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Scrum for beginners: What you need to know

Scrum can help agile teams streamline workflow and reduce risk – but it is not right for every situation. Here is a primer

Especially in the age of COVID-19, companies need to be nimble and fast-moving. The pandemic has forced many organizations to fully reimagine their business and supply chains to meet the needs of our new world order. In this environment agile is an increasingly attractive mindset, as it can offer teams and organizations greater flexibility to address whatever new challenges arise. Scrum, specifically, continues to be a popular, even foundational, approach.

The reason? It is simple – or at least, it appears that way.

The basics of Scrum

At a high level, Scrum is an iterative process; it aims to help teams focus each sprint (or quick mini-project) on a simple, demonstrable goal – and then “plan,” “do,” “check,” and “adjust” as needed to get closer to the desired outcome.

The first part of Scrum: The team

The first part of Scrum is the team. The work of the team is shaped by a product owner who deeply understands the vision for the product and prioritises the backlog (the list of work to be done to achieve the vision).

Then you need to identify who will facilitate or lead the agile development team – this person is known as the Scrum master. Think of this person as an “orchestrator of work” versus a manager. The Scrum master is the glue that holds everything together, eliminating blockers, helping everyone on the team understand their role and how they contribute to the broader team goals.

You then identify the group of professionals who will deliver the end product or service. These can be technical experts, like programmers, and/or business experts who will create and deliver parts of the product you are building.

The second part of Scrum: Practices

The second part of Scrum is the practices: Scrum teams work in small time-boxes called sprints. The duration of a sprint is usually two weeks or less.

At the beginning of the sprint, the team collaboratively plans and aligns on their work for the sprint – this is referred to as sprint planning.

The team connects daily in a short meeting (the daily scrum) to ensure transparency and collaboration within the team.

At the end of the sprint, there are two reflective processes to assess the sprint: The sprint review, where the team demonstrates what they accomplished to key stakeholders; and a sprint retrospective, where the scrum team explores potential ways they can improve in the future.

When should you use Scrum?

A Scrum-based approach is appropriate for project teams that can build their solution in small increments, typically working in two-week sprints and acting on feedback as they go. These projects are typically short in nature, often 3 to 6 months in duration.

Scrum teams typically work in two-week sprints, acting on feedback as they go.

The primary advantage of this approach is to lower project risk compared to a more traditional project management approach. Getting feedback from project stakeholders often and early delivery reduces risk because the team can act on their customers’ evolving understanding of what they need and are therefore better able to deliver value to their customers at the end of the project.

A Scrum-based approach can also be appropriate for dedicated, longstanding teams that are evolving an existing product or service. These teams tend to work in a more sophisticated manner and often deploy new releases of their projects frequently (typically weekly).

When Scrum is not enough

Scrum is not applicable to all situations. Other agile approaches, like Lean, can be more appropriate when requests come in on a more rapid basis, such as those from a customer care team, a shared services team, or a data analytics team. A Lean startup strategy can also be more effective than Scrum when teams want to de-risk the exploration and viability of a new product or service. Scrum also may not be appropriate for situations where you need a team-of-teams program strategy – for example, when a “constellation” of teams comes together around a larger goal.

Scrum is only part of the overall picture. And while it may be simple, project objectives often are not. In fact, agile projects involve much more than Scrum offers, such as designing, building, and testing the solution for your customers, developing, and delivering training for end users, addressing risk throughout the project, and more.

Many people confuse Scrum as the only agile framework or approach, but agile comes in many different flavors. And the more often we have used agile, the more we have realised that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

The more often we have used agile, the more we have realised that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Instead of trying to force-fit Scrum into all situations, it is important to identify the objectives of your endeavor and analyse whether the Scrum framework can meet all the needs of the project at hand.

The bigger agile picture

The Agile Manifesto was born from considering VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) situations – and COVID definitely falls into this umbrella. The manifesto has been followed over decades as a credible way to inject agility into various ways of working.

Agile, serial, and hybrid approaches all have a place in creating overall agility. The trick is understanding the appropriate mix of practices for your organisation because true business agility comes from the ability to tailor frameworks and approaches – not from the frameworks themselves.

The best thing businesses can do is invest in their workforce’s learning: The more your teams understand the full landscape of competencies, the better prepared they will be to handle any project or challenge that comes their way. And while Scrum is a good building block, there is much more to agile than what it offers.

At the end of the day, every project has unique needs, and teams should customise methodologies – be it Scrum, Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), or a hybrid approach – to drive outcomes that differentiate themselves from competitors. It is about optimising flow across your organization and delighting your customers.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that businesses must be adaptable. It is not enough to just respond to change; you must ready your teams and organisation holistically to drive change – both strategically and tactically.

About the Author

Dave Garrett is the Chief Strategy & Growth Officer at the Project Management Institute. He was the co-founder, President and CEO of (formerly ), an online community for project professionals established in 2000 and acquired by PMI in 2014.  Before that, Dave served as the Director of Advanced Technology Group with Headstrong, Inc. He led the knowledge management function, which included the development and management of the corporate intranet site, ongoing systems development, and administration.

Dave is a graduate of The American University (Washington, D.C.) with a Master of Science in Management Information Systems.

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