projects using the Scrum framework, project managers are more flexible. A project manager can switch between project management methodologies to tweak the approach from Waterfall to Agile environments, depending on the project’s demands.

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Delegation

The Scrum master does not assign tasks to the team members as Scrum teams are self-organising. Instead, they work in a facilitating role. On the other hand, the project manager can break the project into tasks, delegate them to team members, and ensure that they are completed when due.

Scrum Master vs Project Manager Salary

The salary expectations for project managers vary across industries, experience levels, and geographical locations. According to Glassdoor, the estimated total annual pay for a Scrum master is $110,621. The website breaks this down to $95,872 base pay and $14,749 additional pay. Payscale has the average salary of a Scrum Master at $90,249.

On the other hand, Glassdoor lists the average annual salary for a Project Manager as $88,907 in the United States. The pay ranges from $57,000 for entry-level positions to over $138,000 for more senior roles. The figures from Payscale paint a similar picture, with a breakdown of $75,884 base pay and up to $15,000 in bonuses.

My Experience as a Project Manager and a Scrum Master

In my eight-year career as a project manager, I have taken up several roles, including working as a product manager, product owner, and unofficially as a Scrum master. As I have come to understand, many companies cannot afford or do not understand the importance of hiring specialised talent to manage different aspects of their projects.

During my spell at VaarWater and again at Healthy Entrepreneurs, I doubled as a project manager and a Scrum master. Both roles were not specified in my job title or job description; in fact, I was hired as a Software/IT Project Manager. However, I understood the need to be flexible. I was willing to expand my responsibilities to fit extra tasks into my contribution towards the progress of the team and the project.

While I was working as a project manager, I would also play the role of Scrum master to make sure the team was keeping up with Scrum practices. This included making sure they were doing daily standups, working on their backlogs, conducting sprints, conducting sprint retrospectives, backlog grooming, etc.

It may appear like the ability to work as both the Project manager and Scrum master roles interchangeably makes both roles similar, but this is not the case—not on paper, at least. For an organisation to function at its optimum, both roles need to be delineated.

Final Thoughts

As long as businesses have to handle projects, the project manager position will remain vital. A PwC survey shows that 94% of organisations agree that project management enables growth. With the essential nature of the Scrum master’s involvement in the Agile process, it remains a vital role in many organisations. The Scrum master can be just as crucial as the project manager for the success of a project.

Both positions cover different scopes and have different responsibilities. Learning and understanding their contrasting features will help you know what career roadmap to follow or what positions you need to fill in your organisation.

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