Scrum master vs. project manager: Understanding the key differences

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Different projects need different tools — but they also need different types of leaders to guide the project team to success.

In the world of project management, there are two main types of leadership roles: project managers and Scrum masters. But what’s the difference between the two job descriptions, and which one is the best choice for your agency’s next project?

To help you decide, here is everything you need to know about the key differences and similarities between Scrum masters and project managers.

What is a Scrum master?

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The name may sound like a character from Dungeons and Dragons, but being a certified Scrum master isn’t all fun and games. The Scrum master plays a major role in Agile project management, guiding the Scrum team and ensuring it sticks to Agile principles.

The role was born from a need for better collaboration, communication, and efficiency in software development projects. But today, you can find Scrum masters outside of development teams, leading all sorts of Agile projects.

The Scrum master facilitates Scrum events like sprint planning, daily Scrum meetings, sprint reviews, and sprint retrospectives. But they also act as a servant leader and promote continuous improvement.

What is a project manager?

A project manager’s role is more well-known, and part of the reason is that project managers tend to oversee a broader range of project types than Scrum masters.

Project managers specialize in traditional project management, guiding teams throughout the project lifecycle. They use their project management skills to ensure the team completes all deliverables on time, on budget, and up to the client’s (and agency’s) standards.

A project manager’s core responsibilities include things like creating project plans, identifying and mitigating project risks, and facilitating team and stakeholder communication.

Key differences between Scrum masters and project managers

According to famed business consultant Jim Collins, “People are not your most important asset. The right people are.” To help you choose the right person to lead your agency’s projects, here are the key differences between a Scrum master and a project manager and what each brings to the table.

Framework and methodology

Scrum masters operate exclusively within the Agile framework, specifically in Scrum methodologies. Their role is deeply rooted in Agile principles, which emphasize flexibility, continuous improvement, and self-organizing teams.

On the other hand, project managers tend to oversee a more diverse range of project methodologies that fall under the umbrella of traditional project management. This includes traditional project management methodologies like Waterfall, PRINCE2, and PMBOK

These frameworks are often more structured and linear, with a clear sequence of stages.

Role and focus

Scrum masters act as facilitators and Agile coaches for Scrum teams, ensuring that the teams adhere to Agile principles. They also work to remove impediments and create an environment more conducive to collaboration and teamwork.

A project manager's role and focus tend to be much broader and include planning, executing, and closing projects. Project managers are responsible for the entire project scope, project team, resources, budget, and, ultimately, the success or failure of the project.

Leadership style

Scrum masters typically employ a servant-leadership style, meaning they focus on serving the team, enabling them to work efficiently, and resolving issues that hinder progress.

Project managers often use a more directive leadership style. Their objectives include managing tasks, setting deadlines, and making decisions that guide the project toward its goals.

Interaction with the team

In Agile settings, project teams often end up getting to know the Scrum master better than they know their own mothers. This is because Scrum masters work closely with teams on a daily basis, facilitating stand-up meetings and helping reinforce Agile practices.

Project managers tend to be a little more laissez-faire and may not be quite as involved in the team’s daily activities. However, they are still responsible for assembling the project team and guiding them through the project lifecycle.

Stakeholder engagement

Scrum masters primarily focus more on internal team dynamics and less on client or stakeholder interactions. They might shield the team from external interruptions to maintain focus on the work at hand, but their involvement with project stakeholders tends to be limited.

Conversely, project managers tend to be heavily involved in stakeholder/client engagements. They often serve as the primary point of contact for stakeholders and communicate project progress, negotiate resources, and manage stakeholder expectations.

Scope and responsibilities

Scrum masters are usually in charge of leading a single Scrum team, though in larger agencies, they may lead several teams.

Meanwhile, project managers can be responsible for multiple projects simultaneously, often with a broader scope and more varied team composition.

Similarities between scrum masters and project managers

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There are a lot of major differences between project managers and Scrum masters when it comes to things like responsibilities, competencies, and skill sets. However, there are quite a few similarities between these two career paths, too.

Goal of delivering successful projects

At the end of the day, project managers and Scrum masters are both focused on ensuring a successful project. For each of these roles, the primary focus is to lead their teams toward achieving project objectives effectively and efficiently.

How they do this may look completely different, but the ultimate objective remains the same.

Leadership and team management

Scrum masters and project managers might have different roles and responsibilities, but both have to be strong, effective leaders.

Both of these professionals are responsible for guiding their teams, fostering a collaborative environment, and ensuring productivity and motivation among team members.

Communication skills

Both of these positions involve communicating expectations and key information to team members regularly. So great communication skills are a must-have for both the project manager and Scrum master role.

For project managers, the need for excellent communication skills extends even further. Along with team communication, project managers typically communicate with project stakeholders, clients, and agency executives as well. 

It’s up to the PM to keep everyone informed on project progress, seek their input, and ensure that they remain engaged and bought in throughout the project lifecycle.

Problem-solving abilities

Both Scrum masters and project managers need excellent problem-solving skills. When issues and obstacles arise, they must quickly identify the issue and find an effective solution to overcome it.

For project managers, this can mean things like overcoming budget constraints, managing change requests, and preventing delays in the project timeline. For Scrum masters, it can look like removing impediments that hinder the Scrum team and managing internal conflicts. 

Either way, the ability to identify and resolve issues in a way that’s both swift and effective is a key requirement for both project management roles.

Risk management

Risk management is a major part of the job for both project managers and Scrum masters. Both have to proactively manage risks to prevent project delays and failure.

Project managers tend to take a more big-picture approach to risk management. Scrum masters, on the other hand, focus on identifying and addressing risks that arise in the day-to-day operations of the Scrum team.

When to use a Scrum master vs. a project manager

So, now that you know the differences and similarities between a Scrum master and a project manager, which role is the best choice for your agency’s next project? The answer depends on several factors.

Scrum masters excel in environments that prioritize Agile methodologies (particularly Scrum methodologies). They also shine in scenarios that involve cross-functional teams, as Scrum masters are pros at helping foster teamwork and collaboration between different teams.

For projects that follow traditional or waterfall methodologies, project managers are usually the way to go. Project managers are also the better choice for projects with stable and well-defined requirements. Meanwhile, Scrum masters’ Agile approach makes them well-suited for navigating changing requirements.

The best choice for a project ultimately comes down to the project itself and its unique goals and requirements. In a lot of cases, agencies will choose to employ both a project manager and a Scrum master, thanks to their different yet often complementary roles.

Easily manage your projects with

Whether you have a Scrum master, a project manager, or both leading your agency’s projects, giving them the right tools is essential. From tracking project progress to analyzing risks, the right project management platform can assist Scrum masters and project managers with a lot of their key responsibilities.

Designed specifically for Agile project management, provides all of the advanced tools and features that agencies and their project leaders need. With, your project leaders can manage every stage of the project lifecycle more efficiently and effectively.

See for yourself why Scrum masters and project managers alike choose Teamwork as their go-to project management platform. Sign up for a free trial today!

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