Another student project ready to be sacrificed at the alter of “if only we had more time” (credit: pexels.com)

Why Scrum is difficult for students

For years I have been working with university students who have been struggling with Scrum. They all have been given thorough introduction to what the Scrum methodology is all about and how it works. They also all share the same attitude towards Scrum: It looks easy so what’s the big deal?.

Yet, they all suck at using Scrum in their projects. Why is that?

In this article I would like to outline several reasons I believe make students suck at using scrum. Hint: It’s not really their fault.

1) The mindset is alien

Students often understand projects from a waterfall perspective. In those there is a set deadline with a fixed amount of time and a list of requirements that has to be fulfilled at the end of the project. Since kindergarden they have be taught to understand that projects are all about planning your time up front to ensure you get through all of it. They are taught to believe that a good project is one where you have planned everything in detail and that this will somehow lead them to success. And yet they go through one project after another where they are struggling to follow their golden plan for several reasons:

  • Estimating tasks is very difficult and requires a ton of experience having done the same type of tasks over and over again. Students lack this experience and thus struggle keeping the estimates realistic.
  • Things change during the project. This can be difficult to handle and often means that the plan has to be adjusted. As a consequence hereof students often find themselves in a situation where they are forced to add new tasks to the project but at the same time all the other tasks remain. They just have to work faster and/or longer hours.
  • Project plans are fragile. If the group starts being behind on a task, the rest can quickly run off the tracks. It is difficult to add something new or go in another direction even if you discover during the project that it would better to do so. The plan is often perceived as set in stone and treated as almost holy.

When students reflect and complain about how their project management failed, it can often be heard that they didn’t have enough time. Didn’t have enough time for what? Well, to finish whatever was planned in the beginning of the project. And that is where the Scrum method differs. In Scrum you have focus on what is the most important (e.g. most valuable for the project) to work on at any given time. You prioritise tasks so that the group spend their time working on what is the most important to work on at the given time. And this prioritisation is an ongoing process meaning that it is not a requirement to complete all tasks that were envisioned during the project. Instead the time is spent on doing what is most important at a given time. So in a Scrum project the question is not if you have enough time, but on whether you are spending the time you have on the most important things.

The Scrum method wasborn from best practise and best practises are developed as ways to avoid pains. The students have never felt these pains, so why should they appreciate this best practice? It can be difficult to understand why you have to structure the project in a certain way and why you have to “waste” your time with the meetings inherited in Scrum, because they fail to understand the value that it brings by avoiding these pains.

Another thing that makes Scrum seem alien to many students is that it is highly associated with software and web development. This might be a world far away from what the students know and thus more difficult to related to. Many online resources alude to this world when discussing Scrum making it seem perhaps more tech-oriented than the industry-agnostic framework that it is.

2) It hurts

When students come to Scrum for the first time they struggle because they try to threat Scrum as a predictive method. This means that they try to take control of the process and try to plan as much as they can up front thereby locking the project into this plan. By doing this they go against the agile principles behind Scrum. So why do they do this?

Because this helps against uncertainty. And if you come from a world of planning all your projects in advance then letting go of this thinking can be intimidating.

To work with Scrum means to embrace uncertainty. However, this does not mean that you let go of the control over the project. Instead Scrum is all about ensuring that you spend your time on doing the most valuable things.

3) The environment does not support it

Finally, it is very difficult to run a “real” Scrum project when you are in a school environment for several reasons.

First of all, the timeframe. Scrum is a way for a team to focus on continuous delivery through a process of self-improvement and priority of tasks. For the team to become good at this takes time. It is not uncommon for a scrum team to spent several months, if not a year, to hone in and get into the good scrum flow.

And then there is the length of sprints. Often you see 4 weeks suggested as the optimal length for sprint period. 4 weeks! That is in many cases the length of an entire school project. So what now, just have one sprint? Nah, that would make no sense at all.

A big part of how Scrum tries to ensure that business value is generated is through the role of the Product Owner. However, most school projects do not easily lend themselves to having a Product Owner. So what should the team then do?

Finally, for students to run succesful Scrum projects it is paramount that their educators also understand Scrum. If you have an environment where students are presented with deliverables they have to hand-in throughout the project, it can easily morph into a phase-by-phase project where it simply is impossible to iterate through sprints. Educators have to align the project requirements with the Scrum proces and empower the students to make descisions about their deliveries and how they want these to be of value.

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Jarne W. Beutnagel

Jarne W. Beutnagel

Associate professor, web geek and a devil on the dance floor.

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