From Project Manager to Scrum Master

…or how a change in your career path reveal your adaptation ability.

translation and adaptation from my original story here.

Humans are endowed with formidable abilities, but not used that much. Besides the brain that we only use at 10% for most of us, there is also this adaptation ability.

Ten years ago, I made the choice to come and settle in Quebec, and there was a lot of adaptation, even for a Frenchmen going to a french speaking province. This was all the more true when revolving around professional spheres I was interested in.

Some have studied it, all remember this IBM study in the 70s on countries and corporate cultures, demonstrating the core differences between US, France or Japan for instance. I do not recall whether Quebec was part of it, but it would have been a perfect example to illustrate similar cultures’ differences.

Discovering Agility

In recent years, a wave of change has taken hold in Quebec City. Although this movement has existed since the 2000s throughout the world, there is a certain latency in Quebec that means that certain technologies and currents of thought take time to break through local organizations. Of course I’m talking about agile philosophy and by extension Lean Management.

During the last few years, project management has experienced some changes, whether caused (newspapers inquiries, province inquiry) or natural (stakeholders’ willingness, especially developers who wants to do things otherwise). In fact, agility, and especially Scrum and Kanban, have emerged in public organizations, often introduced by slightly more up-to-date consultants or public administrations who want to be innovative.

Like many, I was attracted by the PMP title, but the closer I got to it, the less relevant it seemed to me. This remains a renowned certification and supervise project managers the right way, but in my opinion, that departs from those who get the job done, like developers, analysts or designers.

A Project Manager, and a Scrum Master

When agility came here, I quickly set the pace to level myself. It was a real breath of fresh air, because I have always been convinced that it is not up to me, the project manager, to tell others how and what to do to deliver a project, but to them, field experts. So I gradually played the dual role of project manager (because it was the title that I was given, with the responsibilities that came with it) and that of Scrum Master (initially without being certified). Having this double cap suited me perfectly, especially since in a typical project management environment, I could get closer to the people on the field, while keeping the business relationship (accountability) with the stakeholders in a traditional way.

In the end, I felt more and more comfortable in this role, while IT organizations in Quebec seemed to me more and more staggered. So I decided to be an initiator / facilitator of change by taking charge of an agile practice in one of these organizations.

Although agility is often recognized, very few means are put in place to actually make the change. We have tried, as a team, to make several changes and some will have borne fruit, others will be stillborn. To be reassured, one looks elsewhere, to check if the grass is really greener in the neighborhood, often to realize, through the discussions with ex-colleagues, that the observation is the same.

We then try to find examples from the largest customer in Quebec City, to realize that they too are far from the mark, with a few exceptions. While the Quebec Tax Agency is making tremendous efforts to transform itself and is on the verge of succeeding with consultants from companies specializing in agile transformation, other government and private entities have also tried. Many have failed, wanting to be agile but not forcing themselves, or not willing to make the necessary efforts to succeed. Others were 99% successful. But the remaining 1% is the one that cancels out all the effort undertaken to get there. One example is the SQI (Quebec’s Real-estate entity), which is able to show in its requests for proposal (RFP)a description of their agile organization, how they work. This is impressive, and sincerely, congratulations to the managers. Until we realize that the attribution of their RFP will be made to the lowest bidder …

We then believe that, the agility in video games studios must be strong! In fact, no, it’s even worse. Inter-domain conflicts are still too large to allow the effective introduction of agility. The creative vs. the developers vs. the screenwriters vs. the profits that the company has to make … I could only advise them to sit down together and discuss agility, once and for all. It would certainly help them to get along. But are they ready to come to an understanding?

(Edit: I was whispered to me that a big video games developer in Quebec City was agile since a few months. This change lead to great improvements in productivity, even pushing this office to spread the good news through all the company. It is important to evolve to offer a better product, better experience for its employees and adapt to market conditions! Congratulations to them !)

Agility as an exit door

In the face of these multiple observations, I was looking for a way out of this IT sector where everything is framed, marked and whose inertia is impressive. That exit door, I found it. This is the “Scrum Mastering”.

And my last job search had this objective. Some will say that it is drastically different from my propensities to confirm my leadership role and my ambition in management. In fact, this is another way of getting there, keeping close to the right people. I was surprised to see the range of corporations looking to acquire Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches.

One might think that the shifts in these organizations are much more advanced than in the traditional IT companies. If the answer is “yes”, the reality is a little different from what is being sold. These are often agile transformations that are carried out at the level of a department rather than the whole organization. We are mostly in a“Proof of concept” mode.

This also illustrates a new concept in the current market where we see agility “top to bottom” opposited to the “bottom-up” approach that existed during the last years, mostly defended by the developers. We can imaging the dynamics are different and can be more pleasant to live for a Scrum Master. Not quite. The challenges are different, because it is now necessary to convince developers and other roles to engage in agility because management wants it, rather than to justify to a manager the use of a new way of working. Most of the time, this evolution is well perceived, although we have to adapt with different arguments.

A Scrum master, with the past of Project Manager

Once that is said, several agilists will have raised their eyebrows at the fact that an agile coach who must undertake a significant agile turn in an organization agrees to support himself on a Scrum Master with a past as project manager. Having asked this question to my Agile Coach, the answer was quite clear: “Between a pure Scrum Master and a Scrum Master with the past of Project Manager, I will choose the pure Scrum Master”.

The reasoning behind this conviction is due to the many reflexes developed by the classical project managers (PMP and others) who do not facilitate an easy transition towards agility. Indeed, a Scrum Master does not control anything and does not direct anything. It should only guide the Scrum team and ensure that it is able to deliver (or not) what it chooses to deliver. The change is brutal if you move from one to the other directly and this might explain why some transformations have failed.

Why did I become a Scrum Master in that company then? By default ? No I do not think so, there is enough Scrum Masters on the market to meet this offer. I think the difference was made to the interview with this Agile Coach. I was a project manager ready to transform and adapt to the context of the agile transition undertaken in this organization. It was his answer: “I did not see this (the reflexes of a project manager) in you.” Was I a bad project manager then? I do not think so either because my projects have almost always been successful, either for the teams, customers or organizations I represented.

The Project Officer, an endangered species

Being a Scrum Master, formerly a project manager, is a plus for me. Where I agree with my agile coach is that we have to be able to adapt, because this past is only used to grasp the context in which we are evolving and not to manage the Scrum team. And I believe this is a major asset in transforming organizations, because these shifts make it a hybrid organization. A pure Scrum Master would not understand some more “classic” stakes and would not (perhaps) stop whining about the organization that does not want to become agile. A Scrum Master, formerly project manager, would instead grasp this context and be in a position to assist in this transition.

Why endangered? Because once this transition has taken place, development teams do not function the same way anymore, and some management layers will have been eliminated, including the project management one. Just like Lean Management, Agility is also looking for efficiency, which often comes to eliminate the superfluous. In the case of agile organizations, the role of project manager in its classical sense (and PMP in my eyes) no longer has reason to be. The various functions he occupies are divided between financial managers, talent management and corporate culture, product owners and Scrum Masters. The former are often stakeholders we invite to Sprint reviews, the latter ensuring that the entire team and stakeholders live in harmony with agility.

The power of adaptation

This skill is, in my opinion, very underestimated because it is hardly tangible. People often have to be tested in a given context, during a given period of time, to ensure that they are compatible with your organization, the people who make it up, but also to allow them to confirm that they have made the right choice. Are we taking this time? No. The 6 months of probation are more a rule of business and contractual than a real test of adaptation. Only extreme cases are transferred at the end of these 6 months.

Is this power of adaptation innate? In my opinion, yes, but not exclusively. Indeed, for the most of us, this is a skill that develops early, with very different means. This may be to move to other parts of the world long enough, or to have studied to be a facilitator in one or more areas, because you have to adapt to the different interlocutors with whom you have to deal with.

In the face of this, I would say that adaptation is innate in me, but has been amplified by my studies (where my master’s degree aimed at creating “interface people” capable of linking the managerial and technical spheres of a corporation), by my life experiences (whether through the many trips around the world with my parents (thanks to them!) or my 10 years in Quebec City and my desire to continue to develop professionally.

The Scrum Mastering, a finality?

For some, this can surely be a summum of evolution, because constantly in action, with a context changing regularly. For me, this is a step in my journey. But I’ll talk about the next steps in my next posts ;)

The author

Éric Wursteisen (twitter) is passionate about innovation and technology. He loves being surrounded by ideas and people of all kinds who allow the projects improvments, either others or his. Former Project Manager, he now works as a Scrum Master.

The Coach With a Mouth

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Tackling many agile myths or simply looking into concepts with a grain of humour and lot of salt. I mean, a grain of salt and a lot of humour… well, it depends!

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