Agile vs. Scrum: Which Project Management Framework Is Best for Your Business?

To work more effectively and obtain better results, companies have realized the need to become better able to respond to changing circumstances during development projects. As a result, many have adopted the agile principles of project management. Working flexibly, adapting quickly, and communicating constantly — hallmarks of agile project management — have helped companies deliver market-relevant software products on time and on budget in a rapidly changing tech landscape.

However, there are a variety of ways to implement agile principles of project management. Some use the Scrum framework, while others use Kanban. Still others rely on another project management principle known as waterfall. With all of these options, how can you be sure which one is right for your project or your business?

While Googling “What is the difference between agile and Scrum?” or “agile vs. Scrum” can provide high-level comparisons, this article will help you discern the differences between Agile and Scrum, and determine which type of project management is right for you.

What Is the Difference Between Agile and Scrum?

Agile refers to an overall set of principles that guide project management. Scrum is one framework that project managers use to apply those principles. In other words, consider agile to be the philosophy and Scrum to be a method of implementing that philosophy.

To make a real-world comparison, think about how different people live by different sets of principles. Those who choose not to eat meat, for instance, fulfill that principle by following the framework of vegetarianism. Others might be pescatarians or vegans. They all live by their non-meat-eating philosophy, but implement it differently in their lives.

Monday, a company that provides project management software, offers this helpful way to understand the difference between agile and Scrum: “Agile methodology is a belief system. It’s an all-encompassing philosophy of project management, but it doesn’t contain exact instructions for how to use it.”

Professionals have many ways to learn about the agile methodology, the Scrum framework, and the best ways to employ them. For example, a project management boot camp covers these topics, and many more, during an 18-week online curriculum.

Agile represents an iterative approach to project management in which teams work on small project increments in short periods of time. According to Atlassian, software producers that embrace agile philosophies “increase their development speed, expand collaboration, and foster the ability to better respond to market trends.”

Agile emphasizes completing projects in small steps. Software developers work iteratively, or on a constantly updating basis, to meet their customers’ changing needs. By delivering updates in incremental waves, developers ensure their software is as current as possible.

According to Atlassian, agile traces its roots to a 2001 meeting of developers who sought better ways to build software. They found previous methods of project management, which focused on planning and documentation, to be out of touch with modern software development. The process required a focus change, from which the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was born.

The Agile Manifesto, as it has become known, rests on four core values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

An image detailing the agile manifesto mentioned in the article.

In addition, these developers created a companion set of 12 working principles that comprise the Agile Manifesto. These principles encourage developers to deliver updated products frequently, rely on self-organized teams, employ face-to-face communication, and conduct regular periods of reflection.

These agile principles proved so successful (4.2 MB, PDF) in software development that other industries began employing them as well. In fact, we can even use agile in our daily lives. In 2013, author Bruce Feiler conducted a TED Talk in which he applied agile principles to raising his twin daughters. He even discussed meeting another family that held an agile Thanksgiving.

“The key idea of agile is that teams essentially manage themselves,” Feiler said, “and it works in software and it turns out that it works with kids.”

Developing a piece of software generally runs through six stages of an agile project management life cycle. They can vary based on the agile methodology employed, but will follow a similar process:

  1. Concept: Project managers determine the scope of their project, its functions, and its features — and they also estimate its cost and time requirements.
  2. Inception: With their concepts defined, managers assemble their teams. They choose the right people, give them the proper tools, and send them to work. Communication continues between team members and stakeholders to assure installation of all project requirements.
  3. Iteration: Now it’s time to build. In this phase, teams develop their projects based on the requirements and feedback from customers. This information forms the core of the development life cycle.
  4. Release: This phase includes product testing — for which the quality assurance team is responsible — and user training. Once tested, debugged, and documented, the software is ready for market.
  5. Production: With the software available to customers, the project shifts into a maintenance phase for continuing support and training, as necessary.
  6. Retirement: When software no longer is useful, or is being replaced, it reaches the retirement phase. Two key tasks in this phase are notifying users of the change and migrating them to the new software.

The principles of agile require a way to implement them, and Scrum provides that. Project managers use Scrum to determine who will do the work, how it will be done, and when it will be completed. According to the 2020 Scrum Guide (248 KB, PDF), this framework “helps people, teams, and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems.”

Scrum is centered on small, self-organized teams that work in short bursts, called sprints. These sprints form the backbone of the development process, allowing teams to ship more frequently and meet customer demands for continuous updates. This process helps to maintain regular release schedules and control product risk. Ultimately, Scrum relies on these small teams of skilled professionals to meet their goals.

Developers are the team’s center, since they carry out the sprints. They are adaptable, deadline conscious, and collaborative. Developers perform the essential work of the project.

The product owner — a job description and not the product’s actual owner — represents customers and stakeholders in the team. The product owner develops and communicates the product goal, coordinates the product backlog (essentially the team’s to-do list), and maximizes the value of their team’s work.

The Scrum Master is accountable to the product owner and developers, serving each party differently. Scrum Masters make sure their teams adhere to Scrum policies, help to create a positive working environment, and address problems that arise during sprints. Scrum Masters also help the product owner define goals, manage the product backlog, and maintain communication lines.

Work flows through a Scrum in sprints, or short periods during which the team completes one aspect or iteration of the project. Sprints usually last 1–4 weeks, and teams move from sprint to sprint, completing each iteration of their software until the entire project is completed.

Scrum further relies on three key properties, also known as artifacts. These artifacts contain the necessary task information to advance the project. They are as follows:

  • Product backlog: This represents a list of work the Scrum team must perform on the entire project. The product backlog is the defining document of a project, and the product owner and Scrum Master collaborate to update and refine it.
  • Sprint backlog: Each sprint has a list of tasks to be completed, which the sprint backlog tracks. To complete a sprint goal, developers work from the sprint backlog.
  • Product increment: These represent completed goals. Developers create increments when their work reaches a releasable standard known as the “definition of done.” Developers can achieve multiple increments within each sprint, with each increment getting the team closer to product release.

Sprints follow a coordinated set of five steps (known as events or ceremonies) through their completion. Each event defines a specific need within the sprint — from planning, to work, to review. The sprint itself is one of the five essential events. Here are the other four:

  • Sprint planning: During the planning session, the development team meets to determine what the sprint will achieve. The team defines a sprint goal, decides which items in the product backlog to complete, and determines how to divide the work.
  • Daily Scrum: This is a daily meeting, usually about 15 minutes, in which developers check in to assess their progress. Team members discuss work completed, work scheduled, and any issues they might have with the product backlog.
  • Sprint review: Upon completing a sprint, the Scrum team meets to review its work and present it to key stakeholders. Based on the review, the team decides what work to perform in the next sprint.
  • Sprint retrospective: This is the final meeting of a sprint, in which the Scrum team assesses the overall sprint: what worked, what didn’t, and what lessons it can apply to future sprints.

An image that covers the process of Scrum.

Columbia Engineering Technology Project Management Boot Camp covers agile principles and Scrum frameworks in detail during an 18-week curriculum designed to make you a better project manager.

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Scrum vs. Agile: When Should You Use Them?

First, a reminder that agile and Scrum are not competitors. Those who use the agile philosophy of project management have several ways to implement it, and Scrum is one of them. So, all Scrum teams use agile processes, but not all agile teams use Scrum.

Many companies have found that being agile creates value. According to a PwC report, agile is “on the rise” (1,288 KB, PDF) as 87 percent of surveyed organizations employ agile principles in some form. Here’s why:

  • Better quality: Agile focuses on small, continuous updates, increasing a product’s quality through constant iterations.
  • Risk reduction: Work is tested and completed in stages, assuring that a working product is available with each iteration. This mitigates the risk of having a completed product that doesn’t work.
  • More flexibility: Agile teams that work in sprints can shift easily and quickly based on a project’s needs.
  • Stronger collaboration: Self-organizing teams analyze problems and make improvements throughout the process.
  • Stakeholder involvement: Agile allows for continuous customer and stakeholder feedback, cutting down the time before a product reaches the market.

As a framework for applying agile principles, Scrum offers many benefits.

Quality and revenue: Developers generate and test new features with each sprint, constantly making release-ready software iterations. This improves product quality and potentially increases revenue opportunities, as release dates can be accelerated.

  • Cost savings: Teams working in increments can address issues immediately, resulting in fewer surprises later in the project life cycle. Lower risk means better budget control.
  • Adaptability: Since sprints are short-term, developers can easily make changes in the next sprint.
  • Transparency: Scrum encourages plenty of communication with its daily Scrums and reviews. Teams also receive feedback from customers, fostering accountability and transparency.

Agile vs. Scrum Principles

Agile and Scrum work effectively because of the principles embedded within them. These principles certainly overlap — since Scrum doesn’t work without the agile philosophy — but merit an independent view as well.

Those who signed the Agile Manifesto defined 12 principles behind it. These principles govern everything relating to Agile project management and software development.

  1. Providing customer satisfaction through “early and consistent delivery of valuable software”
  2. Welcoming change at any stage of development
  3. Making frequent updates, usually within a few weeks
  4. Collaborating daily with stakeholders
  5. Supporting and trusting team members to do quality work
  6. Meeting face-to-face, particularly among developers
  7. Measuring progress through effectively working software
  8. Promoting sustainable development — sponsors, developers, and users “should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely”
  9. Maintaining technical excellence and applying strong design techniques
  10. Maximizing the work schedule
  11. Relying on self-organizing teams to perform their best work
  12. Reflecting on the process and learning to adjust accordingly

Scrum also has its version of a manifesto, which begins with the five Scrum values as detailed in the Scrum Guide (248K, PDF): commitment, focus, openness, respect, and courage. In addition, the Scrum Body of Knowledge (SBOK) is the framework’s essential textbook that outlines the six principles for applying Scrum. According to the SBOK, these guidelines are mandatory to all Scrum projects:

  • Empirical process control: Teams make decisions based on three practical ideas: transparency, inspection, and adaptation.
  • Self-organization: Teams that self-organize, instead of following a hierarchy, develop more ownership in a project and produce better work.
  • Collaboration: When teams work together, they create the most value. This requires three key elements: awareness, articulation, and appropriation.
  • Value-based prioritization: Scrum is designed to deliver “maximum business value” throughout the project.
  • Time-boxing: Scrum keeps projects on schedule by limiting time used in sprints, daily Scrums, planning meetings, and review meetings.
  • Iterative development: Developing software in staged updates allows teams to deliver products more consistently and incorporate changes more effectively.

Agile vs. Scrum Certification

Earning a professional certification in agile or Scrum demonstrates to employers that you are job-ready. But which certification should you pursue? That will depend on your employer, your experience, and the project management frameworks you use. Just as project management differs from product management, so do the various certification processes regarding project management.

Here’s a look at the differences between agile and Scrum certifications.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers several agile certifications based on level of experience. The most common certification is the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP). This is a wide-ranging certificate that includes multiple agile frameworks: Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming, and more. PMI recommends this certification for professionals who have agile experience (eight months on an agile team in the past three years) and want to demonstrate their proficiency.

In addition, the Scrum Alliance offers Certified Agile Leadership Courses for leaders and directors who seek more knowledge of agile processes.

As the most-used agile framework, Scrum offers many opportunities for certification. The Professional Scrum Master™ Certification is among the leading demonstrations of Scrum mastery.

Scrum.org lists three levels of PSM certification, ranging from fundamental to “distinguished” mastery of Scrum. As a Professional Scrum Master™, you will be able to show substantial Scrum knowledge and the ability to apply it to real-world projects. As Scrum.org says, the assessment can be difficult. Luckily, quality technology project boot camp curricula include test prep for this assessment.

PMI also offers certification as a Disciplined Agile® Scrum Master (DASM) and a Senior Scrum Master (DASSM).

Agile vs. Scrum vs. Kanban

In addition to Scrum, Kanban is another framework for implementing agile project management.

Kanban and Scrum adhere to similar principles of work, notably reducing the amount of time involved in delivering a project. With Kanban, teams represent their work visually on a kanban board, which can be physical or digital. Teams structure their work in three or four basic lists (e.g., to-do, in-progress, review, done), and the progress of each task is transparent to everyone involved. Kanban’s visual system provides for flexible planning, smooth workflow, and shorter work cycles.

Agile vs. Scrum vs. Waterfall

Waterfall represents a completely different method of project management from agile. In fact, agile’s originators sought to address some of the challenges the Waterfall method posed for software developers.

Waterfall is sequential rather than iterative, meaning developers finish one project phase (analysis, design, development, testing, etc.) before moving to the next. As a result, each phase flows into the next, like a waterfall. Managers detail the requirements at the start of the project, and then the team works chronologically.

According to Adobe Workfront, the Waterfall methodology has a structured approach, a proven track record, and easily defined cost structures and timelines. However, developers who found that their software needed to be more iterative turned to agile.

Become an Agile Scrum Master

Companies want to work smarter and more cost-effectively, and they also want to deliver more value to their customers and produce better software products. As a result, they know agile philosophy is key to that success, and Scrum is a great way to implement it.

By becoming an agile Scrum Master, you can acquire the essential skills to become a successful project manager — in software development, or any other technical field. What’s the next step? At Columbia Engineering Technology Project Management Boot Camp, you’ll learn agile philosophy, how to use Scrum, and much more to fuel your success in the world of modern project management.

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