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Scrum Master vs Project Manager: Definition, Key Differences and Similarities

scrum master vs project manager

Leading a team of individuals is no simple task — it takes patience, technical experience, and a ton of leadership skills.

If you work in tech, you’ve probably heard the terms “Scrum Master” or “Project Manager” being thrown around in many of the day-to-day conversations you’re having. 

And if you’re new to the industry, you’ve probably asked yourself what makes the two roles so different. After all, don’t they both work with project management teams?

Interestingly, while a Scrum Master and Project Manager can have overlapping roles, the two actually cover different responsibilities! Let’s get to know each of these positions and see exactly what makes them tick. 

What is a Scrum Master?

A Scrum Master is an individual tasked with facilitating a scrum team to ensure that projects progress as needed. Essentially, the Scrum Master helps a team uphold the Scrum framework and increase the overall value of the group’s activities. 

The Scrum Master has responsibilities for the product owner as well as the development team. These individuals cultivate an ideal work environment that enables the teams to work as efficiently as possible. 

The responsibilities of a Scrum Master

The Scrum Master has responsibilities to two main sets of individuals

  • The Scrum team;
  • The project or product owner.

Most of the things a scrum master does tie directly to those two stakeholders. With that, it’s essential to remember that a Scrum team is a group of self-led individuals responsible for the project and must collaborate efficiently to yield excellent results. 

Facilitate team processes

On a broader scale, a scrum master is a facilitator. Again, while a scrum team is self-led, there still needs to be sufficient guidance to keep the project moving in the right direction. 

More specifically, a Scrum Master is tasked with ensuring the team follows the Scrum Framework and achieves desired results efficiently.

However, the Scrum Master is not responsible for project outcomes, although it might initially seem that way. The responsibility for the project lies within the entire scrum team, not just the SM.

Considering this, it’s even more essential to achieve a cohesive environment between team members to achieve optimal results. 

Manage backlogs

No project is perfect. You are bound to run into unforeseen issues that may cause some delays with development. The Scrum Framework is specifically designed for these problems. A scrum team should be flexible enough to deal with unanticipated issues as they come up and ensure backlogs are tackled efficiently. 

A scrum master can help define these backlogs and ensure they are prioritized appropriately with the other aspects of the project. By doing so, the team will likely generate better results.

Facilitate meetings

One of the tenets of the Scrum Framework is the occurrence of daily stand-up meetings. The purpose of these meetings is to update each other on the progress of the project and discuss if there are any roadblocks preventing members from doing their jobs well. 

Ideally, these stand-up meetings shouldn’t take a lot of time and are typically done at the beginning of every day. However, stand-up meetings or scrum meetings can occur at any time, especially if you’re dealing with overseas employees. 

Preserving team dynamic

The success of a scrum team hinges on the members’ ability to work well with each other. Without proper communication and cooperation, all the efficiency of the Scrum Framework is out the window. 

A good scrum master assists with creating a productive team dynamic that supports high-value production and efficiency in the workplace. 

What is a Project Manager?

A project manager, or PM, is typically given the directive of making sure all pieces of a given project fit with each other. Often, a PM has to deal with the following main tasks:

  • Planning,
  • Controlling,
  • Monitoring,
  • Reporting.

All this is done in an effort to complete the project given certain constraints with time and budget, among other resources. 

The responsibilities of a project manager

A project manager, like a Scrum Master, is in charge of a wide range of tasks. These activities can cover everything from planning the project to budgeting for all the necessary costs. 

Before we go deeper into a PM’s responsibilities, here are some qualities you can find in a good project manager.

  1. Good leadership skills;
  2. Excellent organizational capabilities;
  3. Stellar critical thinking skills;
  4. Communication expertise.

How does a great project manager’s performance affect businesses? Let’s consider an example! 

To organize such speedy work, you need a project manager who is a true master of his craft. And if this specialist made mistakes, built a bad plan, or poorly organized the work, some of the competitors would overtake the company in the speed of services provided. 

Detailing project scope

One of the project manager’s leading roles is to define the entire scope of the project. This is the starting point of most projects and is a crucial aspect of seeing a program to completion. 

Without a project manager’s scope definition, a project is likely to fall apart due to incorrect budgeting, misplaced efforts, and overall disorganization. 

This responsibility can include:

  1. Defining the project’s goals;
  2. Identifying deliverables;
  3. Determining project stakeholders.

Managing project budget and resources

Another one of a project manager’s core responsibilities is to take care of the budget. In any project you can think of, budget is almost always one of the biggest considerations. Unless it has access to really deep pockets, it’s very likely that you’ll need budgeting expertise to achieve success. 

The project manager is the one responsible for ensuring that fiscal outlays occur as needed and according to plan. 

In the same vein, a PM should also make sure that project resources are used efficiently. This could mean anything from timely delivery of results to proper management of human resources. 

Through a PM’s efficient management of the team and its resources, any project can become a great success. 

Risk assessment

A good project manager should be proficient at assessing risks at any point in the project. Recognizing risks and dealing with them appropriately is essential when you want to create maximum value for your stakeholders. 

For example, if you are a PM in a software testing company, you should be ready for tight deadlines, changing circumstances, or a lack of precise requirements.

Without a risk assessment, projects could easily go downhill. At any point in time, circumstances can change and dynamics can shift. The risk that comes with a project is highly dependent on many factors, including those previously mentioned. 

Appropriate risk assessment reduces the cost of errors and increases overall efficiency because teams can pivot methods if necessary. This saves money and time for both the company and the team working on the project. 

At the same time, it is necessary to assess the risks in the long term. For example, if dealing with an insurance company, this sphere has taken a huge leap forward in 2020 due to the introduction of new technologies. To avoid falling behind the competition in a few years, seek insurance business transformation services.

Leading communications

A PM is also in charge of leading communications for stakeholders, whether we’re talking about the project sponsor, owner, or the team itself. 

We mentioned that good project managers need excellent communication skills. These ring true because leaders need to get ideas across in effective ways. PMs may find themselves doing the following pretty often:

  • Mediating conflict between team members;
  • Reconciling project needs with what sponsors require;
  • Communicating project requirements to the team;
  • Negotiating to keep the project on schedule.

Is a scrum master the same as a project manager?

Simply put, no. A scrum master is not at all the same as a project manager. There may be an overlap in their roles, but by and large, they are two different positions doing two different things. 

Think of it this way: the work of a project manager will typically involve the skills required of a scrum master, and these individuals are often tapped to serve as the SM of some teams. However, Scrum Master responsibilities tend to be a bit more localized and specific in some ways, but also broader in others. 

For instance, a project manager may deal with the overview of the project—the budget, schedule, planning, etc. The Scrum Master, on the other hand, may dabble in more technical aspects of the job. 

Nevertheless, there are also instances when scrum teams are built and developed for the company’s overall success. In this case, scrum masters want to achieve organization-level growth, while project managers focus on particular projects without necessarily considering the entity as a whole.

All that said, scrum masters do often find themselves filling in the roles of project managers—a fact backed up by research. This can create conflicts of interest in the workplace, so the delineation between these two roles must be made as clearly as possible. 

Differences between scrum master and project manager

Exclusivity

The first detail we want to hunker down on is exclusivity. A Scrum Master is limited to Scrum projects where there is a specific methodology for doing things. Meanwhile, a project manager can be attached to any project, provided that it fits their specific skill set. 

Scope

One way to explain a project manager’s role is with a focus on logistics. PMs frequently focus on ensuring all areas of a project are well-aligned with each other and that they all work for the project’s success. This involves work on risk management and budgeting, among many other areas. 

A scrum master, on the other hand, frequently maintains hands-on relationships with the team to ensure the success of the project. However, this doesn’t mean that the Scrum Master is responsible for the success of the project, as this is something the whole team is responsible for. 

Documentation

Documentation is an integral aspect of project fruition. It covers the budget, schedule, plan, and risk log. As you’ve probably gathered by now, a project manager often takes on these tasks. 

But while a PM focuses on documentation, a Scrum Master isn’t really tasked with any of these roles. Meaning, no budgeting, no planning, and no risk management responsibilities.

Similarities between a Scrum Master and a Project Manager

As different as a scrum master and project manager are from each other, they also have plenty of similarities. 

Leadership and mediation

Both the Scrum Master and Project Manager take on leadership roles and must take charge of a team. While they might do so in different ways, one thing is for sure: they are both mediators for the groups they lead and are tasked with streamlined conflict resolution. 

Efficiency and success

Regardless of the method, a Scrum Master and Project Manager have a unified goal: to see the project succeed. They will do anything to ensure that all goes well and the project criteria are met. 

Nevertheless, these two roles may use different methods and techniques to achieve optimum efficiency. But as long as results are achieved, the project is a success. 

Problem resolution

Whenever a project has roadblocks or team members encounter issues, it’s up to the SM or the PM to handle the situation—although they may do so differently.

Project ManagerTends to solve the problem through methods within their means and capacities as a PM. This often involves specific problem-solving efforts from the project manager. 
Scrum MasterA scrum master will probably guide the team and use them as a vehicle for resolution. Where a PM would do the work themselves, a Scrum Master channels the energy into the team to help them work better together and become more efficient. 

Is a Scrum Master better than a Project Manager?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. As established in our discussion, each role has its highlights and priorities. 

While scrum masters tend to get paid more than project managers, the work of these two roles differs. Scrum masters are great if you want someone with more technical experience who can lend their hands to the project. 

But if you want someone great at budgeting and taking overall control of a project, then a project manager is your best bet. That said, you may need to hire a separate consultant to stay on top of the technical aspects of things, as PMs may not necessarily have the industry experience required by the project. 

How do you know if your project needs an SM or a PM?

Each project has different needs—that much we know. And figuring out if an SM or PM fits your needs better could be a pivotal moment for your project. 

But honestly, you’re the only one who can make this decision. Make sure to take stock of all the facts and try to be incredibly objective in your decision-making. A Scrum Master is clearly a better choice if you want to take a Scrum approach to your project. 

If you prefer to use the waterfall method for your project, then maybe a project manager is the ideal individual to lead the work. 

But whether you prefer waterfall or agile techniques, one thing is sure: You will need a good, trusted individual to help lead the team to success.

Final takeaways

Overall, a scrum master and a project manager have plenty of differences between them. They use different methods to achieve the same goals. These roles have varying scopes, reaches, influences, and overall impacts on the company or project. 

However, as different as these two are, they are also similar in many ways. For one, both the SM and PM work for the success of the project or company. And while they may do so in different ways, we can assure you that these team leaders will do their best to produce high-value results for your undertaking.

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Ammara Tariq

Ammara is a Marketing Manager at Chanty - a collaborative team chat, with a plan to take her team to new heights. With an everlasting love for marketing tactics, she’s also very fond of research writing and hopes to spread delight and knowledge to her readers.

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