How natural is the move from project manager to Scrum master role

While adopting Scrum, many organizations are facing difficulties to appoint the Scrum master. This role has a scope and mission that is disrupting the status quo of the hierarchical organizations, and one particular role: the project manager.


On the other side, Scrum is extremely often seen as a project management methodology, while it is clearly documented as a product development methodology.


From these situation, many organizations choose to appoint project managers as Scrum masters and believe their agile transformation is done. But is it a valid option? Let's have a look.

project manager as scrum master

What is a project

There is no occurrence of the word project in the Scrum guide, so it sounds awkward to see the problem persist. If we can understand the confusion from non-agilist, it is a little more disturbing to hear it from Scrum coach and evangelists.

To give this question a rational answer, let’s review what is a project. No fancy definition here, let’s reuse the key elements of definition from the Project Management Institute[1]. So a project:

    • is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time
    • has a defined scope and associated resources
    • is unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal
    • often involves people who don’t usually work together


Why Scrum is not a project management methodology

If the uniqueness of the work to perform is usually valid for Scrum, it is not the case for the others three statements.

    • First statement: a project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time

No, Scrum is not temporary. It obviously has a start date, and can have an end date, but it is not necessarily the case. Moreover, it is by design indefinitely sustainable. This is already a pretty strong misalignment.

    • Second statement: a project has a defined scope and associated resources

The scope of a Scrum product is meant to be aligned with user expectations with each iteration. Even if the team should start from an idea of scope or an initial problem to solve, there is no notion of fixing the scope. Once again Scrum differs largely from the definition of a project.

    • Third statement: a project often involves people who don’t usually work together

Most Scrum experts agree to the fact that Scrum gains in predictability and quality when gaining in maturity. Mature Scrum teams are in essence productive teams. Even if at first it can group various skills, a good practice is to share knowledge as much as possible so that most team members are able to work on most items. In short, no, we cannot say that in Scrum people are not used to work together.


Scrum does not fit with most the key concepts that define a project. It could be the end of the story but from another perspective, you can very well setup a Scrum team in a context in which the items above are all true. It is actually pretty common.


When Scrum can be seen as a project management methodology

On principle, as defined above, Scrum is not a project management methodology.

However, if as a company you decide to fix a global scope or vision and a time-frame to try out a new idea, it is a project. And among the different methodologies you can choose from, Scrum is off course a valid option.

This creates confusion for many. I believe this is the source of many misunderstandings.


Why is it a problem

Well, is it only a wording question? After all, it does not matter much to decide if yes or no Scrum is this or that. As long as it helps to get value delivered, who cares?

While valid, this has a drawback: mindset.

Scrum is great but requires a deep change of mindset. It is the #1 failure of Scrum transformation: missing the mindset shift.


Back in the 90s and early 2000, projects were the way to go. Companies run projects for any kind of purpose. Consequently we have a large part of the workforce that believe projects are the way to innovate, and that the project manager is The head, the person who is accountable. If the whole organization expects the same from one person in the Scrum team, there will be disappointment. It will create issues like Scrum master seen as useless or all power. Product owners that can lack some skills as coming from the “project” team. Same applies to “one-year roadmap”, change control boards and all the structures and practices that arose from a project-oriented organization. If those may have had benefits, they will only create impediments on the adoption of Agile and Scrum.


It may as well suggest that project managers are best suited to become Scrum masters, which is not necessarily the best idea.


Project managers as Scrum masters

Now here is the main point. In an organization oriented towards projects, an easy take is to appoint all project managers as Scrum masters. It has the merit to be easy and fast, but that is all.


Obviously, some project managers can accommodate to the new role, but again this will be all about a change of mindset. Scrum is based on team self-organization and autonomy. It is about team and collaboration over one-head syndrome. That may not fit with the temper of some project managers, that have a habit to micro-manage and control all deliverables in their areas.

There are a number of qualities that makes a good Scrum master, and some that are explicitly important for project managers.


Key qualities to move from project manager to Scrum master role

  • Belief in Scrum: this one seems obvious. By experience it is not. Many project managers do not easily accept agile transformation. An example is project managers that think Scrum comes with lack of transparency and predictability, like we discussed here;
  • Involving the team with process definition: Project managers may have a tendency to decide how things are done. For a part Scrum masters has a strong role in in the process. In the end the team needs to like the Scrum process; An example is the Scrum branching model;
  • Belief in self-organization: that is the point of Scrum, and its main value. A project manager needs to have faith in this model to avoid being himself an impediment to it;
  • Recognizes and acts on team conflict: Pretty important and not always the work of project managers. Read our article on Scrum master role on conflict;
  • Encouraging to take ownership: if the Project manager believes that being a Scrum master, he will still be owner of the product or the team, that should be a no-go;
  • Sensitive to the question of sustainable tempo: A fundamental change between a standard project methodology and Scrum is the question of tempo that the Sprint brings. It is potentially difficult for a project manager to accept this change of temporality. That is how we come up with product increments sent to the users every three sprints and milestones in the roadmap…
  • Facilitator: last but not least, Scrum master is about helping the team to produce value. The tasks that he has to do may be surprising to some project managers that precisely avoided this kind of low-level impediment to look at the global picture. Ask your project manager if that is really what he wants.



Scrum is not a project management methodology. Persistent teams should align to a product mode in which Scrum will be well seated to provide its best value. This ambiguity becomes a major issue when we try to transform project-oriented organization into the adoption of Scrum.


Project managers may be good candidates for the role of Scrum master, but the recruiter will need to verify the alignment with Scrum values before.


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