What exactly is Scrum? And how does the methodology work?

You’d be hard-pressed to find an experienced professional who’s never heard of Scrum, a project-management framework created as part of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development in 2001 and popularized by software developers. But in 2021, you don’t need to build software to use Scrum — or even to work in tech.

“Scrum is being used by all kinds of companies: financial, retail, transportation, energy, pharmaceutical, and more. It may be used on its own at the team level or as part of a scaling method,” said organizational coach and consultant Allison Pollard. “As a lightweight framework that helps teams address complex problems, Scrum has become popular because of its simplicity. The two most urgent reasons for adopting agile methods like Scrum are the speed and flexibility required by working environments that continue to be both unpredictable and volatile.”

Dave Nilsson, founder and director of The Converted Click, a London-based search-engine-optimization company, swears by it.

“Although originally conceived for software developers, Scrum is becoming popular with forward-thinking marketing agencies like ourselves,” he said. “Scrum complements our agile marketing, in which we structure our team to allow us to think on our feet and pivot quickly as circumstances change. We use Scrum as a framework to encourage transparency and adaptability and free each team member to excel in their work.”

Sounds great, but successfully implementing Scrum is easy to mess up, even for a seasoned project manager.

Here’s how to make the most of Scrum.

What makes Scrum more relevant than ever 

Scrum was created in 1993 by software developer Jeff Sutherland. At that point, it was more than a method; it was a philosophy based on holistic principles.

The core of Scrum are the sprints, periods with clear time limits when a team works to complete target deliverables. This method encourages teams to prioritize tasks that bring real value, and is suited to quickly changing and unpredictable environments. It also helps define clear expectations for management and team members and provides a foundation for real-time visibility and decision-making.

“Scrum is popular because it produces finished products in regular, brief intervals,” said Janis von Bleichert, computer scientist and founder and CTO of EXPERTE.com, which provides software and tech tools for small businesses. “Since, by definition, a sprint should never last longer than 30 days, Scrum can demonstrate its value in a relatively short period of time. Using Scrum enables teams and organizations to focus on value.

Pollard said it’s great for management to address changing circumstances.

“Progress is viewed from a business perspective, and teams can be redirected when needed to ensure they work on the most valuable thing,” Pollard said.

Valentin Kravtchenko, CEO of the Canadian portable hotspot company Grey-box, said that, when properly executed, Scrum makes organizing a cinch.

“Scrum is fantastic because it provides a structured environment to a somewhat naturally chaotic environment,” he said. “You have to drill your team — like in the army — to be on time and follow the best practices.”

And that structure is anything but rigid. It’s meant to evolve and allow for improvements in workflows. 

“The main benefits of Scrum are that it is evolutionary and progressive,” von Bleichert said. “With each iteration or finished product, improvements in the workflow and changes to the overall goal can be made. Scrum is highly adaptive, meaning that it can handle unpredictable events or situations better than more traditional, long-arc types of project management.”

The secrets of successful Scrums

While Scrum can produce amazing results, it can also backfire if not implemented effectively. And that happens a lot.

Avoid watering the framework down 

“One of the biggest issues with APM (agile project management) has been its, for lack of a better word, watering down,” von Bleichert said. “Organizations take the bits and pieces of APM and Scrum that they like, jettisoning those that are viewed as hampering efficiency, productivity, or costing too much.”

Don’t skip the Scrum master 

A Scrum master is not the same thing as a project manager, and assuming so is where a lot of teams go wrong.

“The Scrum master is here to support the team and keep the discussion active about various issues that they might be facing in their tasks,” Kravtchenko said. “His role is often misunderstood as being similar to a project manager.”

The Scrum master needs to be a neutral party who helps facilitate communication without any interest in the outcome. 

Build the right team 

“Many organizations measure team size, ensure Scrum master and product owner roles are filled, and track practice adoption,” Pollard said.

But keep in mind not everyone likes the rigor of Scrum, and that might affect your team, said Kravtchenko.

“Some developers actually leave companies because the project management is too bureaucratic and they spend too much time filling Jira issues and tickets rather than focusing on their code,” he said.

Get buy-in 

In that sense, getting buy-in is another crucial aspect of successful Scrum implementation. 

“The secret to successfully using Scrum is for the team to understand what’s in it for them,” Pollard said. “Strong team kickoffs and events engage participants as owners in the process, which helps sustain their commitment to outcomes. A common mistake people make with Scrum is to plan sprints based on team members working as individual contributors rather than encouraging collaboration. New Scrum teams often pull more work into a sprint than they can deliver, and an overemphasis on estimation or tasks can hinder teams from delivering predictably over time.”

Kravtchenko agrees: “It takes a bit of time to get right,” he said. “And I would bet on a motivated team who wants to work together rather than a team who mindlessly follows some agile procedures without believing in them.”

Pollard suggested kicking off your Scrum journey with a team liftoff event where you can get clear on objectives and align on a way to evaluate progress. Hiring an agile coach or facilitator can also save you trouble down the road.

Scrum sprints, daily scrums, and retrospectives 

Once the foundation is in place in terms of team roles and buy-in, you need to nail down processes like Scrum sprints, daily Scrums, and retrospectives. 

“The perfect Scrum sprint should have a clear deliverable being worked towards by a team that is well-prepared, communicative, and engaged,” von Bleichert said. “The sprint should last no more than 30 days but, ideally, wrap up within two weeks. Daily Scrums should be informative and helpful, with the team, Scrum master, and product owner all in harmony about what the end goal is, when it will be reached, and what needs to be rethought or reconceptualized along the way.”

Try to keep distractions to a minimum and aim to be direct and transparent with communication — a daily Scrum is not the time to beat around the bush.

“A daily scrum is just a quick update made by everyone,” Kravtchenko said. “It should not take more than 15 minutes for everyone in the team to answer, one, what they worked on, two, what they will work on, [and] three, what are the roadblocks.”

Once each sprint concludes, look back and identify key lessons before kicking off the next one. And don’t shy away from deconstructing the process of getting the work done as much as the output itself.

“It’s great if you arrive at the finish line with a prototype, but if half of your team is in a miserable shape, I would not pop the Champagne just yet,” Kravtchenko said.

The best agile and Scrum-friendly platforms 

Sounds like a lot? It’s true that implementing Scrum involves a lot of legwork in the beginning, but once you get the hang of it, the benefits make the effort worth it. And, thankfully, there are various platforms to support your team’s needs and make your life easier.  

Von Bleichert is a fan of MeisterTask, which is easy to set up, has a sleek interface, synchs with multiple platforms, and comes in a generous freemium version.

Kravtchenko, on the other hand, likes combining Jira and Confluence. He likes to document in Confluence and link in Jira, which automatically displays in Confluence. If the idea of working with two tools feels overwhelming, he also suggests Notion as a less expensive “underdog” tool.

“It is a very solid tool for smaller organizations,” he said. It might win your team’s heart with its ease of use and powerful features.”