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Scrum Master vs Project Manager

scrum master vs project manager

Scrum Master vs Project Manager

Satisha Venkataramaiah
6th Sep, 2020

It's an interesting question. The moment you equate Scrum Master to a Project Manager that means one of those roles is misunderstood. To understand these roles, it's essential we first understand the difference between a Product and a Project. Products are solutions to people's problems like a pouch that holds markers, a bag that helps to carry vegetables, a chatting software that allows people to communicate. The products exist as long as people use products. The organizations that build Products continue to uncover user needs as they use the products and enhance and release new product versions often.  


However, if we look at the definition of a Project, per PMI PMBOK, it is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore set scope and resources. For example, when you hand over the design of a town hall or a theatre to a Civil contractor to build, the scope is set, the cost is set (well you wish), and time is set (wishful thinking never stops). Well, although the scope is set, the cost and time can vary based on many factors like industry trends affecting the cost of goods, weather conditions affecting the timeline. However, the scope is very well known. So, the thought process here is to reduce time and cost. If we talk in terms of product contexts or domains, this falls in a complicated context (Requirements are known, but the solution is not well known). Hence applying the right skills on the right tasks can help in reducing time and cost. Projects like migrating from mainframe to open stack, customizing a newly designed autonomous car per customer needs dwell in this territory. These are Projects, and project thinking is very useful there. 


Products, on the other hand, dwell in complex context (unknown problems hence unknown solutions) like designing a new autonomous car, finding a cure for COVID-19, building new software. Given the requirements are unknown, the processes should enable quick learning and pivoting. The system (processes, team structures, policies, tools, etc.) should allow quick and continuous learning in this context.  


Now, with this context, let's look at the roles generally: You can categorize roles into 3 categories 

  1. Business-focused: Roles that focus on building business and increasing ROI for organizations like CEO, Product Managers, Business Development, Marketing, etc. 

  1. Product-focused: Roles that are focused on building the solution and productizing them like CTOs, Architects, Programmers, Test Engineers, etc. 

  1. System-focused: Roles that are focused on building a System (Team Structures, Processes, Tools, Policies, etc.) in which the Business and Product development thrive like COOs, People Managers, Functional Managers, HR, etc. 

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Where would you fit the Project Manager in these roles? What do Project Managers focus on?  

Project Managers are the owners of the Project, responsible for seeing it through to completion. They are the ones who inspire the project teams with a sense of shared purpose and connect them with all the stakeholders to achieve the ultimate goal of the Project. They focus on maximizing the ROI of the Project by balancing triple constraints (cost, time, and scope). Although they get involved in building the projects, their focus is on maximizing the value (ROI) of the Project.  


What kind of a role is Scrum Master?   

Scrum is an empirical process framework that is used for solving complex problems. Scrum is an emergent practice that evokes Product Thinking in product teams to continuously learn about the problem to be solved and uncover the solution. A complex domain is a different territory that what Project Manager dwell in, a complicated context where at least the scope is well known. In this context, just having skill is not enough, but a team cognition and willingness to run quick experiments are crucial. One needs to build a learning system to enable teams to embrace such emergent practices. Scrum Masters are the ones who are responsible for building such a system. Scrum Master's role is System-focused, unlike the Project Manager's role, which is Business-focused. Learn more about Scrum Master's role here, 


If you were to find a role that's focused on Systems in Project setup, who would that be? Project Management Office, right? Per PMBOK, the Project Management Office (PMO) is defined as "a management structure that standardizes the project-related governance processes and facilitates the sharing of resources, methodologies, tools, and techniques". Well, I'm not saying PMO is like a Scrum Master. They operate in different contexts. All I'm saying is they are on the same side of the focus area in their own contexts.  


Now, who is focused on Business in a Scrum environment? It's the Product Owner. Of course, Project Managers can't go on to become a Product Owner, as the skills and responsibilities to maximize ROI in a complex domain is much more different than in a projectized complicated domain. However, Project Managers (true ones) are best suited to become a PO by acquiring additional skills required for a Product Owner. Learn more. 

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About the author
Satisha Venkataramaiah

Satisha is a Founder and CEO of leanGears and Leanpitch. He is a passionate product owner who spends most of his time building products for Startups and Product Managers. He loves solving problems that make life of every living being on this earth easy. He strongly believes in collaborating with customers to build simple and valuable products rather than building sophisticated fancy products. He has built products such as leanGears and StartupPlanner. Based on his experience and learnings, he has authored two books: Creating the culture of Happily Delivering Happiness and Who is Product Owner.

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