people working on a large-scale sculpture made of strings
PHOTO: Alina Grubnyak

I am often asked this question: “I am a project manager and our company is moving to agile or scrum, does that mean I will now become a scrum master?” In response, I hesitate and then give what seems to be the stereotypical consultant answer: “It depends.” And it really does depend. 

The scrum master’s role is deep and wide. Scrum masters need to support their teams while working with the rest of the people in their organizations to build awareness and enable greater agility. A scrum master’s job is not to manage a project or deliver status reports — duties that people associate with the role of a project manager. As a matter of fact, scrum masters may not get involved in status reports at all.

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Scrum Masters Need Soft Skills

Scrum masters need to have the soft skills that enable them to coach and mentor the members of the scrum team and those around the team. 

Scrum masters are responsible for helping their teams succeed, and that often means meeting with people and groups to offer assistance. They may run exercises, give guidance or help people come to conclusions on their own. Not everybody has the skills necessary to do those things. 

I don’t mean to imply that no project manager has the soft skills necessary to do the things a scrum master does; I’m just saying that people don’t necessarily need those soft skills to be project managers. 

Similarly, a scrum master may not need to have good project management skills. It depends on the organization, the structure of the team and the needs of the team and the organization.

In a recent survey of more than 2,100 scrum masters by Scrum.org and Age of Product, only 14 percent of the scrum masters surveyed said that their agile practice was part of their organization’s project management office (PMO) and less than one-third (31 percent) said that they had held the title of project manager before becoming a scrum master.

The report that is based on that survey, “2019 Scrum Master Trends,” lists the top four titles previously held by scrum masters as follows (percentages rounded):

  • Project manager: 31 percent.
  • Software developer or engineer: 25 percent.
  • Business analyst: 10 percent.
  • Quality assurance: 8 percent.

The remaining 26 percent of respondents had different titles altogether. So it’s clear that even though some scrum masters were project managers in the past, being a project manager isn’t a requirement for becoming a scrum master, and project managers do not always become scrum masters. Hence, my answer to project managers who wonder if they’re destined to become scrum masters: It depends.

Related Article: Business Analysis Still Has a Place in Scrum

Think of People, not Spreadsheets

Do scrum masters who previously served as project managers have more success than those who didn’t? Who knows.

Here’s my advice to scrum masters who come from project management: Be careful not to be a “spreadsheet manager,” and do not rely exclusively on the skills you learned in project management. Make an effort to empathize with the team. Keep people in mind as you are working with teams.

As professional scrum trainer Barry Overeem wrote in a white paper titled “The 8 Stances of a Scrum Master,” the scrum master is a servant leader, facilitator, a coach, a manager, a mentor, a teacher, an impediment remover and a change agent.

If you are a project manager and your organization’s leaders have decided to move to agile, don’t think you have no choice but to move into the role of scrum master.

There are plenty of ways in which you can help your organization succeed. Evaluate how leadership is planning to reshape the organization, how your skills may fit with that change, and how you can be most successful. If your skills align well with those of a scrum master, then by all means, pursue the role of scrum master. But if they don’t, that’s OK too. 

The organization isn’t going away, and that means your skills will likely be needed in some capacity.