Agile vs Scrum. How to choose the best methodology for you

Max Rehkopf By Max Rehkopf
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You’ll often hear a colleague or teammate excited to share how they’ve “gone agile.” They’ll then go on to describe their two-week sprints, backlog refinement meetings, and more. This may leave you thinking, “that sounds like scrum to me.” So, is Scrum agile? Is Agile scrum? Answering these questions and more is a great first step to ensure your team is using the right methodology. 

What is agile?

Agile is a project management philosophy that employs a set of principles and values to help software teams respond to change. Agile teams value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan. These values were set down in the Agile Manifesto along with 12 principles behind the manifesto. 

A good way to understand agile is to contrast it with another project management philosophy, waterfall. In waterfall delivery, the scope of a product is set and time and resources are flexible. Waterfall organizations will add more programmers and pad schedules to deliver the product that they decided to ship. 

In agile, the scope of the product is flexible while resources and time are fixed. Agile teams commit to deliver software on time with the team they have today. What they deliver is a flexible combination of what they’ve learned that the customer wants and what they can create in the allotted time.

Benefits of using agile

Agile teams have a strong “why” behind what they do and clarity about how they do it. The agile principles help teams break huge, ambitious goals into manageable chunks of work that they can consistently deliver. Agile software developers are empowered by countless stories of small, agile teams outperforming large competitors that use waterfall delivery. Agile teams also benefit from the “agile industrial complex.” There is a wealth of resources and tools for those needing to learn agile and a whole army of consultants eager to help with implementation. 

Disadvantages of using agile

Following agile principles can lead you to places you never thought you’d go. Agile helps teams change direction based on market and customer feedback. Chasing these ideals, you might find that your team has built something completely different than what you set out to do. This can be an unnerving feeling and you might even feel a lack of direction as you pursue new avenues and follow customer feedback in new directions. Because of these divergent outcomes, not all teams and companies can work in an agile way. But the teams that choose to overcome these hurdles often find they can ship a better product to their customers in the end. 

What is scrum?

Scrum is an agile framework that helps teams structure their work into short development cycles called sprints. Scrum teams commit to shipping work at the end of each sprint and adopt practices and a team structure that helps them achieve this cadence. Scrum takes the agile principles one step further, creating structure that helps teams live the agile principles in their day-to-day work. Scrum is a well-documented agile framework that many teams can adopt without much disruption. 

Benefits of using the scrum methodology

Scrum teams ship software on time. Rather than updating the business on your progress, you can show them! When you ship software, customers start using it. More customer usage data helps inform your direction and drives growth. Scrum teams also tend to be healthier, with less burnout and churn than others. This is because scrum practices, like sprint planning and sprint retrospectives, are focused on setting up teammates for success.

Disadvantages of using the scrum methodology

Scrum is an “all-in” approach. Success stems from the addition of new roles, like a scrum master, and the refactoring of everybody's schedules around a set meeting cadence. Many teams don’t have the resources to hire new teammates and the time for new meetings. When teams fail to go “all-in” they often fail to unlock the benefits of scrum. Additionally, not all teams can deliver work at such a high cadence. When quality suffers as a result, many teams make their sprints longer and longer. Eventually, you’re back to doing waterfall! 

Other methodologies: Kanban and Waterfall

What is kanban?

Kanban is an agile framework that helps teams deliver work on a continuous basis. Kanban teams organize their work on a kanban board with cards, columns, WIP limits, and specific commitment and delivery points. Kanban is best for knowledge work, where the product or service is largely invisible. Kanban helps teams visualize their and make strides day after day. 

What is waterfall?

Waterfall delivery is focused on the development of products or solutions based on specifications from the client or business. Teams study the requirements and build the solution over weeks, months, or even years. Waterfall is the preferred method in regulated industries where tolerances are very narrow. 

Imagine you are making a surgery robot that needs to perform a task flawlessly for a government-mandated 100 hours of operation. That constraint inspires your work and that specification becomes the focus of your development. Your team experiments and tests until your robot meets the specifications. When specifications are specific and stringent, waterfall development focuses your team on meeting the requirements above all else.

What is the best methodology for your team?

If you’re excited to begin an agile transformation you may need to choose a methodology. Agile methodologies include the team structure, practices, and tools you’d need for your org to live the agile principles. You can also step out on your own. With the agile manifesto and some creativity, you can design your own approach that works for your business and your team. 

Agile vs Scrum

Agile doesn’t have any set rules, while scrum has quite a few! If you are seeking a framework that can guide you on your way to more agility, choosing scrum is a strong start. Scrum will help energize your team to deliver work quickly and to pivot when needed. Additionally, there are templates you can adopt today to supercharge your scrum adoption.  If you are seeking the ultimate flexibility, you can instead inspire your team to go agile. An agile transformation is the thrilling process of breaking down what you do now and building up an agile way of working.

Agile vs waterfall

It’s uncommon that you’d find yourself needing to choose between agile and waterfall. It’s more common that you’re needing to pivot from one to the other. In moments like these, the customer is key. Is the customer more solution focused or problem focused? If a customer knows what they want and wants to pay someone to build it, you can lean towards waterfall. If the customer is experiencing a problem and you want to be the one to solve it, agile all the way. 

Manage your agile projects with Jira

One of the best parts about agile frameworks today is how well project management tools support them. Jira is built to support kanban, scrum, and more out of the box. Experts routinely expand Jira to support even the most complex agile frameworks. Get started with agile tutorials