Scrum Master vs Project Manager: How are they different?

Often, we come across these two words in industries – Scrum Master and Project Manager. Though, both of these roles contribute to the projects. But, they add some confusion to the young professionals who have stepped into the project management world recently. It applies to freshers too, who are planning to build their career in project management. They remain concerned about, which role should they choose to make the career? In fact, they struggle to understand, whether there is any difference in these roles or are they the same? And if they are the same, why are they named different?

Some people consider Scrum Master as the Project Manager in an agile environment. To some extent, they are true, but not completely. Though, these two roles somewhere overlap to a certain extent. They are far different from each other. Scrum Master contributes to agile projects supported by Scrum project management principles. While a Project Manager often focuses on traditional disciplined project management principles. This article uncovers the differences between these two roles. If you are a Project Manager currently, or you are willing to become a scrum master or vice versa. This is definitely a good article to read and understand the nuances of these roles. Who is a Scrum Master? What does a Project Manager do?

So go on and clarify yourself!

Before discussing the differences between these two roles, I would start with the explanation of these roles and their responsibilities. This will lay the foundation for better clarity on the subject of discussion.

Scrum Master vs Project Manager

So, let’s start with understanding these two roles in detail:

Who is a Scrum Master?

Scrum Master

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The Scrum Master is a person, who ensures that scrum principles are being followed. He/She ensures the scrum team's adherence to "Scrum" during agile projects. Before understanding further about agile scrum master, let’s know about Scrum.

What is Scrum Project Management?

Scrum is not a tool or technique used in agile projects. Rather it’s a framework – agile project management with Scrum. Scrum framework allows people:

  • to address complex problems with agility, and

  • to deliver high-value products.

Primarily, the Scrum framework is used in complex product development scenarios. Scrum defines some set rules and principles to follow in agile adaptive product development. Scrum Master is the key person of the scrum team, who is more like a servant leader for his/her core scrum team. He/She takes the onus to ensure that scrum rules are well understood and enacted by the team. He/She always makes efforts to ensure that scrum team is adhering to scrum principles. Agile practices and scrum rules are completely maintained. In other words, a Scrum Master is the scrum manager in adaptive iterative projects. His/Her main goal is to maximize the value created by his/her team in agile projects.

Click here to register for a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) Certification course

Scrum Master Roles and Responsibilities

As I mentioned before, a Scrum Master is a servant leader. He/She extends his/her services to the product manager and development team. (Note: Product Owner & development team roles are discussed elsewhere later in this article.) Let’s understand the Scrum Master's responsibilities under the following heads:

Scrum Master responsibilities and services to Product Owner

  • He/She helps the product owner to manage product backlog effectively and devises the techniques to do the same.

  • He/She helps the product owner to communicate the clear product needs to the development team.

  • Ensures that product owner understands how to manage product backlog and maximize the value.

  • Facilitates scrum events.

Scrum Master responsibilities towards Development Team

  • Mentoring and coaching the team to follow scrum rules.

  • Helps to remove roadblocks and impediments to aid in the team’s progress.

  • Helps the team to deliver high-value results and maintain team dynamics.

  • Facilitates scrum events and scheduling scrum meetings.

  • Coaching and handholding the team to adopt scrum framework. Especially if the team is new to scrum rules.

  • Also, a Scrum Master plans for scrum implementation in the organizations and helps people who are stepping into an agile environment or scrum adoption.

Hence, Scrum Master provides the facilitation to the scrum team. He/She tries to maximize the value created by his/her team. He/She acts as a coach or scrum guardian to the scrum team to ensure their adherence to the Scrum framework.

What is the role of the Project Manager?

Project Manager

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Let's understand the role of project manager now.

By now, we are aware that a Scrum Master is more focused on his/her scrum team to deliver maximum product value. On the contrary, a Project Manager has a large span of control. He/She manages various teams to deliver a complex project result. A Project Manager not only facilitates his/her project team to achieve optimum efficiency but also gets involved in other several project activities.

Having said that, I don’t mean the job of a Scrum Master is quite simple in comparison to a Project Manager. A Project Manager works on the relatively less risk-oriented environment. Because he/she has the advantage of using traditional disciplined project management approaches. Where he/she can:

  • assess the risks to prepare themselves for upcoming challenges,

  • understand the clear project scope before starting the project planning, and

  • have comparatively better clarity on the final requirements.

However, the scenario for PMs is nowadays not so easy. They need not always apply traditional project management principles. That's why the project management community and PMI thought of updating PMBOK guidelines. They came up with PMBOK 6th Edition with the introduction of agile principles.

A good Project Manager should have an ability to judge better - as to which approach works for them in the current project? Accordingly, he/she should adopt these frameworks. However, sometimes a seasoned Project Manager promotes the usage of the Hybrid approach. – a combination of traditional waterfall and agile models.

Want  to explore Project Management in detail? Know more

Let’s understand in detail the roles and responsibilities of a Project Manager.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Project Manager

Following are the typical roles and responsibilities of a Project Manager:

  • The Project Manager is responsible for delivering the results meeting the project requirements.

  • He/She involves in defining a project scope with the team and plans the project activities accordingly.

  • He/She is responsible to delegate and assign responsibilities to each team member. He/She ensures that the role assignment is according to the respective skills & expertise of the team members.

  • Reports the project progress to relevant stakeholders on time.

  • Tracks the project performance against the baselines and assures an effective project quality control.

  • Ensures the project documentation and real-time updates are in place.

  • Plans work schedule for the team and ensure the team understands their respective roles in the project.

  • Sometimes, a Project Manager prepares the budget for a project and gets it approved from the management.

  • Monitors and controls the risks in the project and highlight any unresolved issue.

  • Manages the stakeholders and maintains team dynamics.

  • Identifies and removes any project bottlenecks.

  • Finally, a Project Manager ensures project result delivery by managing the project constraints – scope, budget, time and resource efficiency.

As per PMI talent triangle, (reference PMBOK 6th Edition, page 57, figure 3 – 2):

PMI Talent Triangle

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"A project manager’s competency includes the following three skill sets:

o Leadership

o Technical project management

o Strategic & business management"

Let's further reinforce the subject clarity. Let’s understand a few more roles in traditional and agile projects.

Roles in organizations with conventional project framework other than Project Manager

Now we are clear on what is the role of a Project Manager. Let’s understand other hierarchical roles:

1. Program Manager

A Program Manager is responsible to deliver many projects under the program. A program consists of multiple projects. And hence, Project Managers for these individual projects report to Program Manager. The Program Manager ensures that all projects related to the program should meet the requirements for the complete program success.

2. Portfolio Manager

Portfolio Managers are the top-level positions. They have governance over programs, related projects, subsidiary programs, and program activities under the umbrella of one portfolio. They have a large span of control. While Project and Program Managers focus on doing projects & programs the right way, Portfolio Managers focus on doing the right projects and programs.

Other scrum roles in organizations apart from Scrum Master

Now that, we have understood what does a scrum master do. Let’s discuss other roles in a Scrum framework:

1. Product Owner

Scrum as a role is very close to a Project Manager, but not the same. Product Owners are responsible to manage product backlog and express the product backlog items. They are completely accountable for maintaining the product backlog with highest value realization. They ensure communicating clear requirements to the development team. And for this, they are supported by the Scrum Master to do this. They provide the release approvals to the team.

2. Development Team

They are self-organizing and cross-functional by nature. They ensure to deliver the releasable increment of product at the end of each sprint. They take part in daily scrums during the scrum project. They are well-structured and also empowered to perform the development work on their own. Under the mentorship of a Scrum Master, they always give room to creativity, productivity, and flexibility.

Scrum Master & Project Manager: Are they similar?

By now, you would have realized that both the roles are quite different, yet important. Their approaches differ, even then some part of their roles overlap. Let’s discuss the similarities between these two roles under the following bullets:

  • They both are concerned about the team’s performance and see the ways to improve the team’s efficiency.

  • Scrum Master engages with the team for facilitation and coaching and a Project Manager also engages with the team to resolve team issues and conflicts.

  • Both the roles are not the final decision-making authority on the product requirements. Scrum Master assists a Product Owner to manage the product backlog. A Project Manager seeks inputs from the client or other stakeholders including management or interested party.

  • Both Scrum Master and Project Manager need essential skill set and years of experience and practice to ace.

  • Both of these roles have a lot of challenges and are demanding in industries.

  • Scrum Master and Project Manager, both understand the importance of the quality and thus, they always adhere to quality work.

Scrum Master & Project Manager: What are the differences?

Though, both the roles have a bit overlapping. Yet, the differences between these roles outweigh the similarities. Both roles are very different. Due to this difference and peculiarity of the Scrum Master role, IT & ITES industries prefer them over a typical Project Manager. Challenges in an IT company are quite different than in other industries. Here, the adaptive model works, because the requirements are not very clear in the first place. And also, they keep changing during the product development cycle. Hence, an incremental iterative approach is more suitable in IT industries. Other industries also are following the same approaches in their product development. The drive is to sustain in so-called today’s agile and competitive environment.

Let’s understand the differences between the two roles:

1. A Scrum Master rigidly follows the scrum rules and endorses scrum framework. While Project Managers are free to customize their approach which may range from waterfall to adaptive. Selection of an appropriate approach is based on the project demand.

2. A Scrum Master contributes majorly to resource management, quality management, and scope management knowledge areas. While a Project Manager contributes to all ten knowledge areas of project management.

3. A Scrum Master works in smaller scrum teams. They are responsible for the performance of their small scrum team. A Project Manager, on the other hand, handles relatively a bigger team. Especially, Program Manager handles multiple project teams. Thus, Project Manager, unlike Scrum Master, is responsible for the performance of various project teams.

4. Scrum Masters facilitate daily scrum meetings. While the Project Manager prepares a meeting calendar and communication plan. The frequency of these project meetings is well decided and planned by the Project Manager.

5. Project Manager prepares the work schedule for the team member and assigns responsibilities. While a Scrum Master coaches the team on scrum and motivates them.

6. Project Managers ensure to plan and schedule the scope of project work. Even, in some cases, they involve in baselining the project budget. While Scrum Masters are more concerned about maximizing the product value based on user stories.

7. Both of these roles need different skills and hence, they need different certifications. A Project Manager pursues PMP or Prince2 certifications for project management roles. While a Scrum Master acquires certification from scrum alliance. (Readers are encouraged to read more about, what is a certified Scrum Master).

8. Both the roles are industry-specific. A Scrum Master works in IT or related industry, whereas a Project Manager works in a project which can belong to any industry.


Finally, it’s imperative that a Project Manager’s role is more of a Leadership role. While Scrum Master’s duties include more of facilitating and coaching role. With the advent of PMBOK 6th guide, the role of a Project Manager has become more diversified. A Project Manager’s approach is not only limited to the traditional waterfall as before. But now, he/she can apply incremental iterative models depending upon the scenario. An organization at an early stage of going agile may think – a Project Manager’s role can be transferred into Scrum Master – but it’s a myth. This is because both of these roles are far different in their respective responsibilities and approaches.

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About Author
Ankit Rastogi