In most companies doing software development, agile software development has been warmly embraced. This flexible approach to managing and scheduling work is seen as a welcome benefit in dynamic environments, and provides a better alternative to classic waterfall models for responding to change.
Agile development teams usually have a scrum master at the helm. Someone who leads the daily stand-up sessions at which progress is disclosed, and impediments can be brought to attention of the team. Scrum masters, in a way, lead the development team throughout their efforts to deliver the project.
Comparing both roles, the scrum master takes on responsibilities that are very similar to that of a traditional project manager. Before daily scrums were introduced, team members would disclose their progress and hurdles to the project manager.
Recently, one of my clients asked me whether project managers were still necessary for delivering agile projects. I can imagine there are more companies out there asking themselves the same question, since development methodologies have shifted towards agile thinking but most organizations still carry a project manager role.
Can an organization simply replace all project managers by scrum masters, or is there room for both disciplines to co-exist?
I personally believe there are two different possibilities, depending on the size of the project.
Project managers as scrum masters
This is probably the most common scenario, or at least one I’ve seen play out at multiple clients in the past few years.
Projects often entertain multiple stakeholders, and make for complex and possibly lengthy processes to manage before even getting to the execution phase. Because of this, or due to dependencies on other, non-agile processes within the same company, businesses may opt to introduce a hybrid between waterfall and agile ways of working.
While business case validation and project preparation may occur sequentially in a waterfall approach, for example, pure project execution — the actual development work — can be managed agile. In this case, the project manager still drives the project from conception to delivery, but applies a traditional plan-driven approach to manage all work done before the first letter of code is written. As soon as development starts, daily scrums come into effect, and work is picked up and managed sprint-by-sprint.
Here, the project manager takes on all scrum master responsibilities during project execution, but only in addition to duties a classic project manager has such as managing the resources involved, selecting the approach to deliver the project and facilitating business case development. In contrast, during project execution, the project manager applies agile techniques and manages the daily stand-ups, the sprints and facilitates the product owner in dealing with change.
Project managers as an alternative to the scrum of scrums
What happens when the project is so big that managing it in a single scrum team is no longer feasible?
Common scrum practice is setting up multiple scrum teams, each with their own scrum master. This creates the need for oversight and coordination between the different teams, as most projects consist on delivering multiple components dependent on one another.
Scrum masters play a role in this. Besides managing the daily scrum of their own team, they also participate in the scrum of scrums — a scrum meeting across all teams, in which each scrum master shares the current state of their team’s progress.
When project managers still make up the organization’s managing body, they often facilitate the scrum of scrums in this case, managing team inter-dependencies and working with outside actors on delivering the work foreseen. Dependencies might not be as agile as the development teams are.
As a closing thought, I would firstlike to emphasize that there is a difference between both roles — scrum masters are not project managers, but the opposite is equally true. Both roles require a different, but not mutually exclusive set of skills in order to be successful, and having individuals take on both roles will always be a compromise.
Second, besides thinking about project roles and how to apply methodologies, it’s important for organizations to not lose track of the bigger picture that is the working context in which they operate. Like often in life, successful project delivery is no exact science. Choices will always have to be made to tailor your approach to your exact organization.