My successful transition from project manager to Scrum master

Transitioning from a traditional project manager to a Scrum master was an exciting and transformative journey for me. It was a shift in mindset, approach, and leadership style that I initially underestimated due to my lack of deep knowledge of the Scrum master role. In this article, I will share my journey, the challenges faced, and the valuable lessons learned along the way.

Before becoming a Scrum master, I had been involved in project management in some capacity for more than a decade. I also held a formal project management role for seven years and, for most of that time, led waterfall projects.

In waterfall, we followed a linear approach, with distinct phases of planning, design, development, testing, and deployment. This approach served us well for a long time, and I was proud of the results we achieved. However, I was always frustrated with the fact that projects very rarely ended on time, on budget, or within scope.

Understanding the limitations of waterfall

I noticed that most projects were taking longer than expected, which was mostly caused by “scope creep,” leading to delays, increased costs, and risks. Additionally, managing project financials was the part that I disliked the most in my role as project manager due to constant budget overruns and inaccurate forecasting caused by unclear, incorrect, or poorly understood assumptions.

Choosing to embrace Agile

When the company that I currently work for embarked on a major transformation journey to improve “what work gets done” and “how it gets done” by adopting Agile, I raised my hand and asked to be mapped into a Scrum master role.

Fortunately, I was selected from the project management team to participate in one of the first cohorts to migrate to Agile. Having worked on countless projects where dependent projects leveraged Agile gave me a sneak peek into the various Scrum roles, including the Scrum master role, which ignited my initial interest in Agile. I also believe that my unique ability to develop relationships and empower teams, as well as my passion for personal development, would give me an advantage and help me thrive as a Scrum master.

“I was extremely excited about adopting Agile, as it emphasizes iterative and incremental development, flexibility, and collaboration.”

Additionally, I was extremely excited about adopting Agile, as it emphasizes iterative and incremental development, flexibility, and collaboration. With Agile, the focus is on delivering value to customers early and often while continuously adapting to changing requirements and feedback. Waterfall, on the other hand, is more focused on comprehensive planning, linear and dependent execution phases, and is less adaptable to mid-project changes.

As part of our company’s agile transformation journey, we adopted a budgeting approach called “envelope funding,” which allocates a fixed amount of funds, often in the form of a budget “envelope” to a project or initiative. This funding model really sealed the deal for me because it allows for flexibility and adaptability, which helps mitigate budget overruns and inaccurate forecasting and removes the constant executive pressure to meet unrealistic variance expectations.

The transition and challenges

My transition to the Scrum master role was easier than anticipated, thanks to the support provided by the organization. The company I work for has an elaborate and comprehensive program for integrating people into Agile. This program included extensive training, participation in simulation exercises, multiple Agile-related reading materials, and job shadowing, where I had the privilege of observing a senior Scrum master in action as they interacted with their teams during various ceremonies and events.

My transition from a project manager to a Scrum master wasn’t as smooth as expected. I had told myself “How hard can it be?” since I was moving from one delivery lead role to another delivery lead role. It ended up being a rude awakening because I had underestimated the extent of the mindset shift that would be required for me to become fully effective in my new Scrum master role. I did not realize that being a Scrum master is more than simply running ceremonies; it requires adopting a completely different approach to leadership.

Adopting a new leadership approach

I had to start by adopting the Agile mindset, which required unlearning the traditional command-and-control approach and embracing a value-driven, collaborative mindset. I had to let go of the need for control and focus on empowering teams to self-organize, innovate, and continuously improve. It was essential to create an environment that fostered trust, transparency, and open communication.

I also had to embrace Agile Leadership Traits such as the following:

  • Adaptability – Agile is all about adapting to change and embracing continuous improvement, but for me, waterfall was all about avoiding change as best as possible because it reflected badly on the project manager and the team.
  • Empathy – Agile focuses on individual interactions as people are the ones creating the value. A lack of empathy leads to poor team dynamics, decreased team morale, and eventually decreased team productivity. In the role of a project manager, the focus was on driving the delivery, and many times, the people became a casualty of that mindset.
  • Collaboration – Collaboration is essential in Agile because one of a Scrum master’s biggest challenges is to help the team create an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas and working together, which, without collaboration, can also lead to decreased productivity. Agile is all about creating a safe and collaborative environment, whereas traditional project management is more focused on driving delivery and making sure that the project ends on time, on budget, and within the original scope.
  • A growth mindset – Adapting a growth mindset is essential for a Scrum master as they navigate the dynamic and evolving nature of Agile. A growth mindset helps the Scrum master embrace challenges and see them as opportunities rather than a nuisance to be avoided at all costs. A growth mindset also fosters continuous learning and helps build resilience and adaptability to change, which are paramount for a Scrum master.

The journey of continuous learning

As an avid reader and a personal development junkie, I read multiple books and articles on Agile delivery as well as attended countless workshops, which allowed me to begin to actively cultivate the above-mentioned traits, realizing that my ability to lead by example and inspire others was essential in my new role as Scrum master.

“I understand that staying up to date with emerging Agile practices, attending conferences, and engaging in communities of practice are essential for my personal development.”

Becoming a Scrum master is an ongoing process of growth and learning. I understand that staying up to date with emerging Agile practices, attending conferences, and engaging in communities of practice are essential for my personal development. In addition, actively seeking feedback from team members and incorporating it into my leadership approach helped me refine and enhance my Agile leadership abilities.

Overcoming specific challenges

Here are some of the challenges I faced and what I did to overcome them:

  • Letting go of control – As a project manager, I was used to having a detailed plan and a clear roadmap. I knew exactly what we were going to do and when we were going to do it. As a Scrum master, however, plans are less detailed and more flexible. I had to learn to let go of control and trust my team to make decisions and adapt to changes. I started by delegating more responsibilities to my team members and encouraging them to take ownership of their work. I also learned to embrace uncertainty and see it as an opportunity rather than a threat.
  • Communicating differently – As a project manager, communication was mostly top-down and formal. I would send emails, create reports, and hold status meetings. In the Scrum master role, communication is more frequent, informal, and collaborative. I had to learn to communicate more often with my team members, stakeholders, and customers (not just during formal planned meetings and ceremonies) and to use different channels such as Teams chat, video conferencing, and whiteboarding. I also had to learn to listen more actively and empathetically to feedback and concerns.
  • Embracing experimentation – With waterfall, we tended to avoid risks and errors by planning everything upfront and following a strict process. In Agile, we encourage experimentation and learning by doing. I had to learn to embrace experimentation and innovation and encourage team members to try out new ideas, fail fast, and learn from their mistakes. I also had to learn to measure progress differently, using metrics such as working software, customer satisfaction, and team morale rather than emphasizing whether we were on target based on timeline, scope, and budget.
  • Being a servant leader – As a project manager, I was seen as someone who controlled the team and told them what to do. In my new role as Scrum master, I had to become a servant leader who serves the team, removes impediments, and facilitates their work. My role shifted from managing tasks to enabling and empowering team members. I recognized the importance of team collaboration, and I focused on creating an environment that encouraged open dialogue, respect for diversity, and shared ownership of deliverables. I have a unique sense of humor that tends to put people at ease when they interact with me, and that personality trait has helped my team members develop trust in my leadership. I had to make the shift from solely driving delivery to developing my team members through coaching, mentoring, and empowerment.

I had to also become a bit more conscious about leading by example. If I wanted my teams to learn the agile principles and embody the agile values, I had to be more intentional about growing and developing myself so I could “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.”

A rewarding experience

Being a Scrum master has been an extremely rewarding experience for me so far, specifically as it relates to the following:

  • Witnessing the team’s achievements and success is immensely gratifying.
  • Seeing team members thrive in an atmosphere of trust, transparency, and open communication gives me a sense of accomplishment.
  • Developing strong relationships with team members, stakeholders, and other roles in the organization is extremely rewarding. The ability to connect with individuals, understand their perspectives, and work together toward common goals helps to create a sense of camaraderie, which I absolutely love.
  • Empowering teams to take ownership of their work, make decisions, and continuously improve gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment. Additionally, seeing team members grow in confidence and capability is one of the most rewarding aspects of my role.
  • Successfully navigating challenges, whether they are project-related or interpersonal, is also deeply satisfying. Being able to help my teams overcome obstacles by removing impediments for them and playing a role in helping them to implement effective solutions is very fulfilling as well.
  • Being seen as an Agile expert who facilitates the implementation of Agile principles, fosters a culture of collaboration, and influences positive shifts in mindset and behavior is invaluably rewarding.
  • Playing a role in enhancing the overall Agility of the organization and seeing the positive impact of Agile on project outcomes, client satisfaction, and overall business success reflects the value of my contributions and makes me feel that I am truly making a difference.
  • Contributing to the success of the team and the organization and positively influencing the work culture adds a profound sense of purpose to being a Scrum master.

Conclusion

My journey from project manager to Scrum master has been rewarding and transformational, to say the least. Embracing the Agile mindset, values, and principles, as well as empowering teams, were significant milestones in my professional growth. While the transition did involve challenges and required persistence and resilience, the results were resounding.

Agile has allowed me to navigate complex projects with flexibility, adaptability, and improved outcomes. I work with amazing leaders who are not only skilled but are also committed to delivering value consistently. My teams work closely together, share knowledge, and communicate effectively not only within the team but also with stakeholders and other businesses. They adapt quickly to changes in requirements and priorities, and they proactively assess potential challenges, develop strategies to mitigate risks and have contingency plans in place.

I am building a strong brand within the organization as a servant leader who deeply cares about my teams and coaches and mentors them with passion and empathy, empowering them to embody Agile values, learn from their mistakes, develop themselves, and relentlessly deliver value for our customers.

This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They may not represent the opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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Leontine Osuagwu

Leontine Osuagwu

Leontine Osuagwu is a passionate and solution driven leader with nearly 20 years of experience in banking and financial services. She is a certified Scrum Master and certified professional Agile leader who believes that the only sustainable way to empower people to perform at their optimum level is to lead with integrity, compassion and follow-through. She is a heart-centered leader, a challenger of obsolete paradigms, an equipper, an encourager, an empowerment activist whose focus is…

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