The Project Manager and the Scrum Master Should be Friends

There is a debate in the Agile community regarding the role of the project manager and the scrum master. These discussions remind me of a song from the musical, Oklahoma. Rather than drawing on the commonalities and shared mission of the roles, the focus seems to be on what separates them.

The farmer and the cowman should be friends,

Territory folks should all be pals.

Rogers & Hart

On the western frontier, there were natural tensions and differences between the open range cowmen and the farmers who built fences and tended to their crops. The Oklahoma territory needed both farmers and cowmen, and each needed each other.

Similarly, projects benefit by uniting scrum and project management practices. Scrum masters develop self-managing teams that are focused on delivering working software. Project managers add disciplines such as: risk management, integration planning, and stakeholder management.

I have managed in Agile and traditional Waterfall environments and have found that:

  • The project manager’s role and their leadership style are influenced by the enterprise software development methodology and the culture;
  • Project management and scrum are different disciplines that contribute to successful projects. Both have teachable skills whose mastery comes with experience; and
  • Developing an Agile culture is hard work. For many it means finding a new way of working. Traditional organizational structures and management roles are disrupted. It takes time and patience for these changes to root.

Methods vs. People

Agile and traditional software development methodologies are inherently different. Traditional methodologies are rooted in engineering and believe that developing software is like building a bridge—the key to success lies in detailed planning and adherence to the plan. By contrast, Agile recognizes that software is dynamic and embraces change.

Agile is values-based. It trusts that an empowered, self-managing team will make the right decisions. By contrast, traditional methods generally engender top-down, command and control leadership styles.

The role and personality of the project manager can adapt to the environment. On traditional projects, the project manager is cast in a controlling role as the process enforcer. By contrast, in an Agile setting the project manager can demonstrate egalitarian, coaching behaviors.

I was self-taught as a project manager. Without formal training, I naturally tended toward collaborative and iterative design-build practices. Co-locating the team, meeting regularly, and incremental development simply made sense and was more productive.

In the early 1990s, I worked with the Federal Reserve to implement a mission critical system for the U.S. Treasury. We used a screen prototyping tool instead of writing voluminous requirements. The small, core team included business, operations, and technology representatives who met regularly and collaborated on the solution. Consequently, we completed this project in a fraction of the time expected of a government project.

Two Valuable Skills

Project management and scrum are two valuable skills that contribute to project success. Framing the two disciplines as a set of skills is consistent to the principle of a self-contained team. Forced segregation of these functions based on title is neither effective nor efficient.

Some argue that project managers and scrum masters have different role-based objectives: The project manager’s role is controlling the project to balance time, cost, scope, and quality. The scrum master is a servant-leader who facilitates a self-managed team.

This is a false dichotomy. Both project managers and scrum masters share a common goal—a successful project.

Managing scope, time, cost, and quality is a critical success factor for all projects regardless of methodology. Agile dispenses with some of the complexity of managing the triple-constraint. However in the end, all projects are judged by their ability to delivery working software timely and at a reasonable cost.

All good leaders adopt and adjust their management style based on the team’s dynamics and circumstances. Good leaders empower their teams and foster a collaborative environment. This is simply good management practice.

Team Composition

There is not a clear consensus on how to best staff project managers and scrum masters. I recently polled about 225 project managers and asked whether the same person can be the project manager and scrum master? The results are inconclusive:

  • 30%: One person could play both roles;
  • 28%: These are two separate roles; and
  • 42%: It depends on team maturity or project scale.

Deciding how to deploy project managers and scrum masters should be based on an assessment of the team and the environment.

  • Team maturity: Teams transforming to Agile are likely to benefit from a highly experienced, dedicated scrum master. Teams that are well along on their Agile journey may be able to use a hybrid project manager/scrum master resource.
  • Complexity: Complex projects with multiple external dependencies or integration points may need dedicated project managers and scrum masters. On these types of projects, the scrum master focuses internally on the team, while the project manager focuses on external interdependencies and blockers.
  • Size: Smaller projects may not have the funding to support multiple resources with dedicated roles. These projects could be well suited for an individual playing a hybrid role.

Having cross-trained resources is a prudent resource management strategy. Most companies do not have a deep bench of available project managers or scrum masters waiting for their next assignment. If scrum and project management are treated as a skillset or discipline, there is greater resource flexibility.

The goal of the project team is delivering software that meets the customer’s expectations. There is substantial evidence that Agile is more effective at meeting this objective. Agile achieves these results by putting people and personal interactions at the center of the project.

Constraining project managers and scrum masters based on their respective title is inconsistent with the Agile Manifesto. On an Agile team many normal lines of distinction are blurred: business vs. technology, developers vs. testers, etc. Just like the Oklahoma frontier, successful teams need different folks, and the folks should be friends for the benefit of the project.


Katham, S. (2015, May 26). Scrum Manager and Project Master. Retrieved October 13, 2016, from

L., E. (2016, February 9). ScrumMaster Versus Project Manager. Retrieved October 13, 2016, from

The Farmer And The Cowman – Rodgers And Hammerstein. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2016, from

Zucker, A. (2016, September 9). – Poll: On a given project can the same person be both a Scrum Master and Project Manager? Retrieved October 13, 2016, from–can-the-same-person-be-both-the-Scrum-Master-and-the-Project-Manager-

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