Redefining the Project Manager Role in Scrum

Scrum teams are meant to become self-sustaining, so it’s natural for project managers to wonder how they will fit into this new environment. But they still have important skills. Their new role may—and probably will—look different from the traditional project manager role they’ve been used to, but there are still plenty of opportunities to provide real value to their new Scrum team.

Organizations moving to Scrum often struggle with what to do with their project managers. At first blush, Scrum does not seem to need that role. Since the ultimate goal of Scrum adoption is to make a team self-sustaining and able to improve on its own, the need for a traditional project manager is debated.

There are three common roles in the Scrum process: product owner, ScrumMaster, and Scrum team member. Often, traditional project manager responsibilities are distributed between the ScrumMaster and product owner, making the need for a traditional project manager unclear.

Let’s discuss each role defined by Scrum to see if and when a project manager role is needed.

Role of product owner: The product owner is responsible for benchmarking competitors’ products, studying customers, and coming up with various requirements that can help to improve a product to beat the competition, gain more market share, increase customer satisfaction, or meet regulatory compliance needs.

The product owner ranks each business objective based on the value they are going to deliver, and they provide all required information, including screen mockups and functional requirements, to make each objective successful. They also create the product backlog, which works as a fuel for product development. The goal of the product owner is to represent the customer's voice and provide the right functional direction to the team.

Role of ScrumMaster: The ScrumMaster acts as a servant leader and negotiates with the product owner whenever there is a change in requirement or when objectives cannot be achieved as planned. The ScrumMaster also protects the team from a lot of external issues that can hinder team performance.

This role helps the team remove their impediments and actively manage their risks when achieving committed objectives. The ScrumMaster also helps the team understand limitations and improve their process gaps so that they can operate to their maximum potential.

Role of Scrum team member: The Scrum team typically consists of individuals who play developer or tester roles (or both) on the project. The team is responsible for estimation and providing commitment on what can be achieved in a given time frame. Once the team has made a commitment, they work closely with the product owner and ScrumMaster to fulfill it. The goal for the team is to deliver working software at the end of the sprint.

Scrum development goes through a cycle, as pictured below, where the product owner, ScrumMaster, Scrum team, and customers actively collaborate to deliver committed objectives.

A cycle showing the roles of the product owner, ScrumMaster, Scrum team, and customers

If we look closely at the above flow, there is really no active role for a project manager on a Scrum team, as the Scrum roles collaborate in a self-managed manner.

Redefining the Project Manager’s Role

While it may be true that the development process doesn’t need a project manager, project management skills are always at a premium. These skills can be applied to fulfilling the Scrum roles discussed above or to other management roles needed about Scrum teams.

To this end, project managers can consider playing other necessary roles in the organization, such as ScrumMaster, Scrum of Scrums Master, or program manager.

Project manager as ScrumMaster: Project managers have historically negotiated with stakeholders, executed change management, and come up with an agreeable project approach and timeline. The ScrumMaster role is a good fit for project managers who want to continue putting these skills from their past role to good use.

However, if members of a Scrum team are still also reporting to this project manager in your org structure, then this might not work, as the team may feel they can’t push back or negotiate with a ScrumMaster who is also their manager. Also, the team may not be totally transparent and honest during retrospectives and other Scrum ceremonies if the ScrumMaster is also their boss.

Project manager as Scrum of Scrums Master: Many organizations have multiple teams working on a large application or on multiple related products. In these situations, coordination among interconnected teams for release planning and testing must happen so that dependencies are addressed and the organization comes up with effective business objectives that work for everyone.

A Scrum of Scrums Master is someone looking at these cross-team dependencies and helping coordinate with each team to keep dependencies in sync and communication open. This role requires an individual with a lot of skill in negotiation and coordination, something a traditional project manager is often perfectly suited for.

Project manager as program manager: Above the day-to-day aspects of managing work, there are many other decisions that need to be made that Scrum teams traditionally do not address—things like hiring, firing, budgeting, performance reviews, and mentoring. There also may be disputes on the team that someone outside the team needs to resolve, either through mediation or switching team members around. We also need someone constantly thinking about keeping the team motivated, providing periodic feedback to individuals that is over and beyond retrospective feedback. If these aspects are not handled well when doing Scrum in a large organization, it will not work.

We need to recognize that even with a flat structure, there are lots of aspects of business that still must be managed above the team level. Whether you call such a person a program manager, a chapter lead, or a functional manager is moot. It’s someone dealing with the business aspects of software, mentoring and guiding staff in a particular discipline, and helping grow staff and move them up the career ladder.

Fitting into Your New Agile Environment

Scrum teams are meant to become self-organizing and self-sustaining, so it’s natural for project managers to wonder how they are supposed to fit into this new environment. However, it’s important for project managers to remember that they still have important skills. Their new role may—and probably will—look different from the traditional project manager role they’ve been used to, but there are still plenty of opportunities to provide real value to their new Scrum team.

User Comments

Clifford Berg's picture

Kudos for thinking out of the Scrum box. Scrum is a woefully insufficient model for how to make Agile work in the context of a large program or large organization. It is missing lots of roles and fails to address lots of needs and situations - yet one is supposed to use Scrum as-is, without changing it. This does not work well; e.g., if one introduces ATDD/BDD (which one should, generally speaking), the Scrum iteration model breaks down. Scrum's leadership model is particularly inadequate and misapplies the Tuckman model and servant leadership.

Project managers are particularly problematic for Agile i general: those who were trained in PMI/PMP/PMBOK are somewhat ruined: their thinking is incompatible and irreconcilable with Agile. E.g., the "project" construct is antithetical to Agile's view of continuous change. PMP people generally manage by artifacts, instead of talking to the team and knowing what is really going on - including the technical goings-on; that is bad team management.

One of the severe gaps in Scrum is its concepts of leadership. Leadership is more nuanced and complicated than what Scrum defined. Here is an article about that:

and here is another:


April 20, 2019 - 7:08am
Pratik Kothari's picture

Thank you for your comments Clifford, and I enjoyed reading shared articles!

April 23, 2019 - 2:57am

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