On some projects, especially those that focus on software development, it is preferable — or in many cases necessary — to take an iterative approach, in which small deliverables are completed in rapid succession; ultimately leading to a finished product. The bad news is that waterfall methodology (which we will look at in a moment) can hinder rather than help these types of projects. But the good news is that Scrum methodology can play a pivotal role in enabling both project success and customer happiness. In this article, we explore scrum methodology in project management by looking at basic elements such as Scrum roles, ceremonies, core practices, core tools, advantages, and disadvantages.
What is Waterfall Methodology?
Before exploring Scrum methodology in project management, it is helpful to look at waterfall, which is the most traditional and popular methodology. In waterfall, project plans — which include various elements such as schedules, budgets, risk management, quality management, and more — are developed before the project starts. The purpose is to minimize the likelihood of change during project execution.
Of course, most projects — regardless of the prevailing methodology — require some degree of adjustment along the way. For example, an important resource that was assigned to the project in the planning stage may not be available when needed, and as such it is necessary to extend the schedule and increase the budget. However, with the waterfall methodology the goal is to remain as close to the original plan as possible. For this reason, robust project planning is extremely important, and often makes the difference between a thriving project vs. a troubled one.
What Scrum Methodology?
On the other side of the spectrum is Scrum methodology in project management, which is rooted in Agile. Unlike waterfall, Scrum uses iterative and incremental processes — called sprints — to deliver customer value throughout the development of a project. The performance and experience of each sprint influences subsequent sprints, until the project is complete. Instead of following a detailed plan that was created prior to project execution, Scrum teams rely on the vision and expectations of the customer (called “user stories” — we will look at these later on in this article). Scrum is best-suited for projects that require inherently flexibility (i.e. the plan evolves as it is carried out), but at the same time is defined enough to achieve customer targets and goals.
It is important to note that while Scrum is a popular and effective way to implement Agile principles, it is by no means the only way. There are many Agile-based methodologies, such as Crystal, Feature Driven Development, Extreme Programming (XP), DSDM Atern, and several others. These approaches have important differences, but they are all branches of the Agile tree in that they take an iterative approach to delivering a project throughout its life cycle.
What is Scrum in Simple Terms?
The simplest and easiest way to understand what Scrum methodology in project management is — and what it is not — is by focusing on the most obvious and defining characteristic of the methodology: sprints.Sprints are a repeatable fixed time-box, during which the Scrum team works to create a finished product (for that particular Sprint) at the highest possible value. Sprints can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.
Notably, during each sprint the Scrum team — and not the PMO, executive, or any other external stakeholder — determines who does what, in what order, and at what speed. This self-organizing and self-managing aspect is essential, because nothing derails a Scrum project faster than if workloads are shifted or reprioritized during a sprint. Think of it like 100-yard dash track and field athletes who, after launching from the starting block, find that the race has been re-routed at the 20-yard mark, and then again at the 50-yard mark and 75-yard mark. The result would be chaos!
Scrum Methodology: Team
There are three types of roles on a Scrum team: the Scrum Master, Product Owner, and Delivery Team.
The Scrum Master has four functions that are critical for project success:
- They are advocates who ensure that the team has the tools, budget, and other resources it needs to succeed.
- They are communicators and educators who liaise with other teams and departments, to help them understand how Scrum (and Agile in general) works.
- They are protectors who prevent internal or external stakeholders from interfering with the team, or acting in a way that has an adverse impact.
- They are coaches who work within the team to mediate disagreements. They also work one-on-one with individual team members to provide support, guidance, and advice.
The Product Owner also wears multiple hats — the most important of which is that they are the “voice of the customer,” and as such they are authorized to make key decisions about the product. They also communicate the customer’s vision and expectations to the team, and define and prioritize the product backlog (we will look at the product backlog in the next section). A core tool that Product Owners rely on is called a user story. In a software development context, this document describes a piece of software, or a software feature, from the perspective of the customer and includes a variety of details such as who the software is for, what kind of experience end users should have, and so. The Delivery Team relies on this to ensure that what they create (through springs) aligns with the needs and expectations of the customer.
And last but certainly not least are the members of the Delivery Team, who are collectively responsible for executing each Sprint, and ultimately creating a finished product. There are three features of Scrum teams that make them markedly different from conventional teams:
- As highlighted earlier, they are self-organizing. This is not about power, it is about pragmatism. Scrum teams that are not self-organizing quickly find themselves mired in conflict, confusion and chaos.
- They are radically democratic. Seniority and job titles do not matter on Scrum teams — what matters is whether each member of the team is competent, efficient, and can work in a collaborative way.
- They are relatively small. While there is no absolute rule for how many members can be on a Scrum team (i.e. it is not like a sports team), generally most teams have between five and nine members. The larger the team, the more challenging it can be to achieve consensus and facilitate collaboration.
Scrum Methodology: Backlogs
In Scrum methodology in project management, there are two types of backlogs: product and sprint.
- The product backlog captures details — both technical and user-centric —about everything that must be completed within a project. The Product Owner is in charge of the product backlog.
- The sprint backlog is a comprehensive list of all of the tasks that must be completed during each sprint. This list is developed during the sprint planning meeting (as described below). Teams typically use a burndown chart when developing and analyzing the sprint backlog. This is a graphical representation of remaining effort over time, and is useful for predicting when all of the work will be completed.
Scrum Methodology: Ceremonies
Those outside of the Scrum world may hear about “Scrum ceremonies”, and wonder just what in the heck is going on! Are team members getting formally dressed up and conducting some kind of formal ritual or observance? No: ceremonies are essentially four types of meetings: sprint planning, daily stand-ups, sprint reviews, and retrospectives.
- Sprint planning takes place prior to the start of each sprint. The full team (i.e. Scrum Master, Product Owner, and Delivery Team members) gets together and decide what is going to take place during the sprint. Tasks and goals at the top of the backlog are dealt with first. Generally, sprint planning meetings take an hour for each week of a sprint. However, this is not an absolute rule. In some cases where there is disagreement or where issues are complex, it is necessary to spend significantly more time on sprint planning.
- The stand-up meeting takes place daily, and allows each member of the team to check-in and report on their progress, focusing on: what they did the previous day, what they plan to do today, and what obstacles or challenges they experienced or anticipate. Stand-up meetings are designed to be as brief as possible, and rarely last more than 30 minutes on teams with 5-9 people (naturally, larger teams will take more time).
- The sprint review is when the Scrum team demonstrates and describes what they have achieved in a particular sprint. During the review, the Product Owner (who represents the customer) typically asks questions and provides feedback (ideally the practical and constructive variety).
- Retrospectives are meetings that are only open to Scrum team members. In some cases, Product Owners may be invited, but only if they are involved in day-to-day project execution. The purpose of retrospectives is for team members to reflect and analyze what has happened so far — the good, the bad, and the ugly — in order to make improvements on subsequent sprints.
Before moving on, it should be added that so-called stand-up meetings do not mean that attendees must literally be standing during the meeting. Rather, the label reflects that the meetings should be brief (i.e. if they wanted to, attendees could indeed remain standing during the meeting without feeling exhausted). Also, it is not necessary for these meetings to take place in-person. They can (and these days, often do) take place virtually over the web through various video conferencing apps.
Scrum Methodology in Project Management: Advantages
Scrum offers several significant advantages over waterfall and other non-Agile methodologies, including:
- The ability to adapt quickly to change — which may involve avoiding risks and/or exploiting opportunities.
- The capacity to quickly start projects vs. spend weeks and months developing a detailed plan.
- Greater transparency and visibility, due to a combination of daily stand-up meetings, ongoing check-ins, and sprint planning.
- More accountability and control at the team level.
- Enhanced collaboration and knowledge sharing. Recall that seniority and job titles are irrelevant on Scrum teams — what matters is whether or not team members effectively carry out their required tasks.
- Potential cost savings, as problems and issues are brought into the open when they arise — not later on in the project when resolving them could be costly and time consuming.
Scrum Methodology in Project Management: Potential Drawbacks
There are also some potential drawbacks of Scrum methodology, including:
- Larger teams can be difficult to manage, but smaller teams may lack the knowledge, experience and capacity to carry out tasks in an efficient, fast way.
- There is the possibility of scope creep — i.e. the project doing more than what was initially envisioned. This is where a capable Scrum Master is vital!
- There may be some interpersonal conflict, as team members who have different levels of experience may struggle to achieve consensus.
- Sprint after sprint can lead to burnout and exhaustion. To deal with this — or better yet, avoid it — organizations should consider adopting Kanban. We discuss this more in the next section.
Similar to Scrum, Kanban focuses on completing tasks in the backlog and constantly improving performance. However, this is not done through sprints. Rather, it is achieved by continuous delivery and ongoing iteration. Furthermore, there are no required roles, which means that team members retain their familiar job titles and professional identities. Some leading task management software solutions support Scrum, Kanban and conventional waterfall methodologies, so that organizations that currently take a more traditional approach can gradually shift to a Scrum/Agile framework.
The Final Word
Scrum methodology in project management can be a highly effective way to drive and complete projects. However, it is — and always will be — both a science and an art. The former because there are some fundamental principles, concepts, tools and practices. The latter because each project is different, and the more experience that team members acquire, the more confident and capable they will become!