Life as project manager is not easy. On first sight, we may only have one single role, but we are much more than what the doorplate in front of our office is saying. We are planners, facilitators, controllers, handlers, organizers, mentors, presenters, helpers, impediment-scavengers, carers, managers, servant leaders, humans and often even friends.
But out of the many hats we are carrying on our PM-heads, two stand out in particular: one says ”Project Manager”, the other one says ”Team Member“.
And these two hats have a very special relationship to and with each other. Not only do they mark our most important roles, but also they often stand in each other’s way.
On the one hand, we are part of the management. We administrate, we control, we are emissaries of evil. On the other hand, we are members of the project team. We are celebrating successes together, we dive through depths together, we are part of the family.
As a project manager, we are responsible for the successful completion of projects. We prepare, we plan, we manage. We are responsible for controlling the projects. And it doesn’t matter if we are part of a functional, project or matrix organization: to our co-workers we are one of those “up there”. Even and especially when our desk is located in the middle of the team room. And as Scrum Master we somehow never really belong to the team. It starts with the formal definition - there is the team and there is the Scrum Master. So we are kind of outsiders from the very beginning. And project managers or Scrum Masters often being either the first or the last to become part of a team won’t make things easier for us. Either the group is just right in the process of forming, or it has already formed. So we are often the fifth wheel on the car.
If we do everything right, we are in the middle of our teams. At least we have that feeling. And with distributed teams, that’s no different. There is the spatial separation, but we are the fat spider in the middle of the network, where all information converges and the Maven, who distributes this information to others. So we are clearly a team member, a part of the group. Especially when talking about longer projects, or teams that have existed for a long time, there is a special bond between the project manager or Scrum Master and the team members. Of course it is: you have been through a lot together and you are going to experience a lot more together. That is the material that welds a group of people together.
So these are our two main roles in my eyes. And none of us is just one or the other. When we are organizing a meeting or demanding metrics, we are part of the management. When we are having coffee together in the office kitchen and talk about our weekends or we are working out a plan together, we are part of the team.
And that often is creating conflicts, because the borders are blurred, not clearly defined. I have experienced those situations pretty often. You are having fun together and the next moment you ask for the progress of a work package to be able to document it. In everyday life, this is going without friction most of the time (at least as long as you are asking nice and polite). But in stressful situations, or formal moments, this often leads to misunderstanding and conflict. Of course it is. It has to - the rules are not clear. Both for you, and for the people around you. So you never know exactly, if a sloppy formulation is understood as inappropriate. Or if a correction seems far too bossy.
And this issue won’t get easier if we are not only in charge for project management-related tasks but work as part-time project managers. I have seen this several times in agile software development: a Scrum Master that is part time-developer. Or the developer is part time-Scrum Master. But also smaller companies simply don’t have the ressources to have a full time-project manager. So projects are often led and managed en passant. In these scenarios, the team has even more difficulties to determine who is communicating with them right now.
There is a book that I loved when I was a child. Herbie’s Magical Hat by Otfried Preußler. There, in this children’s book, I found a solution for our problem. Herbie (or Hörbe as he is called in German) is a Hutzelman (a kind of Brownie) from the Siebengiebelwald (the Seven-gables-forest) - one of thirteen. And the Hutzelmen have something very special: Doppelhüte - double hats. A hat on top, which protects from sun and rain (and at night from evil dreams). And a hat below that keeps you warm. And for us it is essential to realize that we all are wearing such a double hat. We have to be constantly aware of that. And in some situations we should aim to wear only one of those two hats. This makes it clear to everyone involved who is in front of them.
In this situation - as everywhere else - communication is everything. When changing roles, we have to communicate this to our teams clearly. If, as a project manager, I want to raise an objection during the Planning Meeting that has nothing to do with Scrummasterstuff, I have to preface a “I’ll say that as a team member”. Or, “I’ll take off my Scrum Master-hat now.”
And vice versa. When I’m playing table soccer with team members and want to communicate some organizational matters, it must be clear to everyone that I am now speaking as a Scrum Master and not as a team member.
Yes, that is difficult. But clear communication and role separation not only has the one clear advantage that your team members always know which hat is talking to them. It also helps us tremendously in our daily work. If we make ourselves aware, what role we are currently taking, we can structure and document our work much more clearly.
So when our current role is clear to us - especially in those stressful situations - we are not only facilitating the people around us, but also are greatly empowering our lives. And I know, this takes some time to get used to speaking out loud, what role I am currently in. But trust me, it pays off a lot.