Agile vs. Scrum: What’s the Difference?

Industry Advice Management

If you are new to the world of project management, the amount of unfamiliar terminology and processes can feel daunting. After all, project managers fulfill many roles and responsibilities as a part of the day-to-day functions of their jobs. 

Project managers are responsible for creating effective project plans, and all of the necessary ancillary plans, for the projects they oversee. They identify and manage risks associated with their projects. They must ensure that projects stay within their various constraints. The list goes on. 

But before you can dive deeper into those details, you need to choose the right project management methodology to guide your efforts and usher your project through to completion.

There are many different methodologies to choose from, and each is best suited to different types of projects. Two of the most common (and often conflated) approaches to project management are Agile and Scrum. Given the similarities between the two, it’s easy to understand why they can sometimes be confused, but they are, in fact, two distinct concepts.

Here’s a look at what Scrum and Agile mean in project management, how they are different from one another, and how to choose the right approach for your project.

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What is Agile project management?

Put simply, Agile project management is a project philosophy or framework that takes an iterative approach toward the completion of a project. 

The Project Management Institute (PMI) says the goal of the Agile approach is to create early, measurable return on investment (ROI) through defined, iterative delivery of product features. 

Due to the iterative nature of Agile approaches, continuous involvement with the client is necessary to ensure that expectations are aligned and to allow the project manager to adapt to changes throughout the process. 

“Agile is primarily a project management philosophy centered on specific values and principles,” according to Joseph Griffin, teaching professor for the Master of Science in Project Management program at Northeastern. “Think of Agile broadly as a guiding orientation for how we approach project work.”

The hallmark of an Agile approach is those key values and principles that can then be applied across different, specific methodologies.  

“For instance, if you’re following an Agile philosophy in managing your projects, you’ll want to have regular interactions with the client and/or end-users; you’re committed to a more open understanding of scope that may evolve based on feedback from end-users; and you’ll take an iterative approach to delivering the scope of work,” Griffin says. 

There are many different project management methodologies used to implement the Agile philosophy. Some of the most common include Kanban, Extreme Programming (XP), and Scrum. 

What is Scrum project management?

Scrum project management is one of the most popular Agile methodologies used by project managers.

“Whereas Agile is a philosophy or orientation, Scrum is a specific methodology for how one manages a project,” Griffin says. “It provides a process for how to identify the work, who will do the work, how it will be done, and when it will be completed by.” 

In Scrum project management, the project team, led by the project manager, consists of a product owner, Scrum master, and other cross-functional team members. The product owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product, while the Scrum master is accountable for ensuring that the project team follows the Scrum methodology.

The Scrum methodology is characterized by short phases or “sprints” when project work occurs. During sprint planning, the project team identifies a small part of the scope to be completed during the upcoming sprint, which is usually a two- to four- week period of time. 

At the end of the sprint, this work should be ready to be delivered to the client. Finally, the sprint ends with a sprint review and retrospective—or rather, lessons learned. This cycle is repeated throughout the project life cycle until the entirety of the scope has been delivered.

In many ways, this mirrors aspects of traditional project management. One of the key differences, however, is that one creates “shippable” portions of the project along the way rather than delivering everything at the very end. Doing so allows the client to realize the value of the project throughout the process rather than waiting until the project is closed to see results. 

The difference between Agile vs. Scrum

On the surface, it is easy to see why Agile and Scrum can often be confused, as they both rely on an iterative process, frequent client interaction, and collaborative decision making. The key difference between Agile and Scrum is that while Agile is a project management philosophy that utilizes a core set of values or principles, Scrum is a specific Agile methodology that is used to facilitate a project.

It’s important to remember that although Scrum is an Agile approach, Agile does not always mean Scrum—there are many different methodologies that take an Agile approach to project management. 

Agile vs. other methodologies

While Agile and Scrum often get most of the attention, there are other methodologies you should be aware of. Below is a look at how Agile compares to Waterfall and Kanban, two popular project management strategies.

Agile vs. Waterfall

Waterfall project management is another popular strategy that takes a different approach to project management than Agile. While Agile is an iterative and adaptive approach to project management, Waterfall is linear in nature and doesn’t allow for revisiting previous steps and phases.

Waterfall works well for small projects with clear end goals, while Agile is best for large projects that require more flexibility. Another key difference between these two approaches is the level of stakeholder involvement. In Waterfall, clients aren’t typically involved, whereas in Agile, client feedback is crucial. 

Agile vs. Kanban

Kanban project management is a type of Agile methodology that seeks to improve the project management process through workflow visualization using a tool called a Kanban board. A Kanban board is composed of columns that depict a specific stage in the project management process, with cards or sticky notes representing tasks placed in the appropriate stage. As the project progresses, the cards will move from column to column on the board until they are completed.

A key difference between Kanban and other Agile methodologies, such as Scrum, is that there are typically limitations regarding how many tasks can be in progress at one time. Project management teams will typically assign a specific number of tasks to each column on the board, which means that new tasks cannot begin until others have been completed.

Agile vs. Scrum: choosing the right project methodology

Once you have a clear understanding of what Agile and Scrum are and how they work together, you can begin to think about applying these approaches to your own projects. But given the differences between the two, this shouldn’t be a question of whether you should take an Agile or a Scrum approach. 

Instead, if you decide that an Agile approach is right for a particular project, the question is: Which Agile methodology should you use? The answer could be Scrum, or it could be one of the other various Agile methodologies that exist. 

To decide if Agile is right for your project, you’ll need to look at the specific requirements and constraints involved. Agile was originally created within the context of software development projects and is particularly effective in this arena. With this in mind, an Agile approach will not be effective for projects with very strict scope and development requirements. However, the guiding principles of the Agile philosophy are widely used across many different types of projects. 

If an Agile approach is right for your project, you will then need to determine whether or not Scrum is the best Agile methodology for your specific needs and goals. Scrum is typically best suited to projects that do not have clear requirements, are likely to experience change, and/or require frequent testing. 

It’s important to remember that the key to a successful project isn’t just choosing the right methodology, but executing that methodology in a skillful manner. Doing so requires an expert understanding of the methodology you ultimately decide to employ in conjunction with other critical project management skills.  To be successful in their roles, project managers also need to know how to communicate effectively, lead a team, apply critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and be adaptable to the organizational dynamics and complexities around them.

“This is why you should consider technical skills as only one component of the skills necessary to lead projects successfully,” Griffin says. “This is why Northeastern’s project management program doesn’t focus solely on technical skills, but pays significant attention to developing competencies in teamwork, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem-solving, and organizational awareness.”

Students learn about Agile methodologies in Northeastern’s Graduate Certificate in Agile Project Management program and the Agile concentration within the Master of Science in Project Management program. More importantly, those who pursue an advanced degree in project management learn how to execute the projects in a skillful and mature manner from experienced professionals who have dedicated years to refining their own skills in the real world.

To learn more about advancing your career as a project manager, including actionable tips and strategies, download our comprehensive guide below.

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2021. It has since been updated for relevance and accuracy.