Agile vs. Scrum: Which Should You Use, and Why?

Written by Coursera • Updated on Jul 13, 2021

Agile is an approach to project management, while Scrum is one type of Agile methodology.

Agile team brainstorming in a business meeting

Agile is an approach to project management that emphasizes completing projects in small increments. It is often used for projects where some change or unpredictability are expected. Scrum, on the other hand, is one of several Agile methodologies. Think of it more as the actual structure teams can use to put Agile principles into practice. 

Scrum is such a popular Agile methodology—with nearly 80 percent of Agile adopters using Scrum or a Scrum hybrid method—that sometimes people use the terms Scrum and Agile interchangeably [1]. This leads to understandable confusion. Let’s take a closer look at what makes Scrum and Agile unique, and how and when you should implement them.

Read more: What is Agile? A Beginner's Guide

Agile vs. Scrum

The main difference between Scrum and Agile is that Agile is a style of project management, and Scrum is one of several different methods used to implement that style. 

What is Agile?

Agile is an approach or philosophy to project management that aims to achieve a goal in small increments. So instead of having one large reveal or launch, an Agile project comprises smaller chunks of tasks that can be delivered in shorter time frames continuously. This makes it easier for project teams to adapt to changing priorities, respond to problems that arise, and cut down on cost, time, and inefficiencies.

In order to incorporate Agile principles into a company or project, you’ll want to use a framework, or a certain method, to put them into play. The most popular of these is Scrum. Others include Kanban, the Crystal Method, Extreme Programming, plus several hybrids.

There are four values that drive the Agile philosophy of project management:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  • Working software over comprehensive documentation

  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  • Responding to change over following a plan

The bolded phrases generally take precedence over the unbolded.

Agile has its roots in software development but is now used in many different industries, including tech, marketing, design, and finance. Even many industries that have relied on traditional project management styles like construction have begun to incorporate Agile practices into their work.

The founding of Agile

Agile was formally created in 2001, with the creation of the Agile Manifesto. Seventeen software development project managers came together one cold February in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah to create a set of principles they thought would lead to better organizational communities. What resulted was the four Agile values and twelve Agile principles, collectively called the Agile Manifesto. Now, Agile is used in many industries and teams beyond software development.

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When you should use Agile

Agile is well-suited for ongoing projects and projects where certain details aren’t clear from the start. This makes Agile good for industries that deal with constant or unpredictable change, or teams creating a new product. More traditional project management styles such as Waterfall might work better for projects that have strict constraints—like a firm time or fixed budget—such as event planning.

What is Scrum?

Scrum is an Agile methodology that is designed to develop products in an environment susceptible to change. 

In Scrum, delivery cycles are called “sprints,” and generally last one to four weeks. Work is incremental and builds on previous work. Scrum teams are usually small, typically ranging from three to nine people, and include a Scrum master and a product owner. Communication with team members and stakeholders is consistent so that feedback is constant and changes can be made accordingly.

Scrum is by far the most commonly used Agile methodology. About 78 percent of Agile users implement Scrum or a hybrid Scrum methodology, according to the State of Agile report released in 2020 [1]. Some common hybrid Scrum methodologies include Scrumban and Scrum/XP.

Scrum is built on three pillars:

  • Transparency: All players involved have complete access to information, including progress and goals.

  • Adaptation: The project and work can change to mirror new priorities.

  • Inspection: The team strives to continuously improve the product and the process.

And five values:

  • Courage

  • Focus

  • Commitment

  • Respect

  • Openness

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Here's a deeper look at what Scrum is, and the three pillars of Scrum.

When you should use Scrum

Scrum is excellent for dealing with complex projects in changing environments. Like many Agile methodologies, Scrum is good for industries that are constantly in flux, or for pioneering new projects. If you’re dealing with fixed requirements, or an organization that doesn’t allow for smooth cross-functional collaboration, a more traditional approach may be better.

Agile vs. Scrum

Scrum is a part of the wider Agile umbrella; Agile is an approach to project management, and Scrum is a method you can use to implement it. There are a few parts of Scrum that are reflective of Agile principles, and several points that make it unique within the philosophy. 

Here are the key similarities between Scrum and Agile that make Scrum a distinctly Agile process:

  • Short-term development cycles

  • Focus on people, collaboration, and communication

  • Capacity to adapt to changes and feedback

Here’s what makes Scrum different from other Agile methodologies:

  • Work is organized into sprints that last one to four weeks.

  • A product backlog keeps a record of what work needs to be done.

  • Roles are divided into Scrum master, product owner, and development team.

  • Team members have a short “daily Scrum” update meeting.

Agile or Scrum: Which should you choose?

The quick answer is—you don’t have to! Picking Scrum inevitably means that you’ll be using Agile principles, since Agile is the umbrella philosophy. Scrum is also widely practiced and can be a good way to start implementing Agile with your team. You can however use different Agile methods, like Kanban and XP.

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Scrum vs. Kanban

Kanban gets its name from the Japanese word for “signboard.” The method uses a board (virtual or physical) divided into columns that represent different phases of a project. As the project progresses, a sticky-note or card that represents the project gets moved into the next phase, until the project is completed. It’s a great way to visualize the process and spot bottlenecks. 

Unlike Scrum, Kanban places less of an emphasis on fixed timelines, and work happens in a continuous flow. Roles like product owners are not decided at the outset. Many project managers combine Scrum and Kanban concepts together in a hybrid methodology called Scrumban. 

Scrum vs. XP

XP, which stands for Extreme Programming, is an Agile methodology that is usually specific to software development. Like other Agile methods, it focuses on small releases and iteration. XP is characterized by pair programming, in which two developers work together to build code.

Learning Agile and Scrum

Agile is a new project management philosophy that formally burst onto the scene in 2001 and has gained popularity across industries since. As project management continues to be an in-demand skill, Agile and Scrum are likely to be fixtures for more companies to come.

If you’re interested in learning more, consider enrolling in the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate. There’s a dedicated course on Agile and Scrum concepts, plus other lessons designed to get you job-ready in six months or less.

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Article sources

1. Digital.ai. "14th State of Agile Report, https://stateofagile.com/#." Accessed July 13, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Jul 13, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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