October 19, 2023

Scrum Master vs Project Manager vs Product Owner

Eh? Scrum Master vs. Project Manager vs. Product Owner? It sounds like comparing apples with oranges. However, in real life, project managers lead scrum teams. Scrum Masters do need project management tools and techniques.

I’ve asked this kind of question so many times that I decided to create this in-depth article on roles in different project management frameworks.

So, let’s get clear once and for all.

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Who is a Project Manager?

A project manager is a person who applies knowledge and skills of project management to lead a project from its initiation to successful closure.

But in the real world, the sphere of influence and responsibilities of a PM goes far beyond a project.

A project manager operates within ten major knowledge areas:

  1. Integration Management
  2. Scope Management
  3. Schedule Management
  4. Costs Management
  5. Quality Management
  6. Resource Management
  7. Communication Management
  8. Risk Management
  9. Procurement Management
  10. Stakeholder Management

But I would also add:

  1. Leadership
  2. Industry Awareness
  3. Business Acumen

So, a project manager should select the required processes, tools, and techniques for the given project:

Diagram Project Manager Responsibilities in knowledge areas
Project Manager can delegate some work from knowledge areas Nevertheless he or she is responsible for all of them

It doesn’t mean a PM uses them all. But he or she does know them and best practices to apply each one to the benefit of a project.

Project Manager vs. Program Manager vs. Portfolio Manager

Project Manager leads one or several separate projects.

Program Manager works with several related projects that pursue a bigger common goal. She focuses on higher-level management of these projects. It includes interdependences, risks, the economics of the whole program, as well as work required to coordinate the work of several project managers

Portfolio Manager works with groups of programs, separate projects, and other actives aimed to achieve one strategic goal.

Chart Portfolio Manager vs Program Manager vs Project Manager
Here is an example of the hierarchy of portfolios programs and projects

Levels of a Project Manager

The hierarchy may look as follows:

  • Senior Project Manager
  • Project Manager or Mid-level PM
  • Junior PM
  • Assistant Project Manager or Project Coordinator

Project Coordinator is usually a person who reports to and helps the Project Manager. He has limited authority to make decisions.

Who is a Scrum Master?

Scrum Master is a specific role prescribed in one framework – Scrum.

In terms of the knowledge areas that Scrum framework describes, a Scrum Master covers a small fraction of knowledge areas of project management.

Diagram Scrum Master vs Project Manager responsibilities
In accordance with Scrum Guides Scrum Master has quite limited responsibilities on a project

Many people believe that the Scrum Framework is entirely self-sufficient. In real life, Scrum Masters face the need to manage other aspects of a project as well.

Scrum Master vs Project Manager? Is it a Myth?

Theoretical agile and plan-driven worlds cannot co-exist in one project. Mindsets, roles, processes, and artifacts are that different. And yet, in real life, you will often see an agile project manager leading a scrum team.

Is it really a confrontation or just confusion around the implementation of different frameworks?

I remember my early days as PM. When I knew little about philosophies of agile, PMBOK® Guide, or any approaches at all.

(By the way, the latest PMBOK® Guide Seventh Edition goes hand in hand with Agile Practice Guide.)

The debates around scrum were confusing for me. Nevertheless, Scrum worked well for me without all the prerequisites. Anyway, at some point, several questions arose:

  • Does a PM need a Scrum Master Certificate?
  • Can a PM be a Scrum Master?
  • Should a PM be a Scrum Master at all?
  • How should Scrum Master interact with PM?

Before we get to answering these questions, I want you to understand the root cause of the confusion in regards to Scrum Master vs Project Manager problem.

Where is the “Project Manager” Role?

As you may know, scrum prescribes specific roles, artifacts, and events. However, it is also a source of uncertainty:

It says nothing about cost, risk, schedule, HR, or stakeholder management at all.

Moreover, many other vital aspects of a project are left without clarification.

Also, there is no Project Manager role there.

But it is even worse than that.

The only place where a PM has a chance to interact with a Scrum Team is a Sprint Review. Otherwise, he or she is considered as a distraction.

The level of authority of a Scrum Master outside the Scrum Team is unclear.

In most cases, he is considered as a team member. Therefore, has little influence on powerful stakeholders.

Here is what Scrum Guides says about the Scrum Master’s responsibilities in regards to the performing organization:

The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including:

  • Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption;
  • Planning Scrum implementations within the organization;
  • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact Scrum and empirical product development;
  • Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team; and,
  • Working with other Scrum Masters to increase the effectiveness of the application of Scrum in the organization.

If you read the Scrum Guides carefully, you will see that interactions beyond the prescribed roles are not specified.

Moreover, there is no responsible person to do that. However, Scrum Teams don’t live in a vacuum detached from performing organization and business in general.

These aspects create a lot of debates.

How to Resolve the Problem?

Depending on a Scrum Coach, you may learn that there are two major visions.

Scrum Team should provide value to the product owner. Nothing else really matters. Therefore, the team should be self-sufficient and able to resolve all the problems. While value is generated for the Product Owner, other metrics (financial, productivity, etc.) are of no real use.

There should be an environment around the Scrum Team that supports all their needs. Therefore, they should not be distracted from their main priority – generating value for the Product Owner.

Both approaches require considerable organizational changes. Moreover, it is Scrum Masters who should drive them.

There are several apparent problems here. First, Scrum Masters usually doesn’t have the authority and power to drive any changes. Second, there is no ready-made plan to transition to agile on an organizational level.

Therefore, it isn’t really a solution.

Nevertheless, Scrum found its application. Though, in some cases, with modifications.

A possible collaboration between Project Manager and Scrum Master

In regards to the ratio of the Scrum Master vs. Project Manager interaction, there are three major groups. Names of the frameworks may vary, so don’t focus too much on that.

1. Pure Scrum

The framework implemented the latter with an agile mindset as the cornerstone. There is no project manager here at all, only prescribed roles. Scrum Master works with the Team, Product Owner and interacts with the performing organization.

2. Agile Project Management Approach

Here, a PM selects processes, tools, and techniques he sees appropriate. He retains the key roles and responsibilities of a project manager. However, the deliverables are implemented incrementally and in iterations. For example, using the Scrum framework. Therefore, additionally, PM assumes the role of a Scrum Master.

So, Scrum here is just a tool. Some may say that it is not really Scrum and, therefore, may (will) not be efficient. Mainly because agile principles are replaced with plan-driven ones.

I will only say it works just fine. Any tool properly applied in skillful hands will work. The rest is philosophical debates.

3. Scaled Agile Framework

Here, a project manager works with a number of Scrum Teams that develop parts of one product. Each team has its own Scrum Master and (quite often but not always) a Product Owner. Therefore, the project manager oversees the whole project. In general, has the same responsibilities on a larger scale.

(If you are interested in Scaled Agile Frameworks – learn about SAFe and LeSS)

In this case, a PM should interact with Scrum Masters to get the required inputs. In general, these are standardized sprint-based and increments reports.

Though, you should not confuse the role of a Project Manager with a Program Manager here. The latter is responsible for a group of projects and their collaboration in general. The difference may be quite slim here.

Do I need a Scrum Master Certificate?

Before enrolling for certification, consider the following:

  • Do you have extra money, or can you get sponsorship? The Scrum Master certifications, together with preparation courses, are costly.
  • Does your industry require it? Besides the all-around buzz and hype, Scrum is widely used only in several industries. For example, Software Development and Information and Communications Technology industries. For you, it may not be the best choice.
  • Do you really need to know Scrum in detail? Or I can put it in other words. Do you need to be able to integrate and apply pure scrum?

If one of the answers is “No”, then “Scrum and XP from the Trenches” will be just enough for you.

Otherwise, I would suggest you get the certificate. If you are lucky with your Scrum Coach, you will learn a lot of small things that are not written in free books and resources. Simply because they will be explaining everything in detail for several days.

Project Manager vs Product Owner

The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product.

However, even Scrum Guide agrees that it is done differently in different organizations.

Using the same diagram, Product Owners responsibilities cover the following knowledge areas:

Diagram Product Owner vs Scrum Master Responsibilities
Product Owner acts as a PM who delegated all the work to the project team

It means that a Product Owner takes on the following from a project manager:

Stakeholder Management by Product Owners

A PO should be the only point of interaction between project stakeholders and the project team.

It means she should work with others to decide the project goals. Product Owner should balance the needs and requirements of different stakeholders. She should also resolve all conflicting requirements before making changes to the Product Backlog.

Scope Management by Product Owner

Product Owner also should translate the business requirements from different sources into User Stories.

It means that a PO also acts as a Business Analyst at some level.

Moreover, all activities related to the initial “Collect Requirements” processes are on her.

Scrum simplifies the requirements management to a backlog. However, it doesn’t describe how to select and justify features and themes. This process should follow the processes in the company.

Responsibility for a Project by Product Owner

Scrum Team is responsible for delivering an increment of required quality. However, the overall responsibility for the project’s success and its definition is on the PO.

It means that the PO should control the project’s goals, manage budget, release timeline, and risks.

Conclusion: Project Manager vs Product Owner

All in all, a Product Owner is a Project Manager who is responsible for the project success and project environment. But at the same time, he delegated daily management of the project team to a Scrum Master.


There are two ways to understand the problem of Scrum Master vs Project Manager:

  1. Scrum is a self-sufficient framework and should not be mixed with other project management approaches.
  2. Scrum is a subset of project management that uses a selected set of tools and techniques to perform work and deliver value. It doesn’t exclude the possibility of integration with other processes. Therefore, it can be customized.