Talking about waterfalls and scrum masters sounds like some sort of fictional nonsense to many, but these represent important concepts in Project Management. In Project Management there are two main methodologies that prevail. Don’t feel bad if these concepts are a little challenging at first; however, understanding them a little better will help guide you in which way to go. Most project managers have difficulty understanding the difference because most of us specialize in one or the other. You will see similarities in these methods and your daily routines as well.

Waterfall: Waterfall is the traditional project management method where everything is broken down into phases with milestones and target dates. It is called waterfall because the project schedule is typically in a cascading Gantt chart that looks like a waterfall (see above photo). In waterfall, a thing happens, and then after it is complete another thing happens.

Building a home is a perfect example of waterfall. Building a home would have a lot clearing phase, a foundation phase, a framing phase, and so forth. There is a very detailed plan created that outlines every single task, typical duration, and estimated cost from clearing the land to handing over the keys to the owner. It is easy to monitor the schedule and use it as a map to see if the project is on track and on budget.

Many leaders prefer waterfall because it is very quantifiable. They can easily see if costs are on track, if milestones are being hit, and a whole slew of other metrics. Waterfall is a time-tested and proven method for projects that are predictable, like building a home, planning the Air Force Ball, preparing for a deployment, etc. Waterfall is not good for innovative projects like software development or with anything where the word prototype would be used.

Scrum: Scrum is the solution for innovative projects or projects where something new is being created. This is why software and technology companies have adopted it. Scrum is part of the Agile framework and received its name from rugby. In a rugby scrum members of a team interlock and work together to advance the ball. In a scrum project, the same concept applies.

Before I get into what scrum is, I will explain the reason for it. Think about creating a new version of Windows for this example. You sit down with the project team and go over all of the requirements, the desired outcome, the budget, the expected launch date, and all of the other details. You plan the infrastructure, what language to code in, who needs to be involved. Then you analyze the plan to sort out all of the details, do root cause analysis for any known problems this new version is proposed to fix, etc. Then you have a design phase where architects and tech writers are mapping networks and code structures. Then developers finally put fingers to keyboards a few months in and try to make the “paper plan” a reality. This goes on for several months and then there is testing and integration in hopes to launch. This is the waterfall method in action and software companies where learning that by the time they delivered a software solution to the customer, the software was no longer needed or wanted.

Scrum and Agile are all about iterations called sprints where teams develop fast, fail fast, and adapt until a solution is found. The same scenario described above would look like this. The architects, developers, customer, and everyone else would be in the same room (real of virtual) and talk about the problem they are solving. The customer lays out his “must-haves” and would “like-to-haves” and then the team brainstorms a solution. This is broken down into user stories that are actionable and placed into a backlog. The Scrum Master (project manager with a cooler name) works with the customer to determine priorities and orders the backlog accordingly.

The scrum team will choose stories from this backlog to complete the next feature they are trying to create during the next iteration. Instead of trying to deliver all of ‘Windows’, they would complete something smaller like the menu structure. At the end of the iteration (known as a sprint), they present a tested product to the customer for immediate feedback. This continues until the entire version is complete. This is a better management style for this type of project because the constant delivery and feedback ensures the customer is getting what they need and allows for changes to evolving needs. Everyone knows if the solution is meeting the need after a few weeks instead of a few months or longer.

Neither waterfall or scrum are the panacea for the project manager world and both fill very different needs based on the industry. Some organizations try to flock to the newest trend and some try to combine the two into what is known as scrummerfall (we will save that one for another day). The bottomline is both are proven to work well when used correctly. Look deeper into each methodology and see which one appeals to you more.

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