Agile vs. Scrum for Business Projects

No matter your industry, if you’re in the world of business you’ve probably heard the terms “Agile” and “Scrum.” But what are these words being tossed around? Are they methodologies? Software tools? Philosophies? Cults? Ask five different business managers and you’ll get five different answers.

The truth is, both Agile and Scrum are frameworks that you can leverage for your project’s unique needs. They are genetically related, but different enough that they have ideal uses. (Eggplants are related to tomatoes, but you probably wouldn’t want to eat a bacon-lettuce-eggplant sandwich. Or maybe you do. We won’t judge.)

So, which framework do you choose for your project? To answer that question (and resolve any concerns about introducing your team to a cult), read on to learn the real deal about Agile vs. Scrum.

What is Agile project management?

First, let’s answer the burning question: what is Agile, anyway? You may have heard the phrase “Agile methodology,” but Agile experts insist it’s a set of principles more than a methodology.

This isn’t just splitting hairs. The beauty of Agile is that you can adapt those principles to your team’s unique project management needs. So, two workplaces that both use “Agile project management” might have completely different systems, software tools, etc. (Crazy, we know!)

But Agile is ultimately about iteration. The idea is that you can quickly adapt to shifting priorities by generating results in the short-term. To clarify what this means, let’s dive into the 12 principles laid out in the Agile manifesto (no, it’s not a cult!) For the sake of brevity, we’ve condensed these into several common themes.

  • Continuous and frequent delivery: To best serve the client and keep the project moving, it’s important to achieve short-term, measurable goals rather than huge project chunks.
  • Done is better than perfect: Or put another way, if it works, it’s good enough to show. This opens up the door to feedback, which leads to the next principle…
  • Welcome change: The better you can adapt to emerging goals, the better your project will serve the client and the less risk of project failure.
  • Simplify work: Maximize the amount of work NOT done so you can maximize the value of work that IS done.
  • Cross-functional, self-organizing teams: Let motivated individuals leverage their unique talents to get their best work done.

As you see, these aren’t strict rules for how to manage projects. You can apply each principle in a way that makes sense for your team. “Continuous and frequent delivery” could mean multiple rounds of client feedback, or it could refer to how your team breaks down project tasks. Or both!

No matter your industry or the types of projects you do, the chief benefit of Agile is that your team is, well, agile. They can be flexible enough to accommodate client requests, form project taskforces, and swap out deliverables as needed. And you avoid the dreaded scenario in which you pour months or even years into a project — only to have it fall flat.

What is Scrum?

Unlike Agile, Scrum actually is a methodology. Moreover, it’s an Agile methodology. But it’s not used by all Agile teams, nor do all Scrum teams use Agile.

Confused? Don’t worry, we’ll explain.

Scrum is a particular way of applying the core Agile principles, but it’s much more structured. So it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges (or tomatoes and eggplants). There is a whole school of Scrum that dictates how you organize, assign, and reflect on work. You can even become a Scrum master!

Here are the core elements of Scrum:

  • The scrum: To add to the confusion, a “scrum” is a regular team meeting where everyone accepts and reports on their tasks.
  • The sprint: This is the short-term (2-4 week) burst of tasks meant to achieve a portion of the project. This is a more defined version of Agile iteration.
  • The backlog: These are all the tasks that have been identified but not yet assigned.
  • The retrospective: The discussion about the previous sprint and what’s next for the project.

Scrum is all about momentum: continuously assigning and working on new tasks, reflecting on progress, then diving back in. Typically, a cross-functional team is assigned to a project, and the Scrum master helps divide the tasks among everyone.

If it sounds a little frenetic, it can be. A skilled Scrum master keeps things on track with the overall project plan. But the goal is indeed to get things moving — fast.

Choosing between Agile and Scrum

So, Agile is a set of principles that you can translate into your team’s unique needs, while Scrum is a fast-paced, structured methodology for getting stuff done. Obviously, they can co-exist in the same workplace, but when you get down to the project level, you start to see each one’s pros and cons.

The key difference is that Scrum provides faster adaptability. When you’re meeting up every day to assign tasks, you have a lot of flexibility to accommodate new changes. Perhaps the client doesn’t want feature X anymore. Perhaps they don’t even know what they want, but you still need something to show them.

Pros of Scrum:

  • Manageable project chunks achieved in sprints
  • Quick response to shifting needs and feedback
  • Cross-functional teams that make the most of available time and talent

Cons of Scrum:

  • Prone to scope creep
  • Difficult to see the “big picture”
  • Can be too open-ended to efficiently track progress or set priorities

An Agile project methodology might be a little more structured in the long-term. You may have a clear deadline to work toward, and things don’t change on a daily basis. However, you still want an iterative approach in which “done is better than perfect.” As the Agile manifesto says, progress is the measure of success.

Pros of Agile:

  • Permits adaptability and feedback incorporation for long-term projects
  • Works with cross-functional teams but also encourages collaboration if project task forces aren’t possible
  • Allows flexible, iterative work that adapts to change

Cons of Agile:

  • Generally doesn’t produce daily deliverables or progress reports
  • Not suitable for projects without clearly defined scope or deliverables
  • Difficult to incorporate frequent feedback or change requests

With those pros and cons in mind, you can see how different types of projects and teams lend themselves to one or the other — or even a hybrid of both. If you want to have a BLE sandwich, you absolutely can! However, Agile is usually better for well-defined, long-term projects. Scrum is ideal for fast-paced projects where you need to frequently adapt to your client’s needs.

Ironically, though Agile emerged from the world of software development, it’s arguably better for non-software projects than Scrum is. Publications, ad campaigns, etc. have a clear end goal and don’t require daily stand-ups, so Agile often suits them better. Scrum, however, keeps that software project moving along, and you always have new progress to show the client.

The exception is if the software project isn’t fully planned. With Scrum, you could end up working on projects for way too long, because every day is a new opportunity for feature requests.

And of course, Scrum is all about cross-functional teams. If your organization structure doesn’t facilitate that, you’ll find it difficult to get everyone together for daily scrums, retrospectives, etc. There may also be logistical or technological challenges in coordinating sprints across departments.

Who wins, Scrum or Agile?

Despite the title of this article, “Agile vs. Scrum” isn’t really the question. The two are not at odds. Rather, they’re in the same family of ideas. Your team can use one or both depending on your project management needs.

You may even find yourself using Agile for one project and Scrum for another!

The secret is to be consistent with whichever you choose. These frameworks are your guidelines for structuring and assigning tasks. As long as your team knows their roles and responsibilities, and combine your own key skills as a project manager, they can leverage either Agile or Scrum to do their best work — and deliver amazing results for your clients.

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