Scrum vs. kanban: ultimate guide

As a developer, you know the importance of getting work done—not just on time, but efficiently too. However, it’s not always as simple as sitting down and getting through the project from A to Z.

With the rise of Agile methodology, Scrum and Kanban have been two of the most popular productivity-boosting methods for developer teams. Both of these approaches are well known for giving teams more focus, drive, and clarity.

Where Scrum is known for using “sprints” between one to four weeks long, Kanban varies by being a continuous process. Yes, they’re both agile approaches that allow developers to track how well the project is going from the start to the finish line.

But how do they differ? Read this guide to demystify both. 👇

Scrum: Overview

If you've ever worked on a large-scale, complex project—we’re thinking intergalactic space station level—you've probably been frustrated by the fact that you never really know where it's going. It's hard to get clear feedback because there are so many people involved and so much information to process.

That's why Scrum is great.

Scrum is an agile project management strategy that prioritizes getting a product out the door rather than focusing on extensive planning and organizing. In short, it encourages developers to work in “sprints” toward a final goal.

This is all done within Scrum's framework which takes into account that the only thing we can really control when working on something big is the process we use. Instead of focusing on what could change, it focuses on how you can react when things do change.

Unlike the traditional top-down, sequential approach to planning, Scrum views a project as a series of smaller tasks (aka “sprints”) that can each be completed in one to four weeks. Think of it as a game of football: not only do you need to score points and win games, but you also have to break down your strategy for your team players so they can deliver the final touchdown.

The same is true of Scrum—you need to do more than just complete what you started; the projects you take on are complex and are bound by deadlines and more specific requirements.

Kanban: Overview

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word “Kanban?” If it's a Toyota Prius, that's understandable—it is named after the Japanese term for the pull-card system used to signal warehouse inventory levels.

But Kanban, which literally means “signboard,” actually refers to a visual project management technique for tracking work and decreasing inefficiencies. With an origin story at a Toyota factory, the concept has since been applied to just about anything that requires an inventory of work items—from tech startups to software development teams to app developers too.

The basic approach involves dividing project phases into columns. Tasks are recorded on cards that move from one column to the next when they are performed. It’s a visual system that allows developers to see everything at a glance.

Kanban might seem like a simple way to get stuff done but it also serves as an excellent reminder that there's a lot more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye.

What are the Differences Between Scrum and Kanban?

First off, we need to clear up a common misconception: Kanban and Scrum are not two different flavors of the same thing. They're two different things entirely. They have some similarities—they both manage work in progress and have short-term goals—but they have very different ways of getting things done.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the main differences between Scrum and Kanban.

Team roles and responsibilities

Scrum generally has a few more “rules” than Kanban.

In Scrum, each team member has a predetermined job across the sprints, with the Scrum master dictating deadlines and the Product Owner defining goals and objectives. This makes it easier to visualize how everyone fits into the workflow, but it also means that team members are forced into a certain mindset.

In Kanban, there are no predetermined roles or responsibilities. Tasks are handled by whoever feels like it's their responsibility at any given time. So there's no need for tight deadlines or restrictions on how tasks are completed. If you're working on something that requires more attention and you suddenly feel overwhelmed, anyone else who's available can pitch in and help you out.

Underlying ideology

The philosophies behind Scrum and Kanban are very different—Scrum is a framework, while Kanban is more of a methodology. So how do they differ?

One of the cornerstones of Scrum is its focus on team decisions as opposed to individual ones. In Scrum, teams learn from experiences, self-organize and prioritize. That said, Scrum doesn't leave you in the dark about what problems are happening within your team; the daily standup meeting gives each person an opportunity to point out any issues that need to be addressed immediately.

In contrast, Kanban translates roughly into a "visual card" technique and is used as a system for visualizing workflow. Kanban emphasizes continuous improvement by encouraging teams to visualize their workflow and reduce bottlenecks.

Delivery timelines

In Scrum, teams use sprints to define timelines. Developers can tightly define how a set of tasks must be finished and when they should be ready for review by. It has a more ‘tight ship’ approach.

Kanban, on the other hand, is more free-flowing. Procedures are on-demand and the due date philosophy is made flexible, determined by developers as and when they want to tweak ‘em.

Task prioritization

Are you a developer that often finds yourself in a situation where you have too much on your plate and need help prioritizing what needs to get done first? Scrum might be right for you It uses a “pull system” that allows more focus on task completion and deadlines.

In comparison, Kanban focuses more on the flow of work, not the speed at which it is completed. Instead of using a “pull system,” Kanban utilizes a “push system” or a process that allows members to push tasks as and when they are completed.

Productivity measurement

Scrum uses “sprint velocity” which is a way of measuring how fast your team can complete a certain amount of work. It's calculated by taking the total amount of work completed in a given sprint and dividing it by the number of work hours dedicated to that sprint.

Where Scrum has a ‘micro-managing’ kind of approach, Kanban focuses on the 360-view of a project. Kanban is more concerned with how long the project as a whole takes to complete than Scrum, which only focuses on how many tasks were completed within each sprint

When To Use Kanban vs. Scrum

Scrum, Kanban, and other agile methods all help developers get to where their product needs to be with fewer obstacles along the way. Just like choosing between a road bike or a mountain bike, both have their own pros and cons.

When to use Kanban:

Kanban is particularly useful for developers with unclear or changing goals.

If you’re looking for a starting point where you don't have to redesign your whole work process but want the benefits of an agile process, it’s the way to go.

Go for Kanban if you:

  • Would like more of a visually-enabled approach.
  • Have flexible development projects or require creativity in your workflows.
  • Want to integrate adaptability to change and make required course corrections rapidly.

When to use Scrum:

Scrum is best for projects that have clear priorities and points that don't change over time.

Teams build up the project around deadlines so they're able to deliver on time without worrying about changes in priorities along the way.

This is great when you know exactly what you want out of your product and when you want it—but it doesn't work as well when priorities shift frequently or there's an opportunity for improvement once you've reached your goal.

Scrum works best if you:

  • Are focused on dividing projects into a sequence of stages.
  • Prefer making adjustments after the end of a sprint rather than in real-time.
  • Want clearly defined roles for your team members.

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