Not all Project Managers are able to transition to the Agile Scrum Master role.  It seems simple on the surface, but it’s a dramatic shift in how you work.

Some Project Managers find Scrum to be the answer to what hasn’t worked for them in the past, find it very intuitive because it reflects a lot of the ways they already work, and are able to embrace it completely.  Many others find the transition so completely opposite of everything they know and identify success with that they are not able to make it.

Don’t automatically assume it’s generational; instead, realize that it’s mostly a symptom of classical management training.  Those that believe strongly in hierarchy, giving out orders to direct reports, and getting status updates regularly have a difficult time believing that self-organization, teamwork, and empowerment are more than just catch phrases that provide a hiding place for those that don’t want to answer to the boss.

A common difficulty for Project Managers that are classically trained is that Scrum recognizes and embraces that we know very little when we start, and that the plan will change as we progress.  It seems very abstract.  Conversely, traditional training tells us that if we are as concrete as possible upfront with our requirements, our Project Plan, our design, and our scope, we will be measured as doing a great job.  Unfortunately, the customer is often left out of the loop, and ends up being less than delighted with the end product.  They are not amused by the love affair we have with planning and the comfort all of those complicated documents and diagrams seem to give us.  Some new ScrumMasters that have felt constrained by traditional project management see Scrum as a license to not manage or document anything.  That, of course, doesn’t work well either.

Customers are beyond thrilled when they can see a prototype with their own eyes (no matter how simplistic it is), give input to a product as it takes shape, and find that we can adjust when we have conversations with them that start with, “That’s pretty good, but now that I see it, I wonder if you could change (fill in the blank)?”  Scrum provides a framework to handle the discoveries along the way, the ability to deal with changes in priorities, and builds in ideas like:  “Inspect and Adapt”, and “Just Enough.”

Many newly minted ScrumMasters have white knuckles the first few iterations they use Scrum.  That is – until they see the excitement of their team or early success on a project – often before they would have even had the first draft of requirements written.  Some even get to see the delight of their customer(s) first hand, maybe for the first time.   That’s when they are able to start to get over the anxiety of not having a heavyweight process that requires a lot of upfront effort that is often mistaken for progress.

The seismic shift is in what you manage; not that you don’t manage.  Making that shift is often what is not possible for Project Managers.  They can’t conceive that anyone could be as good as they are at managing the work; they have made a career out of defining and sequencing tasks, then making sure people do what they’re told.  The team now does much of what they’ve spent years doing.  The Project Manager may not even have the skills and ability to shift their focus to guiding the team, looking two or three Sprints ahead to clear potential impediments, and getting behind their teams as a servant leader.

There isn’t a magic formula for determining if a Project Manager can make the transition to Scrum.  What you need to be aware of is when to make a change if they don’t.  Resist the urge to give it time, or hope that they’ll eventually get it.  When the team is constantly churning, that’s a good sign that their leader – the Agile Scrum Master – isn’t working out.  Sometimes with coaching there is improvement, and the team will almost always be responsive to that and be patient with the Agile Scrum Master.  If there isn’t improvement – or worse, complete resistance – you have to make a change sooner instead of later.  The damage that can be made to a team’s morale, and the organization’s Scrum Implementation, is often irreversible.  Observe your teams.  Listen to your teams.  And don’t be afraid to make a change.

CRi offers various Agile workshops, Agile Coaching, and Agile Consulting. No matter where you are in your Agile Transformation, CRi can help. Contact us at gig@clientresourcesinc.com

Tom Schaeffer

Tom is the Practice Director for Agile Consulting Services at Client Resources Inc in Omaha, NE. He specializes in lean, agile, and scrum helping companies catapult their market position by building extremely high performance development organizations.

Contact