Agile and Scrum: What do these terms really mean?

This article was originally published on the Wordbee website

A few weeks ago, I checked up on my family in Italy to find out how they are navigating these interesting times. In response to my question about how work was going, a relative replied: “We’ve gone agile!” It took me a few minutes to realize that we were talking at cross-purposes. I thought my relative had moved from a teaching job to one in software development. But he simply meant that he and all his colleagues were working from home. Remote working in Italy is now called “lavoro agile“ or “smart working“. 

Agile: What Does It Really Mean?

 “Agile” comes from the Latin agilis, i.e. quick, nimble and adaptable. This is exactly what companies expect from their staff today, believing that the principles of traditional management are no longer suited to modern production conditions, characterized by competition, a demand for greater productivity, speed and quality. Therefore, many businesses have introduced new project management methods and techniques, inspired by the agile methodology.

The agile methodology, as we know it today, dates back to 2001. In an attempt to find an alternative to waterfall project management (which structures a software project into a series of linear sequences), a group of software developers outlined the Agile Manifesto for software development to define a new, leaner, and faster working method.

The 12 principles of the agile methodology take into account the unpredictability of software development. The work is divided into sprints, which are just small, incremental, and iterative phases. Each sprint corresponds to the development and implementation of a new functionality. In essence, the agile methodology defines an iterative (and interactive) approach to easily make changes to a project, reduce production costs and, above all, avoid unnecessary effort and even a potential project failure.

A team working according to the agile methodology focuses first of all on the quality as it is perceived by users, the user experience of the product, the user satisfaction and, consequently, the continuous improvement of the production process, the product technology and, ultimately, the product itself.

Scrum: What Has Rugby Got To Do With Software Development?

The agile mindset has inspired many practical methodologies, and one of the most popular is called Scrum.  

Scrum is the most widespread agile framework, particularly suited for complex and innovative projects. As a typical agile method, a scrum project is divided into sprints to synchronize the product development process with the needs of the customers. Each sprint lasts from 2 to 4 weeks and is timeboxed, i.e. it cannot be extended and it will end even if the work has not been completed.

The term “scrum” was used for the first time by two Japanese professors and experts in organizational heory, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka. They borrowed the name from the game of rugby. In rugby a scrum (or scrummage) is a method of restarting play in a match, with all the players of a team pushing in the same direction to gain possession of the ball and advance towards the goal. Hirotaka and Nonaka chose the term as a metaphor for the collaboration of all the members of a development team who must work together in the development of a complex product. Like in rugby, a scrum is used to bring order. 

An official Scrum website is available now with the relative guide as further developed by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber in the ’90s. The organization also offers training and certification programs for those who want to pursue a career as a Scrum Master, i.e. a servant-leader for the Scrum Team. One of the tasks of a Scrum Master is helping those outside the Scrum Team to understand which interactions with the Scrum Team are helpful and which are not. 

It’s easy to see why the agile methodology and the Scrum framework are essential for continuous software development and deployment. Additionally, it makes sense for any localization company that wants to offer its services to software development organizations, to first get acquainted with the principles of agile and/or scrum and, subsequently, proceed to implement the right piece of technology, to move seamlessly from continuous software development to continuous software localization.

One final remark: In his best-seller Lab Rats (2019) on work in the Silicon Valley, journalist and best-selling author Dan Lyons defines the agile methodology as “akin to a religion for how to run every part of a company.” It’s, of course, a harsh statement, but it contains some truth. Although the agile and scrum methodologies were born in an IT context and meant for software production, their processes and principles have been extended to other activities. In fact, many efforts have been made to implement the agile methodology in other sectors, until now without little concrete or meaningful results. But this is a discussion for another time.


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