At the beginning of 2017, our then three-person content team here at Wrike was faced with a rather large problem. Because we proofread every bit of English text that goes out on a public-facing platform, we were getting deluged by requests from 400+ employees to both write and edit lead gen emails, UI/UX tooltips, landing page messages, sales enablement materials, and even job descriptions! There was precious little time to create the inbound marketing content we were hired for.

Because we didn't have the leeway to add personnel, our only choice was to revise the way we did things in order to handle the chaotic influx of work. More specifically, we chose to get our work done using a Scrum framework.

How Scrum Helps With the Chaos

We've written about Scrum before. It's a method for accomplishing work where teams use principles from the Agile Manifesto made famous by pioneering software development teams back in 2001.

Scrum is a process whereby teams break down and accomplish large projects in chunks, allowing for iterations to improve the product progressively. Usually, the process is broken down into the three artifacts of Scrum. And even though it was birthed in the software development industry, it is just as effective in others — from manufacturing to marketing even with projects such as renovating a house!

Marcus Miller, the founder of the UK-based digital marketing agency Bowler Hat shares: "After we had such success at work with Scrum, I used the same approach for renovating a house we bought. I am in the UK and it was a Victorian-era three story property. Not decorated in 30 years. No heating. Complete refit from wiring to heating to decoration. Scrum helped us manage that project and maintain my sanity as well. It is super flexible and certainly works well outside of the software development world. Which makes sense as LEAN really comes from manufacturing principles anyhow."

Scrum is a great tool with which to face an abundance of to-do items because the approach forces teams to look only at concrete next steps that have been prioritized. Massive projects can be accomplished in bite-sized chunks. Woolly mammoths can be eaten, piece by piece.

Even better, a working version of the final product (the Minimum Viable Product or MVP) is produced at every sprint. This allows the team to continuously improve the project with every work period, instead of trying to perfect the product right out of the gate.

The Elements of Scrum

There is a Scrum vocabulary you'll need to get familiar with before digging into the methodology itself. Boiled down to its essence, Scrum requires three roles in its participants:

  • A product owner, who owns the scope, the backlog, and can clarify all questions
  • A Scrum Master, who facilitates the standup meetings and finds the most efficient way for the team to get work done
  • The team members, who are typically cross-functional and are under pressure to deliver
Scrum for newbies, Scrum roles for all

The Scrum process itself involves:

  • A board (either a physical or digital Scrum board) where the team can see what tasks are being worked on, by whom, and the status of each task
  • The product owner breaking down a massive project into individual tasks (the backlog) and prioritizing which tasks in the backlog must be dealt with first
  • Team members working on their priorities for a specific duration, AKA a sprint (i.e. a day, a week, two weeks, a month)
  • A Scrum Master leading a daily standup meeting of no more than 10 minutes where each team member updates the team on his or her work progress
  • A retrospective at the end of each Scrum period to evaluate what worked and what can be improved in the future (lessons learned).

How to Make Scrum Work

What are some best practices to keep in mind when starting out Scrum for the very first time?

1. Clarify Priorities in Your Product Backlog

First off, you have to know what is the most crucial task to accomplish.

This means the product owner should list what goals need to be accomplished and which tasks are priorities. The Scrum Master then facilitates the team to contribute ideas on what work needs to be done to accomplish those goals along with estimates (in time, effort, or budget). The product owner decides what is the MVP — what gets delivered, what is not. And the team decides how many of those deliverables can be completed by the end of a sprint.

Seth Messer, Senior Developer at Vecteezy explains how this process is crucial to figuring out what needs to be done to achieve the goal: "As developers, we have a timeline (i.e. we have an end goal for a unit of work). This means we know what we want to do, and we want it done by a certain point. So for instance, maybe we want a new version of a website completed by February 2018. Starting the workload is easy, and we know what the end result should look like (e.g. a new website), but all that time in the middle is hard. What work should be done and when?"

2. Keep Standup Meetings Short and Precise

What are the Scrum ceremonies? The daily standup meeting is a crucial part of the Scrum process as it allows the team to gather around common problems and eradicate them together. It should be no longer than 10 to 15 minutes depending on team size. And while meetings are common elsewhere in the business world, the standup might not be immediately comfortable for a new Scrum team.

Gavin Woods, certified SCRUM Master from the SCRUM Alliance, leads digital transformation projects for clients in various industries for PITSS and acknowledges that it may take getting used to. He says: "Frankly, utilizing Scrum in some organizations can be an entire work-culture shift. As it requires people to be more open about their work, about their struggles, and solving problems together. Some people are not comfortable with that."

"When you first start with SCRUM, the SCRUM Master needs to instill the culture of being open but precise," Woods says. "Doing so requires SCRUM Masters to be very direct and sometimes pushy, to get team members to learn how to participate."

The trick to keeping standups short is to (surprise) stand up during the meeting so no one is tempted to talk longer than needed. Then ask each team member to answer 3 questions, succinctly:

  • What have you accomplished?
  • What are you currently doing?
  • What are your roadblocks? / Where do you need help?

If something takes too long to explain, it should be done in another meeting. If a task does not necessarily concern the rest of the team, it can be mentioned in passing.

The standup meeting allows roadblocks to be aired as soon as it hinders progress on your work. As such, it's crucial to be honest when you need help from your team in a specific area.

3. Document Those Lessons Learned

Don't forget to hold a retrospective at the end of each sprint. This is typically an hour-long meeting where the team goes over what went well, what was learned, and what could be improved for future sprints.

"This is not intended to generate a long laundry list of tasks," Miller shares in this article, "Rather, the idea is to identify one or two small strategic improvements to the process. This often takes the form of one or two issues for each tactical approach."

Make sure lessons are documented in your knowledge base and can be retrieved easily by anyone on the team. And don't let the negative aspects overshadow your team's victories.

"It's important to maintain the balance of what went well," says Woods. "As positivity inspires creativity."

What Happens When You Implement Scrum?

When we implemented the Scrum process internally, our content team quickly discovered three things:

  1. We were quickly working through our backlog of content creation.
  2. We were more able to tackle ad hoc requests because we knew when and which individuals had bandwidth to handle them.
  3. We were functioning much more collaboratively and supportively, which made it much easier to slog through the tasks.

Similar results occur for our customers who have implemented the Scrum framework and used Wrike as the tool to manage work on their Scrum Gantt chart and Scrum board.

Procurify, a purchasing software startup in Canada, found that they saved 70% of their time by planning their sprints in Wrike. They now have visibility into one another's work and the ability to collaborate across different teams. "By having a central tool to manage the whole process," says Eugene Dong, Co-Founder and CTO of Procurify, "we're able to actually see what individuals are doing and if it completely matches our company goals."

Tactus develops innovative touch screens with unique physical buttons that can appear or disappear onscreen as needed. But as they increased the velocity of production, they found their communication wasn't keeping pace. By using Wrike to do Scrum, they shortened their sprints by 80% — from a week to a day. "Updating colleagues happens instantly without waiting for the next face-to-face, which makes collaboration between scheduled meetings much easier,” says Curtis Ray, VP of Engineering at Tactus.

Parting Advice to Scrum Newbies

Practice makes perfect. You won't understand how to do Scrum well until you jump in and commit to the process. But once you do, it will fundamentally change how your team interacts and collaborates.

Gavin Woods leaves us with this nugget of truth: "How you implement Scrum is a process. If you took a course and became a Certified SCRUM Master, the first thing you will realize is perfecting Scrum won't happen overnight. Everything down from the process to the principles may require not only training, but also sometimes a culture change within your organization and team because it can be a dramatic shift on how things get done."