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AppDev 101: What’s the Difference Between a Scrum Master and a Project Manager?

Author: Tom Moore | | March 10, 2021

If you’ve used traditional project management approaches, such as the waterfall methodology, you’re familiar with the role of a Project Manager. In the agile world, projects don’t typically have a Project Manager role, but there is a Scrum Master role. While those two roles may sound the same, there really are differences between the two.

The Roles in an Agile Environment

There are typically three main roles in an agile project. People in those three roles are directly involved in producing a final product.

  1. Product Owner

    The Product Owner is the leader of the project, and as defined in the Scrum Guide, is responsible for “maximizing the value of the product.” The Product Owner is responsible for:

    • defining the Product Backlog, which identifies a prioritized list of the requirements that the team must complete to produce the final product
    • ensuring that the Development Team understands the items in the Product Backlog
    • ensuring that the Development Team optimizes the value of their work

    An effective Product Owner is the champion for the product and has the authority and communication skills to make the project a success. The Product Owner should:

    • have decision-making power where the product is concerned
    • have in-depth insight into the business and its market
    • know the customers the product will serve
    • can communicate persuasively to the Project Team and stakeholders

    Stakeholders don’t have a specific role in the project execution, but they are critically important to its success. Stakeholders are those people who will be affected by the project. While the Project Team may interact with the Stakeholders, the Product Owner has overall responsibility for correctly identifying all relevant Stakeholders and managing the relationship with the stakeholders to keep everyone on the same page.

  2. Development Team

    The Development Team consists of professionals who deliver an increment of work that can potentially be released at the end of each sprint. A Development Team is self-organizing, which means that the team works together to determine how to complete the work in each sprint.

    The Team is cross-functional, composed of professionals who represent all the skills the Team needs to complete the work. However, the Team doesn’t break out into sub-groups. As a group, the Team is accountable for the work that is completed.

  3. Scrum Master

    The Scrum Master fulfills a role often called a Servant Leader because the Scrum Master serves the Product Owner, Development Team, and the Business.

    The Scrum Master and the Product Owner. The Scrum Master works with the Product Owner to ensure that the Team understands the goals of the project. The Scrum Master also identifies ways to effectively manage the Product Backlog and helps the Product Owner prioritize the Backlog to maximize value.

    The Scrum Master and the Development Team. The Scrum Master coaches the team in the application of the agile methodology, removes roadblocks, and helps the Team create high-value products.

    The Scrum Master and the Business. The Scrum Master helps employees and Stakeholders to understand how the development process works and how they can support the process, and identifies and implements changes that must be made organizationally to ensure success.

    Scrum Masters are experts in the agile methodology and how scrum is used; their key responsibility is to ensure the effective application of the agile/scrum methodology. Scrum Masters lead scrum events such as daily meetings and Sprint Demos. They ensure that Stakeholders and other attendees understand why they need to attend specific events and what their role is during the events. In addition, they ensure that event attendees don’t disrupt meetings.

What’s the Difference Between a Scrum Master and a Project Manager?

The role of a traditional Project Manager is much different than that of a Scrum Master. To understand that difference, it’s useful to review what a typical Project Manager does. The definition of Project Managers is very broad, but these are some of the things they may do:

  • Develop a business case for the project
  • Create project plans
  • Assign work to team members
  • Track progress and manage quality
  • Manage change requests


Project Managers are experts at managing the moving parts that comprise traditional projects such as a waterfall project. They are focused on managing personnel, timelines, and ensuring that the final product meets the stated project requirements.

How are the Roles Different?

There are many differences, but there are certain key issues that differentiate a Scrum Master from a Project Manager.

  • The Scrum Master is responsible for ensuring that the agile practices the Development Team uses brings out the best in the Team. The Team and the Product Owner are responsible for producing a product that meets the customer’s requirements. The Project Manager is project-oriented and is responsible for the project’s success or failure.
  • The Scrum Master is a Servant Leader who supports the Product Owner, Development Team and Business to ensure that agile principles are understood and implemented. The Project Manager is a leader who has the skills to lead the project to a successful conclusion.
  • The Scrum Master must be an expert on agile practices with the ability to support others in using those practices effectively. The Project Manager is the holder of knowledge about managing a project and supports others in completing their part of the project.
  • The Scrum Master isn’t necessarily working on one project full-time and can be available to handle other tasks. The Project Manager is full time on one or more projects.
  • The Scrum Master typically uses a collaborative leadership style. The Project Manager typically uses a top-down leadership style.

What are the Ideal Individuals to Fill These Roles?

If you’re looking for an ideal Scrum Master or Project Manager, there are some things that both individuals need. Communication is an important trait for either a Scrum Master or Project Manager. Both individuals will need to communicate effectively with a wide range of people, including Stakeholders, team members, management, customers, users, and more.

Leadership skills are critical for people in either role, even though their leadership styles are usually different. Both a Scrum Master and a Project Manager must also have excellent organizational skills.

Scrum Masters. These individuals must be agile experts who can train if needed, and coach and/or facilitate others in using the agile principles. They must also be good at coaching. The Development Team, Product Owner, and Stakeholders will need to work with a Master who is good at helping people change their mindset when necessary and who can create relationships that make it easy to give advice and support.

Scrum Masters also need to understand the Servant Leader principles. They must lead by example to embody the attitudes and behavior that make the agile methodology work effectively.

Project Managers. An effective Project Manager must understand and be able to orchestrate a project based on using project management tools such as Project Plans, Gantt Charts, and more. They must have good time management skills to meet timelines and to help the team manage their workdays.

Negotiation skills are also important to Project Managers to ensure that the project stays on track. For example, they may need to negotiate with users, and customers to manage changes so that the team can meet deadlines. They also need to manage other risks that could threaten the success of the project.

Whether you’re using the waterfall or agile methodology, the success of your project will depend to a great extent on the person leading it. There are other issues that are critical to address to ensure the success of your application development project.

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