Scrum Master vs. Project Manager: Differences Explained

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 1, 2021

While a Scrum master makes sure their team follows Scrum principles, project managers oversee the entirety of a project, including logistics like budget and risk.

Project manager looking over construction plans

Scrum masters can be project managers, and project managers can be Scrum masters, but they’re not the same thing. A Scrum master is a role embedded specifically on a Scrum team, whereas a project manager refers to the professional leading virtually any type of project. And while a Scrum master’s primary focus is leading a team to follow Scrum principles, a project manager is occupied with the logistical aspects—the budgets, schedules, communication plans—in addition to keeping their team on track and motivated.

Let’s take a closer look at the details.

Scrum master vs. project manager: What's the difference?

What does a Scrum master do?

A Scrum master is an individual who ensures a project team successfully implements Scrum principles in a project. They can lead team meetings and coach teams on best Scrum practices, while supporting team members and resolving issues that come up. You’ll sometimes hear the Scrum master called a “servant leader” because of the strong supportive role that they play. Scrum master, along with product owner and development team, is one of the three roles on a Scrum team. Specific tasks might include:

  • Facilitating meetings, including daily stand-ups, sprint planning, and retrospectives

  • Addressing issues that hinder a team member’s capacity to work

  • Fostering good communication and teamwork within the team

What is Scrum, exactly?

Scrum is a project management methodology designed for work where change or unpredictability is expected. Scrum is characterized by short daily meetings called daily standups, and short, cumulative work cycles called “sprints.” A sprint typically lasts one to four weeks, and helps the project keep an iterative process to achieving goals, instead of an “all-at-once” approach. Scrum is the most popular Agile methodology, with 66 percent of Agile adopters using Scrum [1].

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Read more:  The 3 Scrum Roles and Responsibilities, Explained

What does a project manager do?

Project managers are professionals that organize a team to ensure projects are completed on-time, within budget, and with their goals fulfilled. They are often tasked with leading meetings, creating schedules, managing budgets, liaising between the team and stakeholders, and managing risks. Project manager tasks can include:

  • Defining project scope and goals

  • Maintaining consistent communication with stakeholders

  • Setting a budget and schedule

  • Creating a communication plan

  • Managing risk

What's the difference between Scrum masters and project managers?

Here are the main differences between Scrum masters and project managers:

  • Scrum masters are exclusive to Scrum projects and Scrum teams. Project managers can work on any type of project, like Agile or Waterfall.

  • While Scrum masters are focused on making sure a project team is successful, project managers are generally tasked with the logistics of making a project work, like budgeting and risk management.

Is a Scrum master a project manager?

Yes and no. Scrum masters practice a type of project management, and will need to have certain project management skills like communication and organizational skills. In this regard, they can be considered project managers. Many project manager job descriptions also ask for experience with Scrum.

However, the Scrum master on a Scrum team does not necessarily need to be a formal project manager—though they often are. Scrum masters can be product managers, or professionals with leadership experience from software development, design, or other fields relevant to the project.

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Scrum master vs. project managers: Salaries

Here are the average US salaries for Scrum masters and project managers according to various salary aggregation websites. Salaries are accurate as of August 2021.

PositionGlassdoorPayscaleSalary.com
Scrum master$97,814$89,594$79,919
Project manager$87,472$75,036$67,372

Project managers are often tapped to be Scrum masters on Scrum teams. But professionals who act solely as Scrum masters tend to have higher salaries. This may be because Scrum is a specialized field of project management, and can require specific skill sets.

Certifications for Scrum masters and project managers

Though their roles overlap, there are distinct certifications—and professional paths—that you can consider to enhance your career as a Scrum master or project manager.

Scrum master certifications

Below are two common certifications that can make you an official Scrum master. You can also check out a full list of the most in-demand Scrum certifications.

  • Certified ScrumMaster (CSM): The CSM, administered by the Scrum Alliance, is the most-mentioned Scrum certification in job descriptions on three different job search sites, according to research by Coursera. You’ll need to take a course and pass an exam to get the certification.

  • Professional Scrum Master (PSM I): Administered by Scrum.org, the PSM I is an often-cited alternative to the CSM. No coursework is required, but you’ll need to pass an exam to be PSM certified.

Project management certifications and certificates

Project management credentials can help start your career in project management, or further your current career.

  • Project Management Professional (PMP): The PMP is administered by the Project Management Institute and is widely recognized as a leading certification in project management. You’ll need at least three years of project management experience to qualify to take the certification exam.

  • Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM): Also administered by the PMI, the CAPM is an entry-level project management certification. You’ll need a secondary degree (that’s a high school diploma or equivalent) and twenty-three hours of project management training to qualify for the certification exam.

Read more: 10 PMI Certifications to Level Up Your Project Management Career

Becoming a Scrum master or project manager

Maybe you’re a project manager aspiring to be a Scrum master, or maybe both roles are new to you. Here are a few tips on breaking into each role, regardless of where you stand.

  • Take a course: If you’re new to Scrum or project management, taking a course online or in-person can help you build foundational knowledge. You can check your local community college for in-person options. Enroll in an online course like the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate to learn the basics of project management and Scrum. 

  • Build experience: Practical experience can teach you a lot. Try incorporating some elements of your desired role into your current work. Find projects you can help plan or execute, like improving a process in your current workflow. Approaching your manager to tell them you’re interested in project management or Scrum can be helpful as well.

  • Get certified: The process of getting a certification can help you learn plenty about your target role. Plus, certifications can signal to employers your level of competency—a huge plus if you don’t have much relevant experience. Aspiring Scrum masters should look at Scrum certifications like the CSMor PSM I. The CAPM is an entry-level project management certification.

Looking for more details? Read up on how to become a project manager in 5 steps.

Project managers and Scrum masters can go on to become product managers, Scrum coaches, or operations managers.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Is Scrum master a good career?

Being a Scrum master can be rewarding if you like working with people, are organized, and like to problem solve. Scrum is a process that embraces change. If you’re excited by that prospect, it’s a field worth considering.

What’s an Agile project manager?

An Agile project manager is a project manager who incorporates Agile principles into their project management. Since Scrum is an Agile methodology, Scrum masters may be considered Agile project managers.

What’s a product owner?

A product owner is one of the three roles on a Scrum team, in addition to the Scrum master and the development team. They are responsible for making sure the project is aligned with the overall goals of the product that the team is contributing to.

Article sources

1. Digital.ai. "15th State of Agile Report, https://stateofagile.com/#." Accessed August 30, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 1, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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