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Scrum vs. Kanban: which Agile framework is right for your team?

When it comes to Agile frameworks, there are plenty to choose from. Some of the most well-known and widely used frameworks include Scrum, Kanban, Lean, XP, and Crystal. While all of these frameworks share common Agile principles and values, the two most popular ones are Scrum and Kanban. Scrum is heavily promoted by organizations such as Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org and has gained popularity in a lot of industries. On the other hand, Kanban is often misunderstood and underutilized, even though it has its own set of principles that go beyond having a Kanban board. In fact, having a Kanban board is just the tip of the iceberg - you need to also visualize the workflow, implement continuous improvement, limit work in progress and track cycle time.
It's important to note that these frameworks are rarely one-size-fits-all and require adjustments to fit the team's unique circumstances. Teams often borrow aspects of Kanban for a Scrum team and vice versa. So, how do you decide which framework is the right choice for your team? In this post, I'll discuss the factors to consider when choosing between Scrum and Kanban.

#1 Do iterations make sense to your team?

One of the key factors to consider when choosing between Scrum and Kanban is how much the team needs iterations. Scrum is designed around the idea of delivering a potentially shippable product increment at the end of each sprint, which typically lasts two to four weeks. This approach can be ideal for teams that need to regularly deliver new features, product versions, or experiments to customers. However, some teams may find that the artificial structure of iterations doesn't align with their work. For example, a team working with continuous integration and deployment may find that sprints feel too long, and they'd be better off working in shorter cycles. On the other hand, a team launching a complex new product may find that sprints are too short and may benefit from a more flexible approach, like Kanban.

#2 Do you have relatively high predictability?

Another factor to consider when choosing between Scrum and Kanban is predictability. How far ahead can your team predict their work and plan for? In Scrum, sprints' length can vary, but even with the shortest possible length (one week), you need to have a certain level of certainty around what you will do in this and the next sprint. Scrum, like any Agile framework, allows you to adjust the planning as you go and respond to change. However, if over 50% of your plans keep changing, you are probably wasting your time planning sprints and need to switch over to continuous backlog prioritization. In contrast, with Kanban, the team just picks up the top priority items from the backlog, so you wouldn't need to have discussions about which items to drop from a sprint. Keep in mind that product development teams usually have higher predictability since they decide what to work on, while reactive teams such as customer support cannot plan most of their workload ahead of time and have to readjust their plans on a regular basis.

#3 How frequently is your work interrupted?

When selecting between Scrum and Kanban, another crucial factor to consider is how frequently the team's work is interrupted. Do stakeholders or customers often bring new and urgent tasks that require immediate attention and shift the team's priorities? This can greatly impact the team's ability to deliver predictable results. In Scrum, the team commits to delivering a set of work within a sprint and any new work that comes in during that sprint has to be evaluated against the work already committed to. This can cause disruption to the sprint and affect the team's ability to deliver on its commitments. On the other hand, Kanban is designed to handle frequent interruptions by allowing the team to quickly reprioritize and adjust their work to accommodate the new requests. This enables the team to maintain a steady flow of work and deliver results more predictably. So, if your team is frequently interrupted with urgent requests, Kanban might be the better choice.

#4 Does your team deal with handovers?

Another factor to consider when deciding between Scrum and Kanban is how often your team experiences handovers, whether between team members or between different teams. In an ideal world, we would have self-organizing cross-functional teams where everyone can do any kind of work if needed and team members collaborate on different user stories. However, in reality, handovers do occur. For example, an engineer may need to hand over their work to a QA team member, or a design team may send new marketing materials to the marketing team. In such cases, the handover can create a bottleneck in the workflow. With Scrum, teams may sometimes need to artificially adjust their schedules to ensure that handovers between teams occur smoothly. In contrast, Kanban usually works better in cases like this since it allows for better visibility into bottlenecks, ensures continuous improvement, and doesn't disrupt the work process.

#5 Can you fit regular ceremonies into your schedule?

Another factor to consider when choosing between Scrum and Kanban is whether you can fit regular ceremonies into your schedule. Scrum requires a lot of meetings, such as daily stand-ups, sprint planning, sprint reviews, and retrospectives, which should happen at the same time on a regular basis. These meetings are important to keep everyone aligned and ensure that the team is continuously improving. However, if team members have other commitments and frequently skip meetings, it can cause issues for the Scrum team and affect its effectiveness.
In Kanban, you also need to do planning, retrospectives, and some sort of product review, but you can be more flexible about it and do whatever makes sense for the team. The team can decide when to do these ceremonies based on their schedule and availability, which can be beneficial for teams with members who have other commitments or teams working in different time zones.

#6 After all, what does your team want to do?

Personal preferences are another important factor to consider when choosing between Scrum and Kanban. Some team members may have had bad experiences with Scrum in the past and may be hesitant to adopt it again, even if the framework would be beneficial for the team's workflow. On the other hand, some team members may be excited about the fresh start that Scrum brings every sprint and enjoy celebrating success at regular intervals. Similarly, some team members may find Kanban's endless and mundane nature to be a turnoff, while others may appreciate the more flexible and adaptable approach. Ultimately, it's important to take personal preferences into account when deciding which framework to adopt, as team members are more likely to be engaged and productive when they are working in a way that suits their individual preferences and strengths.
In conclusion, choosing between Scrum and Kanban requires careful consideration of several factors. Each framework has its own strengths and weaknesses, and what works best for one team may not work for another. It's important to evaluate your team's needs and circumstances, such as the level of predictability required, the frequency of interruptions, the need for handovers, the ability to fit regular ceremonies into your schedule, and personal preferences. Ultimately, don't be afraid to mix and match frameworks, or even create your own hybrid approach. Remember, the most important thing is to continuously improve and optimize your processes to deliver value to your customers. Best of luck on your journey!
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