Project Management Tools that Every Scrum Master Should Use

The project has been decided upon, the teams are in position, and the scrum master selected. The latter knows his or her job responsibilities but what are the project management tools to use in order to achieve the optimum result? Although there is a well-used English proverb that says; “It’s a bad workman who blames his tools”, many times it is actually their limitations or misuse that cause a job to fail, not the person himself.

Scrum Tools

As a broad conclusion to a wide range of research into project management techniques, of those companies utilizing Agile Methodology, nearly 60% implement scrum and a further 20% combine it with other frameworks. That’s nearly everyone requiring access to some standard tools, often referred to as scrum artifacts. To be successful with scrum, getting the maximum out of every cycle, these tools are essential and are combined with the major scrum events; the Daily Scrum, the Sprint Review, and the Retrospective.  

Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog

-The product backlog may well be described as the single most important document or tool. It outlines every requirement for a system, project or product and, in effect, is a complete list of features desired to successfully produce the final product, examining the work items and bugs in addition to technical work and knowledge acquisition.

-The sprint backlog is the specific list of items, pulled from the product backlog, which need to be completed during a sprint. The tool here is usually found in the form of a spreadsheet, either in the traditional sense or as part of tracking software, and this is normally updated on a daily basis. However, the scrum master and team have the ability to tweak the sprint backlog, as a project progresses, in order to match its real-time progression.

User Stories

-For the scrum master and for the entire team, the user stories are the most common tool used to break down and measure work. Written from the perspective of the end-user, namely the customer, they describe the requirements that teams must complete over the course of a sprint. In turn, the stories can be broken down further into tasks. Hence, this tool allows the scrum master to assign members specific tasks and stories, monitor their progress, and adjust the number of people required for each in relation to their level and range of skills.    

Release Burndown Chart

-The release burndown chart is the device used to track the progress of a sprint. Progression can be measured in the unit of choice, for example, in story points or within a time framework. Typically, the vertical y-axis on the burndown chart measures the total number of stories to be completed, whilst the x-axis measures the time in the given sprint cycle. Steady downward decline in the slope depicts the ideal scenario, ie with user stories and tasks being on track to finish in time and thus being completed to reach the end of the sprint. After each sprint, the chart is updated. The tool allows easy visualization of progress and performance whilst providing performance data for future sprints.

Velocity Chart

-In a similar way to how the burndown chart measures the work completed in each sprint, the velocity chart measures the work completed over the course of an entire project. With this tool, the y-axis represents the number of story points and the x-axis the number of sprints. Although the velocity chart is usually thought of as a management tool providing a higher level overview of the effectiveness and productivity of the team, it should also be seen as of great value to the scrum master in his daily and weekly work routine. The benefits to him are that, particularly with experienced scrum teams, he is able to use average velocity as a useful planning tool for both current and future projects. He gains a much clearer picture of the capabilities of the team he has at his disposal.   

Task Board

-The Task Board, or Work Board, is a fundamental tool of Daily Scrum Reports, being seen as the team’s home base if you were to think of it in baseball terminology. Every member of the team has access to it and can add to it over the course of the sprint. It provides a visual representation of every task and at what stage of completion each is. Different projects, and the personnel working on them, may prefer to use a Scrum Board, a Kanban Board, or a modification of either or both. Varying slightly in approach and the way workflow is displayed and labelled, the scrum master in particular needs to decide upon the most suitable version of this tool. The task board and its application spotlights best of all where a good scrum master can blend agile methodology tools together, in this case Scrum and Kanban, to get the desired result. In real terms, the task board is a physical item, usually a whiteboard, and hanging on a wall but more and more nowadays, it is digital and part of a shared network within a scrum software application.  

Scrum Software Tools

Times have changed since the 1990s when the agile method, and in particular scrum, really started playing a major role within the world of project management. How fitting it is that what started out as a novel approach to improve software development, is now itself fully available and accessible through specialized software companies. No longer must everyone be physically together in order to utilize the approach. Globalization, the internet, and the distances between teams working on the same project have perhaps made scrum software the most vital tool of all.

Online scrum tools, accessed via internet connection, facilitate real-time information exchange and collaboration between teams working remotely. They provide an all-in-one agile project management platform which can be used by those remote teams which are part of an organization using scrum or other agile methodology. And, it could well be argued that having distant locations should not be the only reason for deciding on the adoption and implementation of scrum software rather than traditional face-to-face scrum. Consider the players within your organization and whether both they and the work they do would be more successful if it was undertaken online. The bulk of the administration of scrum in your project is carried out by a third party who specializes in enacting it on your behalf. Remember one of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto; “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.”

Software packages for project management are available in all shapes and sizes today, so perhaps the biggest challenge is in finding the one most suitable and effective for your operation. If you search online you will find that the most popular scrum tool is usually seen as Jira software but look elsewhere for best scrum tools and a range of recommended alternatives will appear. Beware! How many of these sites are really recommending something that will suit your requirements or are they simply trying to sell their own rather inflexible product? As in all purchasing situations, you need to choose the tool that is adaptable enough to fit the job you are doing, not let the tool completely control the job.              

Back to Basics

Having discussed the main tools available, which are found within the scrum artifacts and software options, maybe we should also consider going back to one or two far more basic items which should complete the scrum master’s toolbox. OK, he almost certainly depends on the internet and software applications for the majority of things he does but, if he was suddenly without them, what basic tools would be needed to help him survive and be able to continue?  

A Pencil and a Diary

This might sound just that little bit too simplistic but unless you’ve got memory skills akin to Dustin Hoffman in the film “Rain Man”, using a pencil and a diary has to be the easiest, and often the most effective, way to keep track of what is happening in your project. From a personal point of view, I would be completely lost if I didn’t write down everything I have to do, and tick off everything I’ve done, in my own daily diary. Obviously, in today’s technological world, you may prefer to keep your record of events somewhere else which is more accessible; if you like, think of “a pencil and a diary” as a metaphor for this tool which we can refer to as the Scrum Master’s Diary.

A Checklist

Arguably, a checklist for work in any project in any field however big, however small, is an absolute necessity. The scrum master can take on the responsibility of working part-time and handling two or three teams simultaneously but the great scrum master, certainly at the outset, should be working full-time and probably with only one team. He or she can then pay greater attention to setting-up and administrating a comprehensive checklist relevant to the project. An idea to lay out these is to categorize them under three headings; “How is my Product Owner Doing?”, “How is my Team Doing?”, “How are our Engineering Practices Doing?”

Miscellaneous Scrum Tools

Amongst the basic miscellaneous tools are certain things even simpler than the aforementioned pencil, diary, and checklist. Don’t sneer when you hear what they are; multi-coloured sticky notes used on your scrum board or wherever you deem appropriate. These are really one of the best communication tools available in any walk of life and in most photos or videos of scrum events in action they are there to be seen. How many of us have our fridge doors covered in sticky notes reminding us of things that are on our “to-do” list or something equally as important?  

Embracing new ideas or modifying existing ones is another way for a scrum master to make the best use of the tools available. Why not consider techniques such as using a white desk rather than a whiteboard for events like the daily stand-up meeting? It may go against the essence of such an event but if everyone is sitting around a table and can look down at it and write on it, when their turn comes, it may prove to be far more effective than staring up at it on a wall.

Many other ideas for tools exist, particularly amongst the wide range of software packages now available, and individual scrum masters should aim to search for and find the ones that they consider most practical, most appropriate, and can deliver the best results in their project. Using the correct tools for the job allows the scrum master and others involved in the project to have increased transparency and increased performance whilst reducing the time and effort involved. Similarly, they aid in the process of accurately predicting how much work can be completed within a specific time frame which, besides the element of financial cost, is arguably the most fundamental aspect of any project.

With such a plethora of tools available, the great scrum master will employ the best ones for the job and never let himself become “the bad workman who blames his tools.”