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The Fake Debate of Scrum Master or Project Manager

Comparing apples to oranges

By Sanjay Khatnani, Managing Partner, J2 Solutions

Comparing apples to oranges In the fast paced world of IT, there appear to be roles and positions that are dictated by the development methodology du jour in a company, department or team. Traditional waterfall methodology will have a Project Manager. In Agile development environments, the Scrum Master is an important member of the team.

In the real world, the roles are not so easily described, and there is a false debate over whether you need a Scrum Master or a Project Manager. But before we get to that, let’s discuss something they have in common.

Both of these actors act upon projects, regardless of methodology.

Projects are like stories
A project is simply defined as a series of tasks that need to be accomplished to reach a specific goal. Regardless of the titles given to the various team members, a project is a project. It can be complicated or simple, but it is still a project.

Projects have beginnings, middles and ends, just like good stories. The beginning of a good project, like the beginning of a good story, will set the foundation for what is to come. Team members, like characters, need to be chosen for what they add to the plot development, or product development. A project plan will lay out what happens in what order, towards which goal, much like the way our story needs solid plot development.

Of course this all doesn’t happen at once. A good story is built chapter by chapter, moving the plot along its course according to the story arc set up in the beginning of the process. A good project plan similarly moves the development of the project along, building the essential foundations module by module, each adding to the structure of the final deliverable that will achieve the business goal.

Project Managers are like authors
A Project Manager takes charge, manages risk, and facilitates communication among teams and team members, all to ensure a cohesive final deliverable. He/she reports to management if there are issues or delays in moving forward. To continue our metaphor, the author takes charge of the characters and plot line, writes dialogue and builds toward the plot resolution to create a cohesive narrative. If there are delays, the author reports to the editor awaiting the draft.

A good author will make or break a story. And yes, a good Project Manager has a lot to do with whether or not a business project succeeds.

Just as writers find distinct writing methods better to spark their creativity and keep the flow of the story alive, companies have found various development methodologies that best move different sorts of projects to a successful end.

Scrum Masters are like editors
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, two of the major methodologies for IT projects are the traditional waterfall and Agile models. According to the Agile framework, a Scrum Master is required to keep the team and the rest of the company faithful to the Scrum. We can return to our metaphor and compare the Scrum Master to an editor, a valuable team member to the process of publishing a story, but not a replacement for the author. The editor will make changes to a draft to correct spelling and grammar mistakes. He/she will also make recommendations for moving the plot along, suggest when something is unnecessary and could be re-worked or deleted, and point out where a manuscript doesn’t explain what the reader needs to know.

Our Scrum Master performs a similar role, keeping team members focused on the sprint in progress, reminding them to be faithful to the Scrum and attempting to keep outside issues from impeding their work. The Scrum Master coaches the team, much like the editor coaches the writer. 

So what about the false debate?
The debate about whether a project needs a Project Manager or a Scrum Master is not a useful deliberation for moving projects forward. There is no either/or when it comes to Project Manager and Scrum Master.

In most settings you can task a member of the team who has a solid understanding of the methodology to oversee the framework in which the team is producing their output. In general, proficient professionals shouldn’t need someone to coach them daily about how to best accomplish their goals. The team can select one of their own to facilitate stand up meetings and other scrum rituals, without a dedicated person for the role.

A project needs a Project Manager. A Scrum Master won’t be handling risk management or resource allocation or discussions of larger business goals with the management of the company. The Project Manager does all of these things. A good Project Manager will also provide direction for the team and control project scope.

Keeping the difference in responsibilities in mind, there simply is no debate. Decide whether or not to have a dedicated Scrum Master, but have a good Project Manager to get your project to the finish line on time and within budget.

Share your thoughts in the comments, looking forward to continuing the discussion.