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Last Updated May 19, 2020 — Enterprise Agile Planning expert

Scrum Reference Card

Enterprise Agile Planning

Scrum Reference Card

About Scrum

A Management Framework

Scrum is a management framework for incremental product development using one or more cross-functional, self-organizing teams of about seven people each.

It provides a structure of roles, meetings, rules, and artifacts. Teams are responsible for creating and adapting their processes within this framework.

Scrum uses fixed-length iterations, called Sprints. Sprints are no more than 30 days long, preferably shorter. Scrum teams try to build a potentially releasable (properly tested) product increment every Sprint.

An Alternative to Waterfall

Scrum’s incremental, iterative approach trades the traditional phases of "waterfall" development for the ability to develop a subset of high-value features first, incorporating feedback sooner.

The greatest potential benefit of Scrum is for complex work involving knowledge creation and collaboration, such as new product development. Scrum is usually associated with object-oriented software development. Its use has also spread to the development of products such as semiconductors, mortgages, and wheelchairs.

Doing Scrum, or Pretending to Do Scrum?

Scrum’s relentless reality checks expose dysfunctional constraints in individuals, teams, and organizations. Many people claiming to do Scrum modify the parts that require breaking through organizational impediments and end up robbing themselves of most of the benefits.

 Scrum Meetings

Sprint Planning Meeting

At the beginning of each Sprint, the Product Owner and team hold a Sprint Planning Meeting to negotiate which Product Backlog Items they will attempt to convert to working product during the Sprint. The Product Owner is responsible for declaring which items are the most important to the business. The Development Team is responsible for selecting the amount of work they feel they can implement without accruing technical debt. The team “pulls” work from the Product Backlog to the Sprint Backlog.

When teams are given complex work that has inherent uncertainty, they must work together to intuitively gauge how much work to pull into a Sprint, while learning from previous Sprints. Planning their hourly capacity and comparing their estimates to actuals makes the team pretend to be precise and reduces ownership. Unless the work is truly predictable, they should discard such practices within the first few Sprints or avoid them altogether.

Until a team has learned how to complete a potentially releasable product increment each Sprint, it should reduce the amount of functionality it plans. Failure to change old habits leads to technical debt and eventual design death, as shown in Figure 15.

If the top of the Product Backlog has not been refined, a portion of the Planning meeting might be spent doing this. Toward the end of the Sprint Planning Meeting, the team determines how it will accomplish the work. For example they may break the selected items into an initial list of Sprint Tasks.

The maximum allotted time (a.k.a. timebox) for planning a 30-day Sprint is eight hours, reduced proportionally for a shorter Sprint.

Daily Scrum and Sprint Execution

Every day at the same time and place, the Scrum Development Team members spend a total of 15 minutes inspecting their progress toward the Sprint goal, and creating a plan for the day. Team members share with each other what they did the previous day to help meet the Sprint goal, what they’ll do today, and what impediments they face.

Standing up at the Daily Scrum will help keep it short. Topics that require additional attention may be discussed by whoever is interested after every team member has reported.

The team may find it useful to maintain a current Sprint Task List, and a Sprint Burndown Chart. During Sprint execution it is common to discover additional tasks necessary to achieve the Sprint goals. Impediments caused by issues beyond the team’s control are considered organizational impediments.

The Daily Scrum is intended to disrupt old habits of working separately. Members should remain vigilant for signs of the old approach. For example, looking only at the Scrum Master when speaking is one symptom that the team hasn’t learned to operate as a self-organizing entity.

Sprint Review Meeting

At the end of the Sprint, the Scrum Team holds a Sprint Review Meeting to demonstrate a working product increment to everyone who is interested, particularly outside stakeholders.

The meeting should feature a live demonstration, not a report.

The Product Owner reviews the items selected during the Sprint Planning Meeting and explains which items are considered done. For example, a software item that is merely “code complete” is considered not done, because untested software isn’t shippable. Incomplete items are returned to the Product Backlog and ranked according to the Product Owner’s revised priorities as candidates for future Sprints.

The Scrum Master helps the Product Owner and stakeholders convert their feedback to new Product Backlog Items for prioritization by the Product Owner. Often, new scope discovery outpaces the team’s rate of development. If the Product Owner feels that the newly discovered scope is more important than the original expectations, new scope displaces old scope in the Product Backlog. Some items will never be done.

The Sprint Review Meeting is the appropriate meeting for external stakeholders (even end users) to attend. It is the opportunity to inspect and adapt the product as it emerges. New products, particularly software products, are hard to visualize in a vacuum. Many customers need to be able to react to a piece of functioning software to discover what they will actually want. Iterative development, a value-driven approach, allows the creation of products that couldn’t have been specified up front in a plan-driven approach.

Sprint Retrospective Meeting

Each Sprint ends with a retrospective. At this meeting, the team reflects on its own process. They inspect their behavior and take action to adapt it for future Sprints.

Dedicated Scrum Masters will find alternatives to the stale, fearful meetings everyone has come to expect. An in-depth retrospective requires an environment of psychological safety not found in most organizations. Without safety, the retrospective discussion will either avoid the uncomfortable issues or deteriorate into blaming and hostility.

A common impediment to full transparency on the team is the presence of people who conduct performance appraisals.

Another impediment to an insightful retrospective is the human tendency to jump to conclusions and propose actions too quickly. Agile Retrospectives, the most popular book on this topic, describes a series of steps to slow this process down: Set the stage, gather data, generate insights, decide what to do, close the retrospective. 1 Another guide recommended for Scrum Masters, The Art of Focused Conversations, breaks the process into similar steps: Objective, reflective, interpretive, and decisional (ORID).2 A third impediment to psychological safety is geographic distribution. Geographically dispersed teams usually do not collaborate as well as those in team rooms. Retrospectives often expose organizational impediments. Once a team has resolved the impediments within its immediate influence, the Scrum Master should work to expand that influence, chipping away at the organizational impediments.

Scrum Masters should use a variety of techniques to facilitate retrospectives, including silent writing, timelines, and satisfaction histograms. In all cases, the goals are to gain a common understanding of multiple perspectives and to develop actions that will take the team and organization to the next level.

Backlog Refinement Meeting

Most Product Backlog Items (PBIs) initially need refinement because they are too large and poorly understood. While Backlog Refinement is not a required event, it is a required activity. Most Scrum Teams find it useful to take a short time out of every Sprint for this activity. They get together to prepare the Product Backlog for upcoming Sprint Planning Meetings.

In the Backlog Refinement Meeting, large vague items are split and clarified, considering both business and technical concerns. Sometimes a subset of the team, in conjunction with the Product Owner and other stakeholders, will compose and split Product Backlog Items before involving the entire team.

While refining items, the team may estimate the amount of effort they would expend to complete items in the Product Backlog and provides other technical information to help the Product Owner prioritize them.3

A skilled Scrum Master can help the team identify thin vertical slices of work that still have business value, while promoting a rigorous definition of “done” that includes proper testing and refactoring.

It is common to write Product Backlog Items in User Story form.4 In this approach, oversized PBIs are called epics. Traditional development breaks features into horizontal tasks (resembling waterfall phases) that cannot be prioritized independently and lack business value from the customer’s perspective. This habit is hard to break.

Agility requires learning to split large epics into user stories representing very small product features. For example, in a medical records application the epic “display the entire contents of a patient’s allergy records to a doctor” yielded the story “display whether or not any allergy records exist.” While the engineers anticipated significant technical challenges in parsing the internal aspects of the allergy records, the presence or absence of any allergy was the most important thing the doctors needed to know. Collaboration between business people and technical people to split this epic yielded a story representing 80% of the business value for 20% of the effort of the original epic.

Since most customers don’t use most features of most products, it’s wise to split epics to deliver the most valuable stories first. While delivering lower-value features later is likely to involve some rework, rework is better than no work.

This activity has also been called “Backlog Grooming,” “Backlog Maintenance,” or “Story Time.”

Scrum Artifacts

Scrum defines three artifacts: Product Backlog, Sprint Backlog, and Increment.

Product Backlog

  • Force-ranked (prioritized) list of desired functionality
  • Visible to all stakeholders
  • Any stakeholder (including the Team) can add items
  • Constantly re-prioritized by the Product Owner
  • Constantly refined by the Scrum Team
  • Items at top should be smaller (e.g. smaller than 1/4 of a Sprint) than items at bottom

Product Backlog Item (PBI)

  • Describes the what more than the how of a customer-centric feature
  • Often written in User Story form
  • Has a product-wide definition of done to prevent technical debt
  • May have item-specific acceptance criteria
  • Effort is estimated by the Development Team, ideally in relative units (e.g., story points)

Sprint Backlog

  • Consists of selected PBIs negotiated between the team and the Product Owner during the Sprint Planning Meeting
  • No changes are made during the Sprint that would endanger the Sprint Goal.
  • Initial tasks are identified by the team during Sprint Planning Meeting
  • Team will discover additional tasks needed to meet the Sprint Goal during Sprint execution
  • Visible to the team
  • Referenced during the Daily Scrum Meeting


  • The product capabilities completed during the Sprints
  • Brought to a usable, releasable state by the end of each Sprint
  • Released as often as the Product Owner wishes
  • Inspected during every Sprint Review Meeting

Sprint Task (optional)

  • Describes how to achieve the PBI’s what
  • Typically involves one day or less of work
  • During Sprint Execution, a point person may volunteer to be primarily responsible for a task
  • Owned by the entire team; collaboration is expected

Sprint Burndown Chart (optional)

  • Summation of total team work remaining within one Sprint
  • Updated daily
  • May go up before going down
  • Intended to facilitate team self-organization
  • Fancy variations, such as itemizing by point person or adding trend lines, tend to reduce effectiveness at encouraging collaboration
  • Seemed like a good idea in the early days of Scrum, but in practice has often been misused as a management report, inviting intervention. The Scrum Master should discontinue use of this chart if it becomes an impediment to team self-organization.

Product / Release Burndown Chart (optional)

  • Tracks the remaining Product Backlog effort from one Sprint to the next
  • May use relative units such as Story Points for Y axis
  • Depicts historical trends to adjust forecasts


Bad News: It’s Hard.

Scrum addresses uncertain requirements and technology risks by grouping people from multiple disciplines into one team (ideally in one team room) to maximize communication bandwidth, visibility, and trust.

Good News: Feature Teams May Help.

The most successful approach to this problem has been the creation of fully cross-functional “feature teams,” able to operate at all layers of the architecture in order to deliver customer-centric features. In a large system this requires learning new skills.

As teams focus on learning — rather than short-term micro-efficiencies — they can help create a learning organization.

When requirements are uncertain and technology risks are high, adding too many people to the situation makes things worse. Grouping people by specialty also makes things worse. Grouping people by architectural  components (a.k.a. component teams) makes things worse . . . eventually.

More Bad News: It’s Still Hard.

Large organizations are particularly challenged when it comes to Agility. Most have not gotten past pretending to do Scrum.6 Scrum Masters in large organizations should meet with management regularly, promoting transformation.7

Related Practices


Scrum is a general framework coinciding with the Agile movement in software development, which is partly inspired by Lean manufacturing approaches such as the Toyota Production System.8

eXtreme Programming (XP)

While Scrum does not prescribe specific engineering practices, Scrum Masters are responsible for promoting increased rigor in the definition of done. Items that are called “done” should stay done. Automated regression testing prevents vampire stories that leap out of the grave. Design, architecture, and infrastructure must emerge over time, subject to continuous reconsideration and refinement, instead of being “finalized” at the beginning, when we know nothing.

The Scrum Master can inspire the team to learn engineering practices associated with XP: Continuous Integration (continuous automated testing), Test-Driven Development (TDD), constant merciless refactoring, pair programming, frequent check-ins, etc. Informed application of these practices prevents technical debt.

Team Self-Organization

Engaged Teams Outperform Manipulated Teams

During Sprint execution, team members develop an intrinsic interest in shared goals and learn to manage each other to achieve them. The natural human tendency to be accountable to a peer group contradicts years of habit for workers. Allowing a team to become self-propelled, rather than manipulated through extrinsic punishments and rewards, contradicts years of habit for managers. 10 The Scrum Master’s observation and persuasion skills increase the probability of success, despite the initial discomfort.

Challenges and Opportunities

Self-organizing teams can radically outperform larger, traditionally managed teams. Family-sized groups naturally self-organize when the right conditions are met:

  • members are committed to clear, short-term goals
  • members can gauge the group’s progress
  • members can observe each other’s contribution
  • members feel safe to give each other unvarnished feedback

Psychologist Bruce Tuckman describes stages of group development as “forming, storming, norming, performing.”11 Optimal self-organization takes time. The team may perform worse during early iterations than it would have performed as a traditionally managed working group.12

Heterogeneous teams outperform homogeneous teams at complex work. They also experience more conflict.13 Disagreements are normal and healthy on an engaged team; team performance will be determined by how well the team handles these conflicts.

Bad apple theory suggests that a single negative individual (“withholding effort from the group, expressing negative affect, or violating important interpersonal norms”14) can disproportionately reduce the performance of an entire group. Such individuals are rare, but their impact is magnified by a team’s reluctance to remove them. This can be partly mitigated by giving teams greater influence over who joins them.

Other individuals who underperform in a boss/worker situation (due to being under-challenged or micromanaged) will shine on a Scrum team.

Self-organization is hampered by conditions such as geographic distribution, boss/worker dynamics, part-time team members, and interruptions unrelated to Sprint goals. Most teams will benefit from a full-time Scrum Master who works hard to mitigate these kinds of impediments.15

When is Scrum Appropriate?

Scrum is intended for the kinds of work people have found unmanageable using defined processes — uncertain requirements combined with unpredictable technology implementation risks. When deciding whether to apply Scrum, as opposed to plan-driven approaches such as those described by the PMBOK® Guide, consider whether the underlying mechanisms are well-understood or whether the work depends on knowledge creation and collaboration. For example, Scrum was not originally intended for repeatable types of production and services.

Also consider whether there is sufficient commitment to grow a self-organizing team.

About the Authors

Michael James learned to program many years ago. He worked directly with Ken Schwaber to become a Scrum trainer. He coaches technical folks, managers, and executives on optimizing businesses to deliver value.

Luke Walter learned empirical product development many years ago as an industrial designer. He encountered Scrum on a development team with Michael James, before they both became Scrum trainers. He coaches businesses to recognize wasteful practices and organize around customer value. 

1 Agile Retrospectives, Pragmatic Bookshelf, Derby/Larson (2006)

2 The Art of Focused Conversations, New Society Publishers (2000)

3 The team should collaborate to produce a jointly-owned estimate for an item.

4 User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development, Addison Wesley, Cohn (2004)

5 Agile Estimation and Planning, Cohn, Addison Wesley (2006)

6 “Seven Obstacles to Enterprise Agility,” Gantthead, James (2010)

7 See to learn about Large Scale Scrum (LeSS)

8 Agile movement defined at

9 Graph inspired by discussions with Ronald E. Jeffries

10 Intrinsic motivation is linked to mastery, autonomy, and purpose. “Rewards” harm this

11 “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups.” Psychological Bulletin, 63 (6): 384-99 Tuckman, referenced repeatedly by Schwaber.

12 The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, Katzenbach, Harper Business (1994)

13 Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, Sawyer, Basic Books (2007). (This book is #2 on Michael James’s list of recommended reading for Scrum Masters.)

14 “How, when, and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative group members and dysfunctional groups.” Research in Organizational Behavior, Volume 27, 181–230, Felps/Mitchell/Byington, (2006)

15 An example detailed list of full-time Scrum Master responsibilities:

16 Extensively modified version of a graph in Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics, Stacey (1993), referenced in Agile Software Development with Scrum, Schwaber/Beedle (2001).

17 Process Dynamics, Modeling, and Control, Ogunnaike, Oxford University Press, 1992.



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