You’ve probably heard of Agile project management and the many related methodologies like Kanban, Lean, PRINCE2 and Six Sigma. Maybe even the original old-school Waterfall? 

Among all of them, Scrum is a popular and commonly used approach to organizing small teams from a large group.

In 2010, a team with 44 members across four countries competed in the Progressive Insurance X-Prize challenge. How did they design a functioning prototype 100-miles-per-gallon road-legal car in just three months and online? Using Scrum in project management to organize into pairs working on smaller parts.

A 2015 study by Software Advice interviewed 174 project managers around the world about their favorite practices. Roughly half were part of Software/IT, while the rest were from architecture, construction, education, event planning, finance, manufacturing, marketing, and others. Almost all said Scrum boards and activity streams made them more efficient.

Capital One, a firm that offers financial products to consumers and businesses, adopted Scrum for project management and developed internal Scrum coaches to oversee development. Farm Credit Services of America, a cooperative that gives loans to midwestern farmers and ranchers, has been using Scrum to organize their development teams for nearly 15 years.

Businesses both large and small use Scrum for project management, but how does it work? What is a Scrum Ceremony? And why is everyone called pigs and chickens?

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The Scrum framework

Scrum in project management is similar but not the same as rugby players starting a match. Managers use Scrum to break down complicated projects and bring quick, quality results. They repeat processes that work, adapt to changes when needed, and promote focus and collaboration.

You’ll find Scrum in Agile project management, and the two share many ideals. The goals are to commit to ambitious goals and the Scrum rules, then focus on only one task at a time. Teams are open and transparent about progress and needs and respectful of each other’s contributions.

The core idea of Scrum in project management is regular meetings where every member of the project team shares what they’ve done recently. They self-organize smaller teams, pick their own goals for each cycle, or simply improve the whole process.

Scrum project management is used when someone, either external or internal, needs something from the team. The term is mostly used in software development but works for anything with a lot of parts. Iterative cycles are used to make that one specific part, usually until the product is complete.

By getting things done quickly and on a regular schedule, the team should stay motivated and happy. Everyone can see what was done previously and knows what is happening next. They are always learning and focused on creating something tangible.

Teams use a Scrum Board to visually track the whole team’s progress. Things added to the Scrum board might include: tasks to complete, stories from the process, or ideas for the project. Members can add whatever they don’t want to get forgotten.

One person should create a Product Backlog to record what the project needs to get done, which might later include enhancements, missing features, fixes and new requirements. Continue updating this list as tasks get completed or become no longer necessary.

They also keep a Sprint Backlog, which is like a smaller Product Backlog for each cycle of the project. These are flexible and can include bugs and user stories.

Every cycle of the project is based around creating an Increment, which is the usable product made during that time. They range from demos on how the project is doing, up to the final product.

The Increment can vary widely between industries. Sometimes an Increment is one small step, like a button that will turn the product on. Other Increments can be something sold to consumers, with further Increments later as the next version.

An important part of Scrum in project management is improving the process with each cycle and project. Team members are responsible for deciding what they do and how the project progresses. They are the first people to see problems and the best to ask for solutions.

Scrum events

The Ceremonies of Scrum are the various events, which include Daily Scrum, Organizing The Backlog, Sprints, Sprint Planning, Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective. Some teams stop using certain Ceremonies after a while, but you should try using them all for at least two Sprints.

Organizing The Backlog, or Backlog Grooming, involves maintaining the Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog. The Product Owner listens to the users, development team, customer and market to keep these lists clean and prioritized.

Sprints are a project’s cycles, a length of time during which teams work on their part of the project. Complex projects with a lot of unknown factors should have shorter Sprints. All other events take place before, after or during a Sprint.

Sprint Planning is when the entire team meets to decide what will happen during a Sprint. Each smaller team picks a goal for the Sprint from the Product Backlog. These tend to last a couple of hours.

The Daily Scrum, also known as Standup, is when the entire team meets every day. These should be short, with a total length of fifteen minutes or less. They give the team space to discuss concerns with reaching their sprint goal, go over what they did yesterday or their plans for today.

The Sprint Review is where the entire team meets at the end of a Sprint to see what everyone else made. They also discuss what Backlog items are finished, and update the Product Backlog before the next Sprint.

Finally, the Sprint Retrospective is when the entire team meets to discuss what happened and what worked well during a Sprint. These shouldn’t be just about what went wrong but should focus on how to improve.

Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective can be held jointly. Together they should only take about as long as Sprint Planning.

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Scrum roles

A project’s Product Owner is the person who speaks for the end customer. Their job is to say what the team will work on and to focus on high-value targets. They are not always managers, because scrum teams can self-organize.

Great product owners understand the market for a product and the business as a whole. They manage the Product Backlog, ensure everyone understands the tasks and decide when the product is ready. Each project should only have one product owner.

Projects should also have a separate Scrum Master who schedules and leads the meetings. They also help the entire team stay self-sufficient by tackling problems and getting in the way of outside distractions.

Great scrum masters love Scrum project management. They might coach others on Scrum processes, improve how the team uses Scrum for project management, or just share what everyone else is working on to keep progress flowing.

The Development Team is everyone directly working on the project. Together they should have all the skills necessary to complete it. They focus on only one project at a time, taking tasks from the Product Backlog.

The entire development team is often grouped into smaller teams. These can have as few as two members, or more than five. They should all fit around a table together, and will train members in skills they don’t have as they work.

Pigs and chickens are terms sometimes used for those responsible for completing a task or those simply involved, respectively. Pigs have their “bacon” on the line and so only they need to talk about the task during Daily Scrum. Chickens might be newer, or their skills might be outside of the project’s current tasks.

The basic rules of Scrum

The most important element of Scrum is that everyone follows its rules. By doing so, they understand how the process works and feel like part of the whole. They can then move fast and keep meetings to a minimum, ensuring everyone has plenty of time to work.

These rules should be easy for everyone to understand and relatively open-ended. Companies can thus use Scrum for project management their own way and for their own needs.

The Scrum Master should be an expert on these rules. They might interpret the rules, keep others following them, and can explain the importance of each.

First, use Sprint Planning for every Sprint and Sprint Planning should take no more than two hours per week. The importance of these meetings is in deciding what the team will work on during each Sprint. They should never take up all the work time.

Second, Sprints are to create a “potentially shippable” product and should last roughly two weeks. They should be short, or can be four weeks at most. They all go for the same amount of time, and the team never pauses between Sprints.

Third, a Daily Scrum is held at the same time every day and takes no more than fifteen minutes. These are important so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing. If they become just a reciting of schedules, try to change them up in some way.

And fourth, teams do a Sprint Review and a Sprint Retrospective for every Sprint. Reviews and Retrospectives take no more than two hours per week. When held jointly, the team should never pause between Review and Retrospective meetings.

Managers and team leaders may need to be reminded about the importance of these rules. Every business has its various needs day to day, but Scrum should be respected as the company’s culture. The rules are important because the employee’s time and project focus are important.

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How to learn Scrum project management

Some teams have a difficult time transitioning to Scrum in project management, mostly when they do so from older models like Waterfall. Scrum involves much more regular and smaller iteration, and not every team can find a scrum master who knows the processes.

You could of course learn Scrum project management by trying it. The outline above is enough to start, find problems with the process and improve on them. You could become your own scrum master.

Or to make the change faster, try online project management courses. The basics of Scrum for project management are often part of an Agile methodology class, and you can even get a Scrum certification.

Taking a course on Scrum in Agile or getting Scrum certified should be about helping your team get better. They’re also great for the person taking them. You can learn from experts on project management, or get more exposure to how other industries operate.