A Look at Scrum vs. Traditional Project Management

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Scrum" by Jeff Sutherland. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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In what ways are the traditional project management methods flawed? How does the Scrum method overcome those flaws?

In his book Scrum, Jeff Sutherland compares the Scrum method to more traditional management methods, such as the Waterfall method. Sutherland points out that these traditional methods don’t work well because they’re based on unrealistic optimism, whereas the Scrum method is based on flexibility and reality.

Let’s take a look at Scrum vs. traditional project management methods.

Scrum vs. a Traditional Management System

Within the Scrum framework, Sutherland advises that your team constantly inspect its methods and processes so that you can adapt to problems or changes in real-time. This contrasts with a traditional project management style where you’d wait to finish a pre-planned stage and then review your results—by which time it’s often a huge hassle or too late to fix issues.

(Shortform note: In general, it’s good practice to assess your work as you’re working on it. Waiting to review something until after it’s complete can waste a lot of time and energy. This can be used in your daily life as well. Instead of waiting until the end of the month or end of the quarter to review your own performance, why not do it every day? One expert recommends you write down your daily routine and go over it to determine how to better spend your time.)

Sutherland argues that this traditional style, widely called the Waterfall Method, causes more problems than it solves. It relies on extensive planning and linear progression, which Sutherland claims is an inefficient way to manage a complex, creative project.

Here’s an assessment of Scrum vs. the traditional project management method.

The Waterfall Method

One reason Sutherland says the Waterfall method doesn’t work is that it’s an exercise in unrealistic optimism: It’s hopeful to think that through careful planning you can know exactly how to do something and how much time, effort, and manpower it will take. Unfortunately, when that plan meets with reality, it almost always falls apart. With Scrum, Sutherland creates a framework based on the way humans actually work, taking into account what we struggle with and what we’re naturally good at.

What We’re Bad At

Under the right circumstances, people can do amazing things. We’re capable of complex thought and creative problem-solving that can change the world. In many ways, though, our brains are very limited. We simply aren’t able to do some things no matter how hard we try. It’s important to understand our limitations if we wish to achieve greatness.

(Shortform note: In the past century, work, school, and even daily life have grown increasingly complex, demanding more and more of our mental energies. Research suggests human intelligence may be leveling off. As our brains near their optimal capacity, we may have to use sources outside of our brains such as technology, our bodies, or physical space to supplement our limited mental capabilities.)

We’re Bad at Estimating Time

Humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take. When determining the amount of time a task will take, we can underestimate or overestimate by a factor of four. In other words, the task can take four times as long as expected, or a quarter of the time expected.

Why Humans Are Bad at Estimating Time

Sutherland says many times how bad people are at estimating, but doesn’t delve into why that is. Other experts have suggested some reasons:

Procrastination: Procrastination can add significant time to a project. Researchers suggest most procrastination comes from a fear of failure.
Bad Habits: When we perform any task, our brains tend to repeat how we did it whether it was done the right way or not. We often don’t consider how our bad habits will slow us down when estimating.
Planning Fallacy: People tend to be optimistic when planning things out. That is, we think we can perform tasks at a much faster rate than we actually can. Even when we know things usually take longer than we plan, this phenomenon still occurs.
Anchoring Bias: If we set an initial plan for completing a project, we become anchored to that plan even as it becomes clear it isn’t working properly.

We Don’t Speak Up

In a group setting, people also struggle with trusting their own judgment. Whether out of fear of looking unintelligent or misinformed, or a general sense that other people make sound decisions, the “bandwagon effect” causes people to go along with whatever decision the group makes. When making an important business decision, this can be a big problem. Half the group may think something is a bad idea but nobody says anything.

(Shortform note: The term “bandwagon effect” originated in politics, but its influence is prominent in the business and economics worlds. In some ways, it’s helpful, as the popularity of a product can demonstrate its quality or usefulness. This can become a problem, though, when the popularity of a product isn’t aligned with quality. Effective marketing, combined with the bandwagon effect, may cause people to buy a product that they may not need or like.)

We Work Too Much

People who work too hard are less productive. Corporate culture often insists that employees work long hours in order to get as much done as possible. Sutherland argues that this has a negative impact on productivity, as it can lead to burnout and a demoralized workforce. In fact, he says that overworked employees actually get less done in more time. The ideal workweek is just under forty hours. If you work much more than that, your output will decrease.

(Shortform note: The effects of overworking and burnout are hugely detrimental. Overworking can lead to stress, sleep deprivation, and even death. In Japan, there is even a term for death by overwork: karoshi. Research suggests that this problem is spreading worldwide: An estimated 745,000 people died in 2016 from working too many hours.)

What We’re Good At

Just as crucial as understanding our limitations is understanding what we excel at. The Scrum method aims to help you work in ways that take advantage of how our brains function.

Comparative Sizing

People may be terrible at estimating time, but we are much better at comparing things. You may struggle to estimate how long it will take to mop the kitchen floor, but you know the living room is going to take much longer because it’s a bigger room. Sutherland suggests using comparative sizing when estimating the difficulty of a task. Instead of estimating by time, estimate tasks by categorizing them into relative sizes. Our brains will be able to compute these estimations much more easily.

(Shortform note: Although it’s difficult to know how long a project will take, executives and clients may still want an estimation. Robert C. Martin’s The Clean Coder provides three methods for estimating a project’s length. The Delphi method combines individual assessments to come to a group consensus. The Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) uses a formula that includes an optimistic, pessimistic, and most likely time estimate. Another method, derived from the law of large numbers, is to estimate in smaller chunks and add them up.)

Sharing Knowledge

Humans are social creatures. Our ability to communicate complex ideas and learn from each other are some of our greatest strengths. Sutherland understands this and recommends a work structure in which communication is fostered and knowledge is shared. Throughout a project, make sure to give employees the opportunity to exchange ideas and learn about things outside their specialties. 

The Power of Sharing Knowledge

A work culture that enables and encourages employees to share knowledge is much more effective than one that doesn’t. Experts note six benefits of knowledge sharing:

1. Employees use each other’s best practices
2. Employees make quicker, better decisions
3. Knowledge doesn’t leave when an employee does
4. Decreases costs of outsourcing and third-party training
5. Employee-based training is more interactive and effective
6. Employees gain a sense of belonging

Understanding Narratives

People understand the world through stories. It’s how we contextualize information and comprehend difficult concepts. Therefore Sutherland advises that when planning a project, think about it like a story, not an abstract concept. Who are you building the product for? Why do they want it? How are they going to use it? If the entire team knows the story behind the project, and each task within it, they will work much more efficiently. 

The Power of Storytelling

There are several psychological reasons storytelling is so powerful:

Our brains have evolved through narrative: Since the earliest days of recorded history, humans have used stories to understand the world in the forms of myth, tradition, and symbol. We use stories to create our identities, teach social values, and explain how things work.
Stories connect people and help us empathize: When we hear a story, we’re able to see things from a different perspective. Our emotional response to narratives dictates most of our decisions.
Stories provide structure and meaning: The world is a lot more chaotic and random than we like to think. By imposing a narrative on the events in our lives, we give them an order we’re better equipped to understand.
A Look at Scrum vs. Traditional Project Management

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jeff Sutherland's "Scrum" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Scrum summary :

  • Why the "Waterfall Method" leads to inefficiency and wasted money
  • An explanation of the Scrum method and details on how to implement it
  • How to use Sprints to get more work done

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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