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Scrum 101

By Julian Mercer

As an introduction for readers not already familiar with the term, Scrum is an Agile methodology for completing complex projects. Although primarily a tool for product development, Scrum principles and practices can be applied to a wide range of management functions, including strategic planning. In my experience, Scrum is a particularly effective process for moving a cross-functional project under tight time constraints in a way that is both responsive and open to adjustment.

Scrum falls within the classification of Agile project management tools, which take an iterative and incremental approach emphasizing transparency, flexibility, collaboration, and integration of user/customer feedback, based on a philosophy of continuous improvement.

Scrum was popularized in the 1990s by software developers Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. It traces its origins to a proposal called “The New New Product Development Game,” published in 1986 by Professors Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in the Harvard Business Review. The concept comes from the rugby term for the start of a play where the players lock arms in a “scrum” and each team works together to gain possession and move the ball toward the goal. Sutherland and Schwaber took the scrum concepts of teamwork and coordination and added techniques for iterative development, continuous improvement and customer feedback.

The Scrum process was popularized in the early 2000s as more and more organizations began adopting Agile methodologies for software development. Today, Scrum techniques and other Agile methodologies are being taught in business and engineering schools around the world, and are deployed widely to support product management, product development and other types of complex work. There is an established community of practitioners and experts, supported by training and certification programs.

As more and more organizations adopt Scrum and other Agile practices, it’s becoming increasingly important for students and young technical professionals to study and master these techniques to be successful in the workplace.

The Benefits of Scrum

Scrum improves productivity and drives successful outcomes in several ways:

  • Increased collaboration and communication: Scrum emphasizes frequent communication and collaboration among team members, which helps to reduce misunderstandings and ensure that everyone is working toward the same goals. This can help to increase productivity and reduce the likelihood of errors or rework.
  • Greater transparency and visibility: Scrum engages product owners and stakeholders in the development process through Sprint Reviews that help identify issues early on and enable the development team to make adjustments as needed, which can lead to more successful outcomes.
  • Flexibility and adaptability: Scrum is designed to be flexible and adaptable to change, which enables a quick response to feedback and adjustments to plans to meet changing requirements. This can help to prevent delays and ensure that the project stays on track.
  • Faster delivery of high-quality products: Scrum emphasizes delivering a work product or output at the end of each Sprint for review and feedback. This check-in process help ensure that the team is delivering value to the customer early and often. In addition, the emphasis on quality through associated practices such as Continuous Integration and Testing helps to ensure that the products delivered are of high quality.
  • Continuous improvement: Sprint Retrospective meetings allow the team to identify opportunities for improvement and make adjustments to their process, which can lead to increased productivity and more successful outcomes over time.

Overall, Scrum defines a framework for teams to work together effectively and efficiently, with a focus on delivering value to the customer early and often.

How It Works

The Scrum process outlines specific roles, events and activities, and consists of a Product Owner, a Scrum Master and a Development Team working to meet the requirements of their employer or customer.

The first step is for the Product Owner (or boss) to create a prioritized list of features, requirements or desired outcomes, which is known as the product backlog in the product development context.

The work is then divided into a series of process steps or segments defined at each stage of the development process by the Development Team, based on the overall goals and requirements. These steps are called Sprints and are usually planned incrementally at a Sprint Planning Meeting. Each sprint is allocated a fixed period of time (typically 1-4 weeks depending on the project), and the process is often referred to as “time-boxing.”

The team then implements the Sprint, holding a Daily Stand-Up meeting or Scrum (typically no longer than 15 minutes) each morning where the Development Team plans and synchronizes their work for the next 24 hours.

At the end of each Sprint, a Sprint Review meeting is held with the Product Owner, the Development Team and other stakeholders to demonstrate the product or share the output, and receive feedback.

After getting Sprint Review feedback, the Development Team will hold a Sprint Retrospective meeting to adjust plans and reflect on performance issues and opportunities for improvements.

The entire process is facilitated by a Scum Master who coordinates the Scrum schedule, coaches and encourages the team, works with the product or process owner to address questions and issues raised by the team and remove any impediments, and provides necessary reporting or tracking data.

The Scrum process gives considerable autonomy and decision-making power to the development team, which is responsible for deciding how to accomplish its work, and for ensuring that the product meets the acceptance criteria established by the product owner. It also allows for considerable flexibility to adapt to changing requirements and priorities, and to adjust the development approach to ensure the team is delivering what the product owner or client needs. Process transparency and reporting reinforces the customer relationship by demonstrating tangible progress at each Sprint stage, providing product owners and/or customers with an opportunity for input.

Overall, Scrum is useful as an agile process because it emphasizes collaboration, flexibility, transparency, and continuous improvement. These principles can help teams to deliver high-quality products that meet the needs of the customer, while also improving team efficiency and satisfaction.

Scrum’s Limitations

While Scrum is a widely used and effective framework for managing complex projects, it may not be the best fit for every project or situation. For example, here are three scenarios where Scrum may not be the best choice:

  • Small, simple projects: Scrum is designed for complex, multi-disciplinary projects that require collaboration and frequent communication among team members. For small, straightforward projects, simpler project management frameworks may be more appropriate.
  • Fixed-scope projects: Scrum works best when the scope of the project is flexible and can be adjusted as needed. If the scope or timeframe of the project is fixed and cannot be changed, a more linear development process may be more efficient.
  • Remote teams: Scrum is designed for co-located teams that can easily collaborate and communicate in person. If the team is distributed and remote, it can be challenging to implement Scrum effectively without the right tools and processes in place.

A well-intentioned Scrum project can also run off the rails for many reasons, the most common of which are:

  • Lack of clear goals and vision: Scrum relies on having a clear and well-defined product vision and goals. If the goals and requirements are not well established at the outset, if they are subject to constant change, and/or if they are not clearly communicated to the team, it can be difficult to achieve success.
  • Lack of team buy-in: Scrum requires a high degree of commitment and collaboration from team members, who are often drawn from across business units. Scrums may fail if team members are not fully engaged in the process or have competing agendas.
  • Lack of leadership support: Scrum requires active leadership support and involvement, particularly from the Scrum Master. If leadership is not committed to the framework or does not provide the necessary support, Scrum may not work well.
  • Inadequate planning and prioritization: Scrum requires careful planning and prioritization to ensure that the most valuable features or needs are addressed first. If the goals or requirements aren’t well specified and priorities not established early on, the team will struggle, leading to delays, missed deadlines, and potential project failures.
  • Poor communication: Scrum requires strong team communication and collaboration. If communication is poor, or if team members are not willing or able to collaborate effectively, it can lead to delays, misunderstandings and conflicts.
  • Inadequate training and support: Scrum may require a significant shift in mindset and normal workflow practices, which can be challenging for teams to adapt to without adequate training and support. If team members do not fully understand the principles and practices of Scrum, it can lead to confusion, frustration and ultimately failure. This is where the coaching and the leadership skills of the Scrum Master become critical.
  • Lack of stakeholder involvement: Scrum emphasizes the importance of involving stakeholders in the development process, including the product owner and end-users. If stakeholders are not adequately involved or engaged, it can be difficult to ensure that the product meets their needs and expectations. The engagement of the Product Owner is particularly critical in the Scrum process. If they are too busy or otherwise engaged, the team may lack clarity on goals, priorities and project or product performance expectations, which can lead to false starts and missed deadlines.
  • Overreliance on Scrum Process: Overly tight Sprint intervals and overreliance on scrum rituals — like daily stand-ups and sprint retrospectives — can become overly rigid and formulaic, leading to team burn-out and diminished creativity. Flexibility is important, and a good Scrum Master will set the pace and make allowances to keep the team fully energized, engaged and on track.

Scrum also presents some challenges that managers should be sensitive to when planning to deploy Scrum to their projects:

  • Team Size: Scrum is designed for small teams of five to nine members, and can become challenging to manage with larger teams, or as new team members are integrated. Coordination and communication become more difficult with larger teams, and breakdowns can lead to delays, oversights and breakdowns in trusted working relationships.
  • Team Composition: Scrum relies heavily on effective collaboration and communication among team members. If there are personality conflicts or communication breakdowns within the team, the scrum process can break down. Its also critical that the team possesses members with a sufficiently diverse set of skills and perspectives to facilitate project solving and avoid tunnel vision.
  • Need for formal documentation: Many projects require detailed documentation, especially in regulated industries where documentation is a key business requirement. In the fast-paced environment of a scrum project, the drafting, capturing, sharing and archiving of documentation can easily fall short of expectations unless it’s made a priority
  • Difficulty of Long-Term Planning: Because Scrum is focused on flexibility and delivering value incrementally, it can be difficult for managers to plan for longer-term goals and prepare in advance for follow-on projects.
  • Quality Control: Although Scrum emphasizes the importance of delivering a high-quality product increment at the end of each sprint, it doesn’t outline standard practices for quality control or testing of the final product, which can lead to suboptimal outputs. Therefore, it’s critical for the manager (and the Scrum team) to regularly assess quality and make adjustments as needed to ensure a high-quality product — both at the end of each sprint and at final delivery.

The important takeaway is Scrums can fail if they are not implemented effectively, or if key principles and practices are not followed. It is important to anticipate and address the potential failure points through careful planning, effective communication, and ongoing training and support for the team.

How You Can Learn More

Getting started in Scrum is relatively easy. The biggest challenge is choosing from the multitude of courses, certificates, software and/ websites available to help you learn and apply the Scrum framework.

A good place to start is with the open source Scrum Guide, which is the official reference and provides a clear overview of the key concepts, processes and terminology that make up the Scrum approach. The most current version was updated in 2020., the Scrum Alliance, and the Agile Alliance all offer Scrum courses and certifications. Each offers their own proprietary curriculum, so it’s important to do some research before choosing to make sure that it meets your needs. You can also find introductory courses offered on educational platforms like Udemy and Coursera.

You can also network with other Scrum professionals through online and in-person communities dedicated to Scrum and Agile methodologies. The Scrum Alliance and are two of the larger Scrum communities. The Agile Alliance Community connects Scrum and other Agile practitioners to share their experiences. You’ll also find Scrum practitioners in groups or forums on LinkedIn, Discord, Reddit, Quora and other social media platforms. Obtaining Scrum credentials is a way to develop Scrum skills, and can provide a competitive advantage if you’re looking to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of Scrum to potential employers or clients. Several Scrum certifications are currently available that are tailored to different roles and applications: Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) and Certified Scrum Developer (CSD).

Scrum practitioners can also take advantage of a variety of software tools to apply Scrum principles and processes to your work. Popular tools include JIRA, Monday Dev, Wrike, Trello, Zoho Sprints, Lucid Spark, Hubstaff, ClickUp and Asana.

Overall, getting started in Scrum is about learning the principles and practices of the framework, connecting with others, and applying what you’ve learned in your work. Proficiency comes with practice, and once you know what you’re doing, you can become a valuable resource as a coach and mentor to others on your team.

Alternatives to Scrum

Although Scrum is probably the most widely adopted agile methodology, there are other popular techniques, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, that may better fit your needs or project. A quick rundown of options includes:

  • Waterfall is one of the classic management tools, developed in the manufacturing and construction industries in the 1950s and 60s, adopted by the software industry in the 1970s and 80s, and still widely used. Not classified as an “agile” technique, Waterfall can be described as a linear, sequential approach to project management, where work is divided into phases that must be completed before moving to the next phase. This “waterfall” approach helps drive the development process but can lengthen development cycles and makes it difficult to respond to changing requirements.
  • Kanban is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in organizations that prioritize continuous delivery. Kanban is known for its use of visualization techniques and emphasis on optimizing flow and reducing waste.
  • Lean is widely used in manufacturing and other industries where efficiency is a top priority. It emphasizes continuous improvement, eliminating waste, and delivering value to the customer. Lean is often used in conjunction with Six Sigma’s data driven methodology of process mapping and statistical analysis to eliminate waste and improve quality.
  • DevOps was developed in the early 2000s to minimize disconnects between development and operations teams working on a wide variety of software development projects, ranging from web applications and mobile apps to enterprise solutions used in healthcare, finance and government. DevOps applies agile practices and Lean manufacturing principles such as continuous integration, use of configuration and version controls, performance monitoring, and applied communications and collaboration tools.
  • Extreme Programming (XP) is also popular with software developers, and employs pair programming, test-driven development, and continuous integration practices to improve code quality and customer satisfaction. The overall focus is on technical excellence, teamwork and feedback.
  • Crystal is family of agile methodologies used in software development and consulting, as well as in the construction industry, and as a collaborative learning tool in academia. Crystal emphasizes tailoring process and methodology to the specific needs of the project and team.
  • Adaptive Project Framework (APF) or Adaptive Project Management (APM) uses Scrum-like techniques with a focus on preparing the development team to anticipate changes in plans or requirements, and to accommodate the unknown factors that often arise during a project. APF/APM is gaining popularity with companies who manage complex projects subject to uncertainty or evolving requirements.

It’s important to remember that Scrum is just one of many project management frameworks available, and the best choice depends on the specific needs and characteristics of your project and team. Companies that manage complex and diversified technology programs often employ a host of different agile management tools and techniques tailored to the needs of each project or area of business.

Closing Notes

I’ve seen teams thrown into Scrum projects achieve success without prior training or experience who were able to learn the principles and processes on the fly. Even without special training or certification, you can succeed, especially if you have clarity on the desired outcomes, are guided by an experienced Scrum Master, and are working with teammates who are committed to collaboration and can be counted on to carry their share of the load.

Because of the “sprint” aspect of scrums, it’s important that the team be fully focused on the project at hand; this can’t be a low priority or side project for some or all of the team. But properly deployed, a well-run Scrum where everyone pitches in together to common purpose can be a very rewarding personal experience, and having Scrum in your arsenal of skills can be a very valuable professional asset.

If Scrum or other agile project development tools are not already on your radar screen, I hope you find this overview to be a useful introduction.


Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a semi-retired executive in the technology sector, with more than 30 years’ experience as a leader, manager, consultant, and teacher.

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