Kanban, Lean project management, Six Sigma, Scrum… there are a mountain of Agile methodologies to choose from. And if you’re new to project management, it can be a lot to take in. You may know that Scrum is one of the most common approaches to Agile project management, but what is it exactly? (Besides a group of scuffed-up rugby players, that is.)

Scrum is an approach to managing complicated projects that may have to adapt to changes in scope or requirements. By emphasizing productivity, focus and collaboration, Scrum teams build high-quality deliverables quickly and can more easily adapt to change. Curious about how it all works? Read on for an introduction to Scrum.

The Process

When a customer (internal or external) comes to the team with a certain need, the final product is broken up into individual chunks. (Traditionally this has been a software need, but the process also works for any project that is comprised of multiple stages and pieces, such as a marketing launch.) The pieces are prioritized and tackled in a series of short bursts called sprints. Teams can determine their own sprint length, provided it’s less than 4 weeks (one to two weeks is common). At the end of each sprint, the team delivers a product increment — essentially, a version of the product that could be shipped if necessary. Transparency is a key principle in Scrum, so teams and stakeholders review the results of each sprint together. This ensures everyone's on the same page about priorities and deliverables, and any adjustments can be made right away.

Teams promote internal transparency through daily standups. During these brief, 15-minute meetings, everyone reports what they accomplished yesterday, what they plan to work on that day, and any current “impediments" (factors that are keeping them from working more efficiently). This visibility helps uncover problems and bring them to the forefront quickly, so the team can tackle and overcome them together.

Who’s Who: Scrum Roles

There are three main roles in Scrum: the product owner, the scrum master, and the development team.

Product Owner: Product owners represent the customer's interests. They decide what the team will work on next, so the team's efforts stay focused on high-priority tasks that create the most value. The Kanban product owner must always be available to provide input or guidance to the development team, although it's important to note that product owners are not managers — scrum teams self-organize.

Scrum Master: The Scrum master's #1 goal is to help the development team be self-sufficient. Scrum masters intercept and remove barriers to team progress, and act as a buffer between the team and any outside forces that might interfere with productivity. S/he leads daily standup meetings, so while the product owner is responsible for what the team will produce, the scrum master oversees the how.

Development Team: Development teams are made up of cross-functional team members, so the group has all the necessary skills to deliver the final product. The team focuses on only one project at a time; members don’t multitask or split their efforts between multiple projects. Once the product owner makes an ordered list of what needs to be done, the development team decides how much they can complete in a single sprint and plan accordingly.

You may have heard the words "pig" and "chicken" tossed around in conversations about Scrum. If so, you may be asking yourself, what do farm animals have to do with software development? Within the development team, members are assigned roles as either pigs or chickens. A pig is the person responsible for the completion of a specific task. They're the ones "risking their bacon." Chickens may be involved in the task, but are not ultimately responsible. Only pigs can speak about their tasks during daily standup meetings; chickens just listen.

Core Values

As an Agile framework, Scrum shares the values of the Agile Manifesto. But it also creates its own guidelines. These are the five golden rules in Scrum:

Openness: Scrum sees collaboration as the most effective way to create the best possible product. So teamwork and transparency are essential. Rather than anxiously downplaying  problems, Scrum team members are open about their progress and any roadblocks they encounter.

Focus: With Scrum, multitasking is out. Since productivity is key, splitting the team’s attention across multiple projects, or redirecting their efforts mid-sprint by shifting priorities, is avoided at all costs. Instead, teams concentrate on the task at hand for the highest velocity and best quality product.

Courage: Teams must have the tenacity to commit to an ambitious (but attainable) amount of work for each sprint. Scrum masters must also be able to stand up to stakeholders if necessary, and the product owner must guide the development team with authority.

Commitment: Each sprint is itself commitment: teams must agree on what they’re going to accomplish and stick to it. This value is reflected in each team’s unique “Definition of Done,” a list of criteria to determine whether a feature or deliverable is truly finished — that it’s not only fully functional, but meets the team’s standards for quality.

Respect: In the service of true collaboration, roles and responsibilities are transparent. Each member of the team is respected equally, regardless of job description, seniority, or status. The development team must honor the product owner’s authority in deciding what the team works on, and the product owner needs to respect the team’s need follow whatever work process is best for them.

Now that you've got the basics, are you curious about the pros and cons of Scrum (and other top project management methodologies, such as Kanban vs. Scrum)? Wondering what are the 5 Scrum ceremonies? Read our Quick-Start Guide to Project Management Methodologies and you'll be an expert in no time!