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Should We Make Our Project Manager The ScrumMaster?

As an Agile coach, my experience from project to project differs a great deal.  However, I can generally script my first day on a new project before I ever step foot in the office, as the problems and questions are usually the same. One of those recurring questions for project teams who are new to […]

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November 27, 2012

As an Agile coach, my experience from project to project differs a great deal.  However, I can generally script my first day on a new project before I ever step foot in the office, as the problems and questions are usually the same.

One of those recurring questions for project teams who are new to Agile goes something like this, “We want to implement Scrum and already have a project manager, is it OK to make him/her the ScrumMaster?”

With the picture of the traditional project manager dancing in their heads, many people will be quick to say, “Absolutely not, there is no way that this could work!”  On the flip-side, others who want to make everyone happy will exclaim, “Of course we can, we can make anything work!”

The truth of the matter this: it depends.

Scrum Questions that Must Be Answered

“It depends” – this is the answer that drives project teams crazy (and gives consultants a bad name).  But, in my mind, if you truly want to succeed with Agile this is the only answer that works until you take a closer look at your team.

When deciding whether to make your current project manager the ScrumMaster, I recommend starting with these simple questions:

  1. Has the current project manager gone to any Scrum training?
  2. Does he/she have any Scrum experience on past projects?
  3. Does he/she seem excited about implementing Scrum?

In my experience, if the client can answer “yes” to questions one and two, that’s a great start.  However, the answer to question three is the most telling and the one that you should hone in on.  Because, if the ScrumMaster isn’t committed from the beginning, the team can be doomed from the start.

Why Enthusiasm Matters

The ScrumMaster is at the heart of your Agile project team.  And that’s even more important when you are implementing Agile for the first time.  The best part? Just about anyone on your team can fill this role.

I have seen traditional project managers turn into great ScrumMasters.  I have also seen developers, business analysts, and testers turn into great ScrumMasters.  In fact, the most common trait of a successful ScrumMaster is someone that is passionate about filling that role.  Training and experience help, but unless the person truly wants to take on that role, all the knowledge in the world won’t help.

Why is this enthusiasm important? Because making the switch to Agile isn’t easy.

Consider this scenario: When the team is done with Sprint 1 and it is a debacle, and it is often a debacle, what happens?  People panic.  And, when people panic, what do they do?  They go back to what they are comfortable doing.  For a project manager, that could mean tossing aside the Scrum board and story cards, and bringing back the old project plan, methods, and metrics.  It doesn’t matter if this approach didn’t work in the past, they can make it work now because it is familiar.

An enthusiastic ScrumMaster typically has the foresight and tenacity to help the team through the initial transitional difficulties.  He or she will hold the Retrospective and communicate the changes necessary to keep the team moving forward.

Scrum in Action

To wrap things up, let me talk about a recent experience of mine:

My current client decided to implement Scrum (great news!) and had no clear candidate to be the ScrumMaster, so he wanted to know my opinion.  After two days of training the entire team (20+ people), it was very obvious to me who the ScrumMaster should be.

She wasn’t the project manager or the lead architect or even the lead business analyst, she was a member of the content team and had no previous experience with Scrum.  What she did have, however, is the hunger to learn more, was unafraid to do things differently and, to be honest, she was the one that REALLY wanted to do the job (and is doing a great job so far).

In the end, yes, it is OK to make your project manager the ScrumMaster.  But, unless they have the Agile mindset and want the job, it is likely better to look elsewhere.

What other role-based challenges have you experienced when implementing Agile?

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