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

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Scrum is a method for project management that uses Agile principles. Use this guide from Coursera to understand the differences between Agile and Scrum, what they are used for, when you can use them, and some alternatives.

[Featured Image]:  Project Management Team discusses methods to be used on the latest project.

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

Agile is an approach to project management that emphasises completing projects in small increments. It is a method that’s often used for projects where change or unpredictability are expected. Rather than being something separate to Agile, Scrum, on the other hand, is one of several Agile methodologies. Think of Scrum more as the actual structure teams can use to put Agile principles into practice. 

Scrum is the most commonly used Agile methodology—with approximately 78 per cent of Agile users adopting Scrum or a Scrum hybrid method [1]. This sometimes causes people to use the terms Scrum and Agile interchangeably, which can understandably lead to confusion. Let’s take a closer look at what makes Scrum and Agile unique, and how and when you can implement them.

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. In other words, Agile is the approach, Scrum is the framework. 

What is Agile?

Agile is an approach to project management that aims to work in small increments in order to achieve a goal. So instead of having one large reveal or launch, an Agile project is comprised of 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. As we’ve seen, the most popular of these is Scrum. Others include Kanban, the Crystal Method, Extreme Programming, plus several hybrids.

An Agile project comprises of four values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  • Working software over comprehensive documentation

  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  • Responding to change over following a plan

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.

How Agile was Founded

Agile was formally named in 2001, with the creation of the Agile Manifesto. The manifesto is the work of seventeen software development practitioners, outlining a set of twelve principles that they believe should be used as a guide to better organise workloads. Originally used for software development, Agile is now used in many industries as a project management tool. 

When to use Agile

Agile is well-suited for ongoing projects, a succession of small projects equalling a larger project, 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, allowing for innovation. 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. Scrum got its name from the game rugby because it borrows the principles of working as a team to develop an outcome. 

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 the most commonly used Agile methodology, either alone or as a hybrid. Some common hybrid Scrum methodologies include Scrumban and Scrum/XP and combine the elements of Scrum with another methodology. 

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

When to 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 organisation that hasn’t adopted smooth cross-functional collaboration, there are more traditional approaches that you can use that may be more fitting.

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 as a whole, and several points that make it unique. 

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 organised 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 practised and can be a good way to start implementing Agile with your team. You can however use different Agile methods, like Kanban and XP. 


Alternatives to Scrum

Scrum is an Agile methodology but it isn’t the only one. There are many more in use with the top five being Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming (XP), Crystal, and Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM). 

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. This allows users to really visualise 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 characterised by pair programming, whereby 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 set you on the path of becoming job-ready in six months or less.

Article sources

  1. “15th State of Agile Report,”  Accessed July 11, 2022.

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