Project management has evolved significantly in recent years, and there are plenty of project management tools to help facilitate those changes. But anybody following project management trends knows that technology is only half the discussion. Project management methodologies, such as Agile, Scrum and Kanban, dominate the conversation. But what's the difference between Agile vs Scrum or Kanban? In this article, we explore these terms with the help of industry experts.

Project Management Methodologies Compared: Agile vs. Scrum vs. Kanban

Agile is an umbrella term used to describe a project management methodology that breaks down large complex projects into smaller, more manageable chunks. Agile project management has been used in software development to speed up the completion of projects for many years. The world is changing, however, and you don't have to be a developer to be exposed to the idea of Agile and Scrum.

Today, we are starting to see these practices being applied in a multitude of industries. Nicholas Carrier, Associate Partner at Prophet explains: "Agile is a set of guiding principles developed in 2001 published as the Agile Manifesto. Scrum and Kanban, on the other hand, are two frameworks that are considered to be Agile. Or, to put it another way: If you need to work in an Agile fashion, Scrum and Kanban are two ways to do it."

Both Scrum and Kanban are two different Agile project management systems with subtle differences. If you subscribe to the Agile Manifesto, you'll probably want to adopt one of these frameworks. But Carrier noted how they both share similarities. "Both methods use a physical board, or digital replication of one, where people move work between roughly three categories: 1) work [that needs to be done], 2) work that is in progress and 3) work that has been completed."

Differences Between Scrum and Kanban

Even though both Scrum and Kanban share similar traits, it is often mistakenly assumed that both methodologies are two sides of the same coin. That's far from the case. Each of these Agile methodologies is entirely different. Scrum methodology breaks down the program development cycle time-limited work periods, called sprints. Each sprint usually lasts for two weeks, said Jessica D'Amato, VP of Project Management at Dragon Army.

There's no right or wrong methodology, or one that is clearly the best. If you hope to choose a methodology that suits your project, start by considering your existing team. What do they already know, and what would be easy to implement? If your team all works in an office, holding a daily meeting led by a Scrum Master might work well. For a more distributed team, a weekly review and short feedback session could work best.

"Project managers plan what initiatives will be done within the two-week sprints. They also hold daily meetings (aka stand-ups) to check in with the team on how the project is moving along. Companies can also use these stand-ups to demo new releases to the client prior to launch," said D'Amato.

Owners, Masters and Team Members in Scrum

In Scrum, there are three prescribed roles:

  • The Product Owner: Responsible for initial planning, prioritization of task and communication
  • The Scrum Master: Responsible for overseeing the process during the sprint.
  • Team Members: Individuals who carry out the tasks in the sprint.

Scrum has a more predefined structured framework, whereas Kanban is less so, D'Amato explains. "Kanban is less structured and is based on a list (aka backlog) of items to do. Kanban doesn't have a set timeframe for when items need to be done. Instead, this methodology is managed by priority of items (i.e., tickets/cards) on a Kanban Board. New tasks are written on the board and assigned to the relevant team member. The board has different columns that let leaders know the status of an item being worked on, including to-do's, in-progress and complete/delivered tasks." The board serves as a guide for the status of the project.

Managing a team means sprint planning, collating feedback, and assigning tasks. Moving from waterfall development to continuous iteration can be a learning experience. The Agile workflow involves everything from user testing, feedback and code review. When you involve the Scrum team in each phase of review and development, you'll understand how useful this process can be.

Joe Garner, Project Manager at Computer Design & Integration, LLC, added how Kanban emphasizes improving the entire process. "Kanban is a method to manage the creation of products with the vision of continual delivery while not oversubscribing development teams. Kanban is meant to be an enhancement to existing organizational processes for continued progress while not totally changing an organization's existing systems."

Agile Pros and Cons

Garner explains how Agile methodologies, like Scrum and Kanban, use an incremental and iterative approach to completing a project. This is in contrast to the traditional project management methods that follow a linear approach (i.e., Waterfall). "Agile methodology is centered around the ever-changing business requirements and needs. It helps businesses create a product to be consumed and shipped in smaller releasable units. In addition, it focuses on strong teamwork, accountability and transparent [communication channels] to ensure the product aligns to client and brand goals."

But as Garner highlights how Agile management provides flexibility and room for continuous improvement, it has downsides. This extra flexibility could impact the final delivery date. It could even alter the final product, due to all the changes. "The problem that arises for digital transformation teams is that executives often believe in the benefits of Agile," said Carrier. They like the customer-focused approach and iterative workflow, but they lack the resources to carry out the work. "What often results from this disconnect between skills and expectations is stressed out teams. Or teams trying to work cheaper, and faster by using the same non-Agile methods as before. Therefore, ending up delivering low quality work," they added.

Adapting to Agile methodologies can be a challenge for developers too. They think in terms of feature requests, build numbers and testing, rather than stories and scrums. A developer is not likely to think about Agile vs Scrum. Their focus is on how those methodologies will help their programming jobs go more smoothly.

Agile vs Scrum vs Kanban Weighing the Differences

Now you have an idea of what Agile is and how it works, it's time to look at the other methodologies. To fully understand Agile vs Scrum, vs Kanban, we need to consider these implementations individually.

How Does Scrum Work?

The Scrum framework is just one of many different Agile implementations. It's designed to help people implement solutions to complex adaptive problems, while still delivering products of a high value.

One key distinction between Scrum and other Agile methodologies is that in Scrum, teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. With more traditional Agile frameworks, the team leader plays a much more central role.

Scrum focuses on delivering maximum business value, and daily stand-up meetings are a key feature of the methodology. Empirical Process Control is central to Scrum, unlike Agile where "working software" is one of the key measures of success.

Learning Opportunities

Scrum Pros and Cons

Brijmohan Bhavsar, delivery manager at Irvine, CA-based Synoptek, previously Indusa, commented on how Scrum can provide "high transparency and visibility of the projects." He noted Scrum allows for greater flexibility to accommodate change. Garner added that Scrum can help to clearly define roles, promote better collaboration and get a project completed much quicker. "We use Scrum, even in pure strategy projects. This gets business stakeholders from multiple departments accustomed to more frequent contact, more collaborative decision-making and more shared ownership of outcomes," said Carrier.

On the contrary, Bhavsar noted how the breakdown of complicated tasks into smaller chunks could lead to "poorly defined tasks." He highlighted the risk of scope creep, where project requirements increase due to lack of direction.

How Does Kanban Work?

The last system in our Agile vs Scrum vs Kanban comparison is Kanban. This framework is popular in software development and DevOps. Kanban focuses on transparency and clear communication, using Kanban Boards to display the status of tasks they're working on.

One useful feature of Kanban is the option to have Work In Progress limits. These limits can highlight any backlog or inefficiency in a team's workflow. This allows the team leader to troubleshoot issues before they become a problem.

If the more rigid structure of having a Scrum Master and regular meetings doesn't appeal, the more fluid working methods could suit your organization. Kanban removes the need to meet regularly and explore data in depth. Its less-structured nature is its biggest advantage. It's easy to learn and helps companies identify what's creating a backlog in their development processes.

Kanban Pros and Cons

"Kanban is more of a model for presenting change through additional improvements. The process [provides] a visual of what you are doing now. The Kanban Board plays a major role in displaying the workflow but assists with optimizing tasks between different teams" said Bhavsar.

However, Carrier explains how the lack of a structured framework found in Kanban can lead to poorer productivity. "Kanban isn't necessarily focused on cross-functional teams, and it doesn't use sprints. We find the time-framing of sprints to be an excellent driver of increased speed, which is important in digital transformation."

Speed isn't the only important metric, however. When you're weighing Agile vs Scrum or Kanban, consider quality, too. Are the products you're bringing to market up to scratch? Has your team embraced the goal of trying to build better software? Would improving developer morale and team cohesion make choosing Kanban worthwhile?

Which Project Management Methodology Should You Use?

Before you begin the process of choosing a specific project management methodology for your business, think about what you want to achieve. Are you hoping to speed up development, reduce bloat in your organization, or bring different departments closer together? The choice of Agile vs Scrum or Kanban is not one with a one-size-fits all answer.

The goal of Agile methodologies is to bring a high-quality product to market as quickly as possible. What are the current issues in your company that are hampering development? What would have made your last product release better?

To decide between Agile vs Scrum or Kanban methodologies, you should look at your business requirements. Having your software development team onboard with whatever Agile system you use is essential. If they're just paying lip service to the idea of a Scrum meeting, that benefits no-one. So talk to your development team, ask questions and relate Agile to how they do their jobs. If you take this approach, your team and your customers will as well.

Bhavsar suggests deciding whether your priority is having your projects be completed quicker or if you aim to streamline the overall process: "I would suggest trying Scrum, if you just want to produce work faster. If you would like to improve your production process, use Kanban. If your projects demand a more linear workflow, implement Waterfall."