Why an Agile Project Manager Is Not a ScrumMaster


A Scrum Master has only allegiance to the team. A project manager has responsibility to the team and to the organization. That means that the project manager might feel torn when the organization pressures the project manager to do something stupid. 

A reader asked why the lifecycle in Agile Lifecycles for Geographically Distributed Teams, Part 1 is not Scrum. It's not Scrum for these reasons:

  1. The project manager and product owner start the release planning and ask the team if the release planning is ok. The team does not generate the initial draft of release planning itself. In Scrum, the team is supposed to generate all of the planning itself.
  2. The checkin is different from the Scrum standup and the objectives of the checkin are different. I did suggest to the teams that if you want to create a cross-functional team where the functions are separated, if you ask people how they are working together, you might help them work together. Sometimes those questions work, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the team and whether the people want to work together.

I didn’t mention retrospectives or backlogs in my examples so far, because I took them for granted. Yes, both examples of these teams do perform retrospectives and have product backlogs. They also have agile feature roadmaps, which are on my list to blog about.

The real difference is the difference between a Scrum Master and an Agile Project Manager. A Scrum Master is not a project manager. A scrum master does not manage risk by him or herself. A project manager will take on the risk management responsibility without asking the team.

A Scrum Master has only allegiance to the team. A project manager has responsibility to the team and to the organization. That means that the project manager might feel torn when the organization pressures the project manager to do something stupid. (Although, I just downloaded the Scrum Guide, and the Scrum Master’s responsibilities have grown considerably since I took my CSM with Jeff way back in 2006.)

But agile provides transparency when the organization asks the agile project manager to do something stupid, so it’s easier to retain your integrity as a project manager.

Want to move a feature higher in the backlog? Change the feature roadmap with the product owner and then change the backlog with the product owner. I expect the agile project manager to collaborate on the feature roadmap and the backlog with the product owner.

Want to change the velocity of the team to please some crazed manager? Both the Scrum Master or the agile project manager protects the team in these ways:

  • Explain that velocity is not a productivity metric
  • Say No and explain why
  • Play the Double Your Velocity schedule game
  • Or choose some other way to remove this management obstacle.

Agile makes it easy to protect the team. The question is this: does the Scrum Master have other responsibilities in addition to protecting the team or is the Scrum Master full time? An agile project manager tends to be full time on a geographically distributed team. Even on a geographically distributed team, a Scrum Master is not seen as a full time position. Bless their tiny little hearts, managers don’t seem to understand that transitioning to agile, especially for silo’d distributed teams with different cultural norms is non-trivial. They will make room for a project manager, but a Scrum Master? Oh no. Makes me nuts.

Cut corners on quality? I don’t see how. The team doesn’t meet the acceptance criteria on the stories and doesn’t meet their criteria of done for an iteration, and can’t show a demo. How does that serve anyone?

Help a team go faster? This is the one place where a project manager may have an edge over a Scrum Master, and that’s only because of education. An agile project manager is a project manager. That means he or she is actively studying project management, which means he or she is studying lean also, looking into work in progress. (I realize many project managers do not actively study project management.) I have high expectations of an agile project manager, and that is to limit WIP, work in progress, to measure cumulative flow. But, Johanna, that’s a lean project manager. Yes, that’s correct. Why not use all of the tools available to us at all times? This is not to help a team actually go faster, but to provide feedback to the team about their WIP. If everyone takes a story at the start of the iteration and everyone always works on their own story, it’s likely the team is at the slowest possible velocity. It’s worth knowing that, or at least retrospecting about the data. A project manager will gather the data. A Scrum Master, especially one who was not a trained project manager, may not know to gather the data.

I have nothing against Scrum Masters. Some of my good friends are CSTs (Certified Scrum Trainers). However, they are not all project managers, and have not been project managers, and have not studied the field of project management. Some have been. And, the real issue is this: In a two or three day workshop, they cannot convey to a person who may or may not have been a practicing project manager all of their project knowledge.

Organizations do not always pick project managers to be Scrum Masters. And, with good reason. Some project managers are command-and-control project managers. I suspect back in my long-ago past, I was. I gave it up long ago because it didn’t work. Some people never gave up command-and-control project management. Those people are not good project managers for agile projects. They are terrible project managers for geographically distributed projects, where you must work through influence.

You can have self-managing teams that are geographically distributed. You can have self-directed teams that are geographically distributed. But, they don’t start that way. They evolve into self-directed and self-managing teams. They start as management-led teams.

And, especially when they are silo’d teams, they need the coordination of a project manager, someone who will manage the risk between the silos, and someone who has the organizational backing, and yes, someone who has the allegiance to the organization to say, “We need to do this project” to write the project charter.

In a geographically distributed team, the agile project manager writes the project charter either with the team, or as a strawman for the people to edit and approve. Shane and I recommend that the people get together to write it together. We like it if people get together in person. We know how rarely that happens. (Penny wise, pound foolish.) So we teach people how to write a project charter when they are divided in space.

Because until there is a project charter, there is no organizing principle for the silo’d teams. Those developers in France, testers in Belarus, product managers and project manager in San Francisco, they all need something to coalesce around. The charter, which includes the project vision provides that. The iterations provide the project heartbeat.

So, that’s why I don’t think Agile Lifecycles for Geographically Distributed Teams, Part 1 is Scrum. It’s close, but no cigar. I respect Ken and Jeff’s work too much to call it Scrum when it’s not.

Now that I’m mostly recovered from my cold, I can continue the series about lifecycles.

(Want to learn to work more effectively on your geographically distributed team? Join Shane Hastie and me in a workshop April 17-18, 2012.)


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