The language of Scrum is common in project management. You’ll hear people talk about value-based prioritization, time-boxing and iterations, but what do they actually mean? Scrum is best understood through practical application: the more you use it, the more you’ll understand it and can refine it to meet the needs of your team. That’s why in this article we’ll explain those terms (and more) and how you can use them in your day-to-day work as an agile project manager.
Bonus: As well as helping you improve your working practices and getting better professionally, understanding the Scrum principles will also help you ace your mock exams as you prepare for certification with the PMI-ACP Exam Simulator.
But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take a step back and clarify the very first piece of terminology: the word Scrum itself.
Scrum is a framework for getting complex, adaptive, work done. It’s a method of doing work in a lightweight, iterative way, putting the skills of the team and respect for individuals and the process at the heart of the approach, and that’s what the Scrum principles represent.
They represent the underlying drivers, the ‘why’ behind how the framework works. Once you understand the principles, you can better use the appropriate tools and resources because you’ll see how the tools support you.
Oh, and these principles are different from the Agile principles (just in case you were wondering!), although you will notice there are some themes that both sets of principles have in common. Let’s take a look at the Scrum principles now.
Empirical means evidenced-based, so this one of the principles of Scrum is all about making smart decisions for how to do the work. You control the process based on what you see, not what you wish was happening.
In other words, take the time as you work through the project to question what is happening and understand the drivers for that. If you need to change the process to get a better result, change it. Work collaboratively with the team (more on that in a minute) to inspect, evaluate and adapt what you are doing with full transparency.
One of the keys to Scrum is a self-organizing team. There is no formal hierarchy. The team is empowered to make decisions as a group and to organize the work between themselves.
The purpose of this principle is to create an environment of shared ownership and better buy-in for the work. Typically, people are more engaged if they have a greater say over their workload and how they carry out their tasks, so this principle should lead to a team with high levels of motivation and a pleasant working culture.
In project management we talk a lot about collaboration, and Scrum enshrines this as an important principle.
In order to collaborate, you need to be aware of what your colleagues are doing, so this principle helps teams remember to be conscious of what the rest of the team is doing. That should help all the outputs be re-integrated once the work is complete, and everything should fit smoothly together.
Value-driven delivery is at the core of Agile methods, and Scrum makes that clear by including prioritization in the 6 principles.
This means that work is structured to put adequate emphasis on the tasks and outputs that are going to bring the most value. Pick the most important tasks to work on first, whether that is within a sprint planning session, or when you sit down at your desk and review your To Do list for the day. Prioritize what matters most, and the rest of the project will fall into place.
One of the principles of agile Scrum is time-boxing. That is all about managing your work within a set time period. You do what can be realistically achieved in that time period and anything else has to wait until the next time-box.
Teams use time-boxing in a variety of ways and we see it through daily meetings (time-boxed at, for example, 15 minutes), sprints (time-boxed at a month or less) and in other meetings that have fixed durations to keep the work moving forward at pace.
Pro Tip: Why not practice time-boxing while you are studying? Study for a set length of time and then take a break. Repeat. It will help you focus on the topic at hand and make sure you get enough rest time. If you are preparing for your agile certification, check out all our PMI-ACP exam tips.
Key to Scrum, and all Agile approaches, is the idea of building in increments. It’s a simple way of actively managing changes by being flexible enough to build the product that the customer really wants, not what they think they want.
This principle allows teams to deliver value in chunks, building more and more functionality in layers to create the product.
Those principles sound great, but also - if we’re being honest - a little bit theoretical. The Scrum principles’ practical application start to come to life when we see them being used in real projects.
David Rutter is a Scrum Master who has worked in IT for around 30 years. His agile experience is mainly for support and development teams in IT.
“I became the Scrum Master for a support team that had issues with team morale, prioritization, and collaboration,” he says. “The team had also experienced a period where feedback from the team was not acted on.”
The Product Owner, who was the technical lead, curated a backlog of proactive improvements. These were prioritized based on their importance and how much value they would bring. “During sprint planning, the team was able to agree on the solution to a problem, and agree on the estimate for the complexity of the story,” David, who blogs at The Art of Teamwork, explains.
Iterative development happens when the team works on something during one sprint and then refines that feature in subsequent sprints - just like David’s team was doing. “For some of these items, such as a Python script, the team tried mob programming to collaborate and learn from each other.”
“We used Scrum because of the cadence of the framework,” David adds. “This meant that the team could provide feedback in retrospectives, and we could decide what feedback to act on, and then follow up regularly - this way the team could see changes happening because of their feedback. We ensured focus on what we were improving on by putting them on the team wall.”
As a self-organizing team, the group could make decisions and take action without needing to consult anyone else.
The switch to the Scrum framework benefited the team. “After a period of about six months, the team was significantly better,” David says. “It took a lot of work from everyone, and I think Scrum provided a nice framework to work in to help the team.”
“The principles of iterativerness and empiricism mesh very well with what's also a creative-led endeavor,” he says. “We use what we know about our business to gain more website views, utilizing Scrum to make it happen.”
This approach is all about learning what works and making the right choices about how to move forward. There is a lot of data that can be captured with web content, such as page views and how long someone watches a video, and all of that can inform the process used by the team.
Reuben suggests training someone who is in a subject matter expert role to be the Scrum Master. “They're the ones who often know the impediments on the way to producing a great result,” he says. “You use the views and other data touch points to inform your next Scrum project.”
Thomas Fultz, CEO and Founder of Coffeeble, also uses the principle of looking at the evidence to shape the process used by the team. “Within our line of work, we use Scrum to create our blog posts, as these are small projects that need to be done within the same format every time,” he says.
“The delivery may change depending on the topic, but making sure the work is well-organized and progressing as it should is of the utmost importance,” he says. “Using Asana has helped us with this.” A streamlined process - tailored to the needs of the team - is essential for keeping on top of project work.
“Our digital marketing team uses a variant on daily Scrum meetings when we are in the process of developing and launching a new campaign,” says Daivat Dholakia, Director of Operations at Force by Mojio. “When putting together our last campaign, we had 10-minute Zoom meetings every weekday to review progress, discuss goals, and allocate tasks,” he explains.
“We don’t require people stand (although some do) but we set a timer ahead of time to ensure that we don’t bypass the 10-minute mark, Daivat explains. “Even if I am in mid sentence, I stop talking and let everyone go when the timer beeps.”
Carter says that retrospectives are an essential tool for his teams. “I find them especially useful as a tool to get input from as many sources as possible,” he explains. “Since my business is online and my workers are remote, these regular check-ins are a great way for us to reach agreement on what went well, what could be done better, and how. I'll usually hear at least one perspective or idea I hadn't thought of during these retrospectives.”
That insight could make the difference between making the same mistakes again or taking a leap forward to a new, more effective way of working.
Daivat has also seen the benefit of making it easy to collaborate as a team. He says that while he thinks Scrum is used less by marketing teams than other business departments, he has found it to be a good way to make sure all employees are on the same page. “It eliminates questions and problems later on while people are working,” he says.
As you can see, the applications of Scrum are many and varied, but the adherence to the principles does not waiver. From marketing to tech, physical products to content, Scrum teams get involved in it all. Whenever you are faced with a complex, evolving problem and goals that would benefit from the iterative approach, Scrum could well be the framework for getting your tasks done.
However, the best way to understand the Scrum principles is to use them in the real world. What can you take from the examples above to apply to your own work? How can you use the principles to help your team work more effectively together? For example, you don’t have to be a Scrum Master in order to promote collaboration in the team or suggest that you cap your daily meeting at 15 minutes.
When you are ready to take your learning further, The PrepCast website has more resources for studying Agile concepts. We can help you take what you already know and structure your learning so you are confidently ready to apply your knowledge at work.
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