How to implement scrum

Rules to follow. Terms to learn. Events to schedule. If you have decided to implement scrum, there is probably a lot running through your mind. But here is some good news — your path forward is well-traveled. Scrum is one of the most popular and trusted agile methodologies among product development teams.

Related guide: What is scrum?

Scrum is popular for a reason. Software development often happens in unpredictable environments — scrum gives you a consistent, adaptable way to deliver value to customers. Scrum prescribes key pieces of information (or artifacts), meetings (or ceremonies), and roles to help agile teams get fully immersed in the practice. Regular iteration and reflection on what is going well (and what is not) provides a framework for identifying roadblocks early on.

But scrum implementation does have its challenges. Adopting a new agile methodology — especially a more rigid one like scrum — requires a shake-up of current processes, work patterns, and company culture. If tensions arise, gaining buy-in from the entire development team and broader organization can be a hurdle. Your best defense against any skepticism is to implement scrum with care — stick to the methodology, follow best practices, and work as a team to keep improving.

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If you are ready to implement scrum but not completely sure how to do it, this guide will help you get started. But keep in mind that successful scrum is reliant on the people practicing it.

Here are four steps to help guide your scrum implementation:

1. Define your scrum elements

Part of what makes scrum unique is all of the theories, events, and terms that come with it. Putting all of these elements into practice will take time — but a few are necessary to get started.

  • Form your scrum team. The three main scrum team roles are product owner, scrum master, and developers. Since scrum teams are self-governing — meaning, they are responsible for planning and completing their own work according to scrum principles — forming a reliable team is a crucial first step.

  • Get ready to sprint. Your scrum team will work in fixed time periods called sprintslasting a month or less. The aim of each sprint is to rigorously build, test, and deliver usable product value for customers within the set time frame. Since sprints are a foundational part of scrum, make sure everyone understands the intended approach.

  • Set your sprint duration. Your sprint length determines the cadence for everything you do in scrum. All planning, development work, and events must be contained within a sprint. Most teams choose a duration of two to four weeks (as a rule, sprints should not last longer than a month). To help determine your sprint length, consider your team's capacity and estimate how quickly you can get work done.

  • Plan your scrum ceremonies. Once your sprint duration is set, schedule your four scrum events: sprint planning, daily scrum, sprint review, and sprint retrospective. Get these on the calendar and plan basic agendas for each meeting.

  • Determine your definition of done (DoD). Your DoD is the finish line for development work within a sprint. It describes the conditions when all of the necessary requirements (or acceptance criteria) for each user story are met and the new product functionality (or product increment) is complete. Determining your DoD will take cross-functional input — consider it as your organization's formal definition of quality.

2. Organize and get familiar with your product backlog

The product backlog is a trove of everything that has been deemed valuable to work on. It will contain all of the features (and in some cases, fixes and technical items) that you want to deliver — prioritized in order of value. After product management builds the product backlog, you will choose items from the backlog to complete in your first sprint.

Keep in mind that strategic planning comes first. If you are not already in the habit of doing so, your scrum team should collaborate with product management on product goals and initiatives before diving into individual product features and sprint planning.

  • Connect features to imperatives. Make sure your product features are tied to corresponding strategic goals and initiatives. Your product strategy should always be top of mind to guide you in prioritizing and developing the most valuable work.

  • Structure your work. Your product manager will group product features into epics (larger bodies of work encompassing major areas of functionality). Then, your product owner will work on translating your features into user stories (functionality described from the perspective of the end-user) and writing requirements. At this stage, the scrum team may need to invest in an agile development tool to help manage and visualize sprint items on a scrum board.

  • Agree on policies. It is a good idea to set guidelines for who manages what in regards to the product backlog. For example, since your product owner is in charge of refining your product backlog as it grows, your team might designate the product owner as the only person that can re-order backlog items.

Related: The Product Manager vs. The Product Owner

3. Plan and complete your first sprint

Once the scrum team and product backlog are assembled, you are ready to launch your first sprint. This is where the actual development work begins.

  • Kick off your sprint planning meeting. Your sprint begins with a sprint planning session. In this meeting, the scrum team decides which items from the product backlog will be completed during the upcoming sprint. The agreed-upon items then live in the sprint backlog. Remember — the objective of a sprint is to deliver new value for customers, so the sprint items you choose will not be at random. Your product owner defines what this increment will be each time and the development work you do should support it.

  • Prioritize sprint items. You want to maximize the impact on your goals during each sprint. As part of sprint planning, discuss which items are the most important and urgent. You should also estimate the effort required for each sprint item.

  • Meet for daily scrum. Each day, the scrum master will lead a 15-minute stand-up meeting to discuss sprint progress and address potential roadblocks to sprint completion (like dependencies on other teams, for example). Daily scrum conversations typically focus on these three questions:

    • What did you do yesterday?

    • What will you do today?

    • What impediments are in your way?

  • Finish up with a sprint review. After all development work is wrapped up, you will demo the new functionality for stakeholders on the last day of the sprint. The sprint review should be an informal working session — everyone should discuss what to work on next and help organize the product backlog.

4. Use the past to define the future

After the last sprint ends, the next one begins. But before you kick off a new sprint planning meeting, take time to celebrate with your team, reflect on how your first sprint went, and consider what could be improved.

  • Hold a scrum retrospective. As the final scrum event of your sprint, a scrum retrospective is an opportunity for the team to discuss high points, low points, and ideas for improvement in the next sprint. Many scrum teams hold their scrum retrospective meeting right after the sprint review concludes.

  • Incorporate your learnings. Your scrum retrospective will produce valuable insights about scrum workflows. By the end of your scrum meeting, you should use these learnings to determine at least one action item to implement in the next sprint. These action items should be simple and effective — for example, inviting more stakeholders to your sprint review for fresh perspectives.

Related: Agile retrospective best practices

Consider these steps as a good place to start implementing scrum. You probably will not get all of these scrum elements right on the first try — and that is ok. Since scrum methodology is iterative, use the same mindset when implementing it. Each sprint is an opportunity to improve.

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