5 reasons project managers make lousy scrum masters

Lousy Scrum Masters

As the Agile movement continues to grow, the demand for scrum masters has increased. Traditional project managers have caught on and they’re disguising themselves as scrum masters. With a small fudge of the resume, they’re hired as scrum masters. What’s the problem? Project managers make lousy scrum masters.

Now, don’t freak out and get offended. When I first began working as a srum master, coming from an IT project management and QA background, I was lousy. I had a steep learning curve. It’s only after time and working with good Agile coaches that I’ve been able to improve as a scrum master.

The reason we project managers make lousy scrum masters is simple. The two roles are completely different. The original founders of scrum have made it clear that a scrum master is not a project manager. For a description of the scrum master role, check out the Scrum Guide from Scrum Alliance.

Yet, companies continue to hire project managers as scrum masters. Part of the problem is that most business executives don’t understand Agile. I still hear the question from management, “hey can you do that project using Agile”? As if Agile is something you can decide to use like choosing which fuel to pick at the gas station. Agile is a different way of working and thinking. Agile adoption requires commitment and understanding from teams and leadership.

Okay, I’ll get off my soap box. Without further ado, here’s my list of 5 reasons why project managers make lousy scrum masters:

  1. The concept of self-organizing teams doesn’t register with project managers. This may be the most challenging aspect in Scrum for project managers. Project managers are hardwired to tell teams what to do and when to do it. They then expect a full status back in return. In Scrum, the team decides what to work on with guidance from the product owner. The team is then accountable to each other, not to the scrum master. During the daily Scrum, team members should be giving their updates to the team, not to the scrum master. Keeping quiet and letting the team be accountable makes project managers feel like fish out of water.
  1. Project Managers aren’t used to coaching. On traditional projects the project manager is a leader and decision maker. In Scrum, one of the primary roles of the scrum master is to coach the team. They coach in self-organization and cross-functionality. To be able to coach though, one first needs to learn. If the project manager hasn’t learned Scrum, how could they coach the team?
  1. Project Managers struggle to give up being the top dog. On traditional projects, the project manager is the top dog. The buck stops with them. As a project manager, it feels good to have authority and control. In Scrum, you have to let that go. The scrum master does not have authority. The team does not report to the scrum master. The one who has authority on the Scrum team is the product owner. This fact requires project manager to have humility when transitioning to Scrum.
  1. Project managers freak out without a plan. The Project Management Institute teaches project managers to create plans, for everything. If you have your PMP, you know that they expect you to create a giant plan (document) consisting of like 10 sub plans. This plan, the size of the PMBOK, does not change unless there’s some official change request. While Agile still involves planning, this is completely different from Scrum.
  1. Most project managers don’t understand servant leadership. Scrum masters are servant leaders. This means they’re willing to jump in and do whatever it takes to remove impediments and help the team. That might mean helping to dive in and handle low level administrative work. Scrum masters put their ego aside and serve the team. Instead of puffing out their chest and telling everyone what to do, the Scrum Master asks how they can be of service. Most project managers are not used to this style of leadership when they begin in Scrum.

Here’s the good news, it is possible for project managers to become good scrum masters. It takes time and training. It’s like learning to play both guitar and drums well. Yes both instruments create music, but they need different training and skill sets.

About the Author: Mike MacIsaac is the owner and principal consultant for MacIsaac Consulting. Mike provides leadership as an IT Project and Program Manager as well as an Agile Scrum Master. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeMacIsaac or subscribe to Mike’s blog.

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Amy

    Wouldn’t it be dependent on the role of the project manager in your organization? If a PM is working in a weak or balanced matrix organization they are much more likely to implement many of the elements of Scrum than not. Effectiveness in a PM role of this type is more likely to require collaboration, influence, and coaching to ensure that value is delivered. Servant leadership is one way a PM can convince technical leads and team members that they are part of the team and focused on outcomes. Also, any PM that has worked on early development projects, where the science and engineering aren’t fully developed, knows that rigid plans break and there are specifications you make not identify until you have a prototype to test. You can’t know how many iterations it will take to produce a deliverable that achieves your goals and sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board. User stories are reminiscent of the WBS, which is a much easier way to illustrate and demonstrate the value to be delivered than a Gantt chart.

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