Is Scrum the Right Thing for Your Startup?

Guest post by Jug Babić, marketer at VivifyIdeas.


When compared to any other kind of historical business entities, startups come across as almost surreally unique. They are often founded based on little more than an idea; with a nebulous customer base that is susceptible to instantaneous changes of heart; with fragile business models and limited business and management know-how of the founders; and a general atmosphere of uncertainty that still does not dissuade entrepreneurs from giving it a go.

In such "hostile" environment, startups need all the help they can get to build a viable product that will provide at least some kind of stability for the company. More often than not, the road to this viable product and the solution to the majority of aforementioned obstacles is found in a structured way to manage the product development process.

One possibility is the scrum framework and, today, we will be talking about what makes this approach one that holds huge potential for startups.

Scrum 101

Scrum is a work management framework that was first mentioned in a Harvard Business Review article in 1986 and by the turn of the century, mostly due to the work done by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, scrum adopted a relatively defined structure that made it one of the most popular approaches to agile project management, especially in software development companies.

As a framework, scrum features clearly defined roles and events with the goal of allowing for a flexible approach to software development (not exclusively) where tight-knit, cross-functional teams collaborate closely to deliver smaller, demonstrably completed iterations which are completed in boxed time frames - sprints that last between one and four weeks (usually two).

By adopting the premises that no product can be absolutely correctly defined beforehand and that requirement changes are inevitable, scrum adopts an approach where transparency, inspection and adaptation enable an efficient and agile software development process. Furthermore, scrum teams become better over time thanks to the open approach to communicating about obstacles and possible ways to improve their functioning.

Already, you can see how much of this can be helpful to startups, but let's break it down.

Quick Release and Early Feedback

One of the most common and devastating problems that startups encounter is finding out that their product is just not what the people want. They spend months or even years working on the first release, only to find out that their product solves no one's problems or does it very poorly.

In scrum, one of the tenets is speeding up the release process by finishing deployable iterations as frequently as possible and getting them in front of the users. As a result of this, a startup can put out a working version of their product (not a complete one by any standard) which allows them to get early feedback.

With this early feedback, they can find out what the users think about the functionalities that their product features already and which path they should take in the future. That way, the startup can abandon work on stuff that no one works early in the process and minimize time wasted on unwanted features.

Greater Adaptability and Better Prioritization

No product goes from the initial idea to the finished product without any changes. There are simply too many factors that influence the journey of a product and, for startups, this is even truer since they work on products that have not been done before and there are very few lessons to learn from other people who tried the same thing.

This is where scrum is particularly good as it is based on incremental work in short sprints that usually last two weeks. In such a framework, it is possible to adapt to new realities (technical, marketplace, financial) very quickly.  By enabling this, scrum helps startups change course in time and avoid catastrophic outcomes.

Scrum also addresses another issue that startups often encounter when developing a product - prioritization.

Namely, startups sometimes tend to go off on a tangent and spend inordinate amounts of time on ideas that should have been handled further down the line and with much less time spent on them. This often causes a snowball effect where a few wrong decisions interrupt much more of the process down the line.

With scrum's insistence on constant inspection and communication, the chances of this are reduced and with its iterative approach, wasting time on non-critical work is minimized.

Developer-Friendly Environment

Let's be honest – startups are rarely able to pay serious money to the people they employ. In fact, quite the opposite is usually true, especially in the early days. When this limited compensation is paired with an environment that is not particularly developer-friendly, it can lead to unhappy and unproductive teams that end up mailing in their work.

Scrum puts developers first (although some people who have had experience with bad scrum will argue this) and helps build an atmosphere where people can have their say, work to the best of their abilities and, perhaps most importantly, improve their skills.

Namely, scrum values transparency and honesty and encourages developers to openly say what they can and cannot do, how much time they need to do it and what the things are that are preventing them from putting in their best work. Developer teams set their goals for sprints and they hold themselves responsible for meeting those goals.

Since daily communication is also an integral part of scrum (daily scrums), this promotes exchange of ideas and allows team members to seek out help from their colleagues in a way that doesn't make anyone feel uncomfortable. The end result of this close-knit structure is that people grow their knowledge much more efficiently and become better professionals.

In startups, this can be a huge thing.

Where to Start

Before doing anything, it is important for startups (founders, teams) to remember that scrum is not a dogmatic methodology or a practice that has to be followed to a T. It merely serves as a framework within which a startup can find the best way to work and deliver a product that will find and amaze its audience.

There are a number of organizations and websites where you can find out more on the different concepts and ideas associated with scrum, as well as learn the best ways to adopt them. and Scrum Alliance are definitely the best starting points.

You will also want to talk to your team and find out their opinion on scrum. There is little point in trying to push the concept on people who will not get on board as this will greatly diminish the potential beneficial effects adopting scrum can have on your startup.

If everyone is on board, you can check out free scrum tools like VivifyScrum and give it a test run. It is important to point out that it takes some time before scrum starts showing results, especially if no one on the team used it before.

Remember, it is all about becoming better in small increments.

Instead of a Closing Word

Finally, if you find out that scrum is not working out for you despite everyone being engaged and committed, there is nothing wrong with that.

Scrum is not a silver bullet that works for everyone. It is an option.