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January 21, 2019

Kanban vs Scrum - Understanding the Differences and Identifying Appropriate Use Cases

As companies started to understand the implications of organizing large-scale projects and keeping everything in sync across their many members, various methodologies for achieving this have evolved over time. Some have managed to become finely ingrained into the workflow of many organizations, from large to small ones, and understanding the implications of each such technique is essential for those who want to ensure that they don’t get overwhelmed by their own work over time.

Kanban and Scrum are two commonly used tools in software development and related fields, designed to give teams the ability to iterate quickly and effectively without wasting their effort on unnecessary tasks. Both methodologies achieve this in different ways, and hearing someone use the two terms interchangeably is a sure sign that they are probably not too experienced in that field.

Team and Task Organization

One of the most obvious differences between Kanban vs Scrum lies in how they treat the people contributing to the project and the relationships between them, as well as how tasks are assigned and completed over time. With Kanban, there are no strictly defined roles for each contributor, even though different people will likely gravitate towards particular fields on their own. Scrum is not as relaxed in this regard, defining specific positions such as a Project Owner, Scrum Master, and a Scrum Team.

This also means that, in most cases, anyone contributing to the project will be able to pick a task for themselves and work on it in their own time when using Kanban, something that is often not possible with Scrum. Both approaches have their benefits, although it’s worth noting that many organizations have started to experiment with a less strictly defined hierarchy due to the many reported benefits of this type of structure. To that end, Kanban could prove an invaluable tool.

Handling Time

The same relaxed approach can be seen in the way tasks are completed over time. Scrum is based on strictly defined, tight deadlines and rapid iterations that require the completion of different subcomponents in a timely manner. Compared to that, Kanban is much less strict and allows contributors to work on the tasks they’ve picked in any timeframe that they feel comfortable with.

Of course, there may be exceptions to that, and some organizations do enforce time restrictions and expect them to be observed diligently. That’s not the usual case with organizations relying on Kanban, though, as the tool is designed to function just as well without any strictly imposed deadlines. If you’re new to a project using Kanban, make sure to inquire about any potential rules regarding how fast tasks and projects should be completed.

While it will be a pointless question in most cases, there are situations where you’ll be glad you’ve asked in advance. In general, there are some minor details regarding the way Kanban is applied in many organizations that you might want to sort out as soon as you’ve been assigned to a new project.

Tracking Progress

The way progress is tracked over time is where both methodologies touch somewhat. In both cases, you’ll need to closely monitor some specific metrics that indicate where the team is in their overall progress with the project as a whole. On the other hand, both sides also provide various charts and other graphical tools for the visualization of the teams’ work, and it’s often a good idea to ensure that the organization understands these concepts and applies them in its daily work.

However, while Scrum requires regular meetings to align everyone and ensure that everything is coming along as expected, that’s not a strict requirement in Kanban. This is another area where Kanban shines with a more relaxed approach that allows teams to set their own pace and track their progress according to their own metrics, rather than requiring meetings that may or may not be a productive activity for everyone involved.

Adoption Rate

Scrum and Kanban are both highly popular in today’s world, and both methodologies enjoy a lot of attention from teams in many different areas. There is a noticeable trend leaning towards Kanban lately, though, and it looks like it’s becoming the standard solution to problems of this type for many companies around the world. Meanwhile, while Scrum still enjoys a great adoption rate and is a technique familiar to many, it might fall out of favor in some years if things keep moving in the same direction.

That’s not to say that those who’ve invested a lot of time into learning Scrum have wasted their efforts - on the contrary, they might become more sought-after, as companies that insist on working with Scrum methodologies start to find their side of the market less and less populated. Of course, it’s questionable whether we’ll even get there in the first place, and it’s entirely possible that Scrum will remain in a stable position.

Both Are Good in the Right Context

The bottom line is, arguing about whether Scrum is better than Kanban is pointless. Both can be highly useful in the right environment, and learning to recognize the right situation for each type of tool in your hand is one of the most important skills you’ll need to master if you want to build a career working on complex projects with other people.

The size of the organization rarely matters – the same rules apply equally well for small and large companies alike. Trying to force a tool on a situation that’s clearly not ideal for it can only lead to frustration and even more failure in the long run, things that can easily stack up and discourage people from even trying to improve in the future.

Avoiding this is as simple as taking the time to familiarize yourself with both tools, even if you’re convinced that one of them will be useless in your specific situation. You never know where you might find the inspiration for a change in the way you handle your projects, even if you don’t completely adopt a new methodology.

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