“I am a project manager. What is my role now that we are moving to Scrum?”

This is a common question in my Professional Scrum classes. It often comes up right after we discuss that there are three roles in Scrum, and project manager is not one of them. In this post, I share my story of discovering Scrum after starting my career as a project manager in a waterfall world. I will conclude with some ideas for project managers to consider for their future.

I started my career in traditional project management (i.e. waterfall). I was good at it, and I enjoyed it. I was able to leverage my organizational and facilitation skills, as well as my ability to be both detail-oriented and see the bigger picture. I enjoyed supporting a team of people, helping them focus on what they are great at.

I was always facilitative in my approach, knowing that I was not the best person to decide how to do the work or solve the problems. I could bring people together and provide the space for them to navigate the complexities as a team.

I accepted that change was going to happen and didn’t try to ignore it or wait until there was a crisis to respond to it. I relied on my facilitation skills and foresight to help teams re-group and determine the path forward with the new information.

I believe both my enabling approach and responsiveness to change led me to success as a project manager.

However, the realities of the over-scheduled and indecisive way organizations plan and execute work created stress and discomfort for me.

  • There was always pressure to meet a date (even if it was arbitrary).
  • People were stretched so thin, pressured to do more (and I was expected to be part of applying this pressure).
  • There was a need to “escalate” constantly because of the conflicting priorities. Everything was an emergency.
  • I felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders, even though I didn’t have the ability to do the work, nor the authority to support the people doing the work.

Do organizations really want intelligent and experienced project managers spending their days asking people the percent complete on task XYZ, creating status reports that don’t provide much meaningful information, documenting everything that happens to avoid blame later, and jumping through hoops to get approval to change the plan?

The original purpose of a project manager has gotten lost and diluted over the years.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) describes project managers as “change agents.”

And I believe Scrum is the greatest thing to happen to project managers.

Scrum allows project managers to use their skills and experience in bigger more impactful ways.

Scrum empowers and enables self-organizing and cross-functional Development Teams to be accountable for creating releasable product Increments. They don’t need a project manager to tell them what to do and track their progress. And having a “Done” Increment means we can stop pretending that 85% complete means anything.

Scrum creates the conditions that force organizations to make choices about what work will be done and in what order. The Product Owner is a single person with both the authority and accountability to make decisions to maximize product value, which are made transparent through an ordered Product Backlog.

A Scrum Master helps protect and maximize benefits of the empirical process and supports a Scrum Team in becoming healthy, while embodying agility to the organization.

If you are a project manager wondering what your role is, you have options.

  • Become a Product Owner. Does your passion and experience lean towards understanding and driving business value and collaborating with stakeholders?
  • Become a Development Team member. Does your passion and experience lean towards doing the work to create the product? Remember, this isn’t just about writing code. A Development Team includes all of the skills to create releasable product Increments, including business process, quality, user experience, data, and much more.
  • Become a Scrum Master. Does your passion and experience lean towards growing healthy teams and helping people embrace empiricism and continuous improvement?
  • Continue to be a project manager. Essentially, this makes you a stakeholder, and Scrum does not explicitly describe the responsibilities of stakeholders because it is dependent on context. A project manager may support Scrum Teams and the wider organization. What this looks like will vary based on the product, business, initiative, etc. (I will write a future post to explore this further.)

I encourage you to attend a PSM course and learn more about the Scrum roles so that you can decide where your passion and your skills align. And even if the answer is, “I want to be a project manager,” it is essential to know how to effectively engage with and support Scrum Teams in delivering product Increments. You will be able to help facilitate change in your organization as they transition to more agile ways of working.

When I first learned about Scrum, I saw that the Scrum Master role was the best fit for me. I was able to use the skills and experience that helped me be a successful project manager and shift to a role that allowed me make a greater impact, be more aligned to my values, and live into my greater purpose.

Let’s leverage project management skills where they have the most impact in organizations.

Let’s enable project managers to actually be change agents.