Project Managers Make Lousy Scrum Masters

Project Managers Make Lousy Scrum Masters

Don’t get mad at me. Though it may sound tough or critical, the reality is that most project managers make lousy scrum masters. I didn’t make that up—I’ve been hearing it from multiple agile experts over the years, and I’ve witnessed it firsthand on more than one occasion. Being a project manager myself for many years, I can appreciate why this happens and how painful it might be to acknowledge that it’s true.

The good news for those of you who are great project managers is that it is possible to be a great scrum master as well, and I have some tips. But first, let’s explore a little background and why I stand by my claim…

Understanding Why Project Managers Make Lousy Scrum Masters

I remember my first exposure to scrum. In the mid-2000s, I was reading about various agile methods and scrum in particular. I remember thinking that it only described developers and so would probably not be a great approach for any of my projects. Scrum didn’t fit my world view of how projects worked. And as a project manager, I didn’t see a place for me in the scrum framework.

A few years later, I took my first training class on agile, and then a little later I took the Certified ScrumMaster training course. The first trainer pointed out that there was no role for project managers in scrum, and he cautioned against having project managers in the scrum master role. The trainer for the Certified ScrumMaster course came right out and said it” “Project managers make lousy scrum masters!”

As a PM, I felt excluded and rejected. It was almost as if scrum was this exclusive club that only accepted the thin, rich or beautiful people. It was my high school all over again.

I had a lot invested in being a great PM. My worldview and approaches served me. So why wouldn’t I be effective in Scrum?

In Early Scrum, Project Managers Became the Scrum Masters

Though most scrum proponents today advocate separation of the project manager and scrum master roles, it wasn’t always like this. In the first book published on Scrum in 2001, Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle described the scrum master as a new management role. They explained that “the team leader, project leader, or project manager” often assume the role.

By the publication of Schwaber’s second scrum book in 2004, he seemed to have soured on the idea of project managers being scrum masters. He included several anecdotes of project managers struggling with the scrum master role. He described the “drastic change” that project managers must make to effectively manage scrum projects. He lamented that some of his newly minted scrum masters “just don’t get it, no matter how much they’ve read about scrum.”

Ken’s observation that scrum masters can’t read about being a scrum master was a key insight. You see, it wasn’t simply about scrum knowledge, it was about behavior change. He advocated that scrum masters had to learn by doing, with a heavy dose of coaching and mentoring from more experienced scrum masters or coaches.

Things have changed little since 2004. The last few years I’ve been banging on about the difficulties project managers face with agile and the key mindset changes required to be effective as an agile project manager. Here is why we are still facing this problem.

Project Managers Are Predisposed to Control

The main challenge that project managers have when performing the scrum master role is that it is different. The skills and approach that make a project manager great will make a scrum master fail.

If I were to pick out just one thing that project managers need to focus on, it would be control. PMs are predisposed to manage and control. What do they control? Everything! That is how they make sure their project succeeds.

In A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), we can see all the areas that project managers are expected to manage or control including scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, communications, risk, procurement and stakeholders…which is pretty much everything.

The project manager has overall responsibility for the successful initiation, planning, design, execution, monitoring, controlling and closure of a project. The project manager takes charge and succeeds by getting work done through others. The project manager has also been the one to blame when things go wrong.

In contrast, the scrum master is a servant leader who doesn’t have the overall responsibility for delivery. The scrum master supports the product owner and scrum team to take responsibility for all aspects of the work: planning, estimation, executing and delivery. The primary responsibilities of the scrum master could be summarized as:

  • Teaching and coaching scrum to the team and product owner
  • Helping the development team to self-organize
  • Removing impediments
  • Serving the product owner, dev team and organization
  • Facilitating scrum events

Project Managers Need to Relinquish Control

My recommendation for project managers is to examine their need to control. If project managers acting as scrum masters can learn to let go of control, they will create the context for the team to grow and learn to self-organize. But it is not easy to recognize or to change controlling behavior.

The challenge is, most people have a blind spot when it comes to their desire to control. They have a difficult time seeing themselves as controlling. But hey, it’s what makes you a great project manager, so don’t beat yourself up. Celebrate yourself!

A Quick Litmus Test on Command and Control

Do you have any idea of your own level of control? The simple assessment below was adapted from one that I included in my book, Agile Project Management. While not perfect, this assessment might give you an idea of the level of control you tend to exert. Take a moment to go through the questions below and track how many “yes” responses you have:

Identifying Controlling Behavior 

  1. Do you feel that you need to monitor your team members so that they don’t slack off?
  2. Do you believe that you generally know what is best, and willingly offer solutions and advice?
  3. Do you tend to interject yourself into problem solving, even when you are not invited to get involved?
  4. Do you try to make the results conform to your idea of what the results should be?
  5. Do you feel uncomfortable when others are in control and you are not?
  6. Do you feel uneasy by the idea that your employees or team may operate fine without you?
  7. Do you feel the need to be involved in the details and decisions to reduce the risk of the project failing or having a misstep?
  8. Do you feel solely and personally responsible for the success and failure of the people you lead?
  9. Do you tend to step in or override others to protect them from possible mistakes or the consequences of their decisions?

Being a Great Scrum Master Can Be Learned

Good news folks – you can learn to be an effective Scrum Master. Please see my related article on exactly how to Transition from Project Manager to Scrum Master.

Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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