What Is Scrum? The Five-minute Explanation for Folks Not Yet Practicing It

July 10, 2008 CollabNet VersionOne

A friend of mine, who was pursuing his doctoral degree in electrical engineering, once tried to explain his dissertation to me by showing a program he wrote, walking me through the code line by line. I’m not an engineer, so I had no idea what he was talking about. But because he was immersed in the terminology of his field, he found it was hard to explain his work to an outsider.

Those of us in the Scrum community sometimes face a similar challenge. We use a very specific vocabulary, like burndowns, sprints, stand-ups, and retros. Sharing that common language allows us to communicate quickly and precisely within our circle of Scrum professionals, but it can also alienate those who aren’t “on the inside.” So whether you’re new to Scrum and want a simple explanation, or if you’re a Scrum veteran struggling to get your friends to understand what it is you do for a living, I want to help demystify Scrum.

Let’s start with a big question: What is it? Scrum is a framework, a value-system, and a process — and explaining it from each of those perspectives may help different audiences.

Scrum is a framework for managing projects or, more generally, work. It is iterative and incremental, which means that it asks a team to work for a short period of time (a “sprint” or “iteration”) and then demonstrate real stuff (a product increment) that matters to the end-product at the end of each sprint. Goals for each subsequent sprint are evaluated, negotiated, and committed to based on the stuff that was created at the end of the previous sprint. There’s still an infinite amount of work to be done, but Scrum divides that work into manageable chunks (usually about two-weeks in length).

Scrum is also a value system that asks teams to work together to accomplish a common goal, focusing on the output of the team rather than the input of the individuals. It values communication, openness, transparency, self-organization, and the worth of employees as individuals and professionals. Scrum can and does help people feel good about their jobs and their contributions to their teams. It is also in tune with reality, assessing progress and evolving business conditions to dictate a project’s direction.

Scrum is also a process that invites the application of those values by asking that teams generally organize themselves into three roles, participate in four regular meetings, and produce and maintain three artifacts. This simple process can be scaled (arguably, with additions for larger organizations) to any size software team (or non-software team, for that matter).

What are the benefits of Scrum? First, it provides structure without unnecessary bureaucracy or hoops to jump through. This structure regiments communication and makes room for conversations that might otherwise not take place, resulting in less miscommunication. Reduced miscommunication often results in fewer defects and mistakes. Scrum gives both team members and management a voice and increases the day-to-day control individuals have over their work. Unsurprisingly, this results in higher employee retention and satisfaction. Regular interactions help make things visible and transparent earlier than they may with more traditional, heavyweight processes. Output is also considered more valuable than input which means that Scrum helps teams focus on big picture metrics like ROI, not how busy they are or look to managers. Therefore, Scrum helps us make more stuff that works for all the reasons above. If you’re in the business of selling stuff that works, you will probably make more money using Scrum.

Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: With Scrum, you will probably produce better work for less money, in less time than using any other project management framework, value-system or process. At the very least, I hope that much sticks when I try to explain Scrum to my parents, friends, and colleagues in the business community.

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