Your team can have the most talented developers and operations professionals, but unless you have a solid process to manage how they work on complex projects together, they'll never unlock their full potential. There’s a common solution for that, though. Most modern product development teams adopt an agile approach to bring out their optimal levels of productivity and performance. 

There are a few ways to implement an agile workflow and the two most popular ways are kanban and scrum. People often refer to Kanban and Scrum interchangeably because they're both agile methodologies that help teams build better products efficiently, but what separates them is how roles, tools, and cadences function in each approach. 

This article contains everything you need to know to get an accurate picture of kanban and scrum in your mind and in practice — this is key when you're looking into agile workflow management. Specifically, we'll cover: 

  • Definitions and comparison of roles, tools, and cadences 

  • How to choose the right solution 

  • Optimizing your workflow for successful product management

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Kanban vs. scrum: agile, but not identical

Kanban and scrum are both applications of the agile methodology, a flexible product management approach that helps product teams ship better quality products faster. Agile consists of four values and 12 principles of project organization called the Agile Manifesto. While the agile method was initially drafted for product management teams, it's become an effective and popular project management approach among various industries and businesses. 

The cornerstones of the agile method are the same no matter the implementation, kanban, scrum, or any other agile framework (there's also extreme programming and DSDM). Those cornerstones include 

  • adaptive planning

  • frequent testing

  • gathering customer feedback

  • self-organizing among teams

Together these activities minimize bottlenecks, boost team collaboration, increase customer satisfaction, and help you make constant improvements in your project. These are all goals that align with the Agile Manifesto. 

The kanban method and scrum method are two distinct implementations of agile with their own particular commonalities and differences. Read on and get to know what those are before you jump into either approach. 

Kanban and scrum commonalities 

Kanban and scrum are iterative, structured workflow management methodologies that aim to reduce wasted time and resources. Each offers a clear framework to document and communicate team progress so that everyone has constant visibility into what's happening with your project. They also each use a visual board as their primary tool for updates and project management. 

Kanban and scrum differences

While kanban and scrum are based on the same principles, their real-life applications are different. Kanban is about simple task visualization and continuously improving flow in real-time, while scrum is about executing pre-determined sprints of work in a predictable cadence. 

There's more to say about how roles, cadences, and tools function in kanban vs. scrum, so we'll explain those things in depth next.

Kanban: roles, tools, and cadences

Kanban is a visual project management approach for identifying, prioritizing, and completing tasks one at a time. In turn, it promotes focus, maximizes efficiency, and increases cross-team alignment. There aren't many hard rules for using a kanban approach, making it adaptable for teams across different industries and business types, not just development teams.

Kanban Roles

When you use kanban, specific roles don't exist. Sure, you may designate roles and responsibilities within your project for other reasons, but teams of any size (even individuals) can apply a kanban methodology to their work without having to assign any particular roles. That's because, in kanban, the focus is on organizing the work itself. This is contrary to scrum, where roles are an essential part of the scrum method.

Kanban Tools

There's one essential tool for implementing a kanban approach that's unique to the methodology: the kanban board. The kanban board can be in physical or virtual form and is simple by design and function. What makes a kanban board is the presence of lanes (or columns) representing defined steps in the process and cards representing work items that move through the process. 

Kanban Cadences

The general timing of workflow within the kanban methodology is continuous versus fixed. Meaning that there are no predefined time frames for when tasks or the project itself must be completed, except for whatever your team decides it should be. Need one day or one month for a task? That works with kanban. Want to adjust individual task deadlines ad hoc and as needed? That works too. 

The only rule that impacts kanban cadence is the WIP limit (work-in-progress limit). Kanban WIP limits constrain the maximum number of things each individual team member can work on in each stage to ensure focus and work quality. This is typically 2 or 3 items per team member. 

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Scrum: roles, tools, and cadences

Scrum is a framework that helps teams work together on complex projects using predetermined roles, routines, and cadences. It has an added layer of rules that kanban doesn't have, which means scrum isn't going to be suitable for all types of projects. However, this also means that it can bring team productivity up several notches for projects that scrum does suit. 

Scrum Roles

When you use scrum as your approach, each team member has a role to fill. The team roles you'll typically find in any scrum team are:

  • The Product Owner is responsible for initial project planning, prioritization, and communication with the rest of the team and stakeholders

  • The Scrum Master oversees sprint planning and team progress during each sprint

  • The Team Members are responsible for carrying out the work within each sprint, such as writing code, creating documentation, or doing analysis.

Scrum Tools

Scrum also has an essential work board called a scrum board. The board visually represents your scrum team's workflow by showing work broken down into manageable chunks called stories. These stories originate from a backlog, or prioritized list of work based on your product roadmap or business priorities, and move between columns that indicate their status: "to do", "in progress", and "done". 

Scrum Cadences

Your working cadence with scrum revolves around completing stories in predetermined time frames called sprints. Typically one or two weeks long, sprints contain stories from your backlog that your Scrum Master prioritizes based on your roadmap and estimated time for them to be completed. Then, once a sprint has ended, your next sprint awaits with new stories to work on. This is the regular cadence to expect when using the agile scrum method.

Roles, tools, and cadences are the fundamental points of difference between scrum and kanban. Still, there is no one-size-fits-all workflow management approach. Below is a helpful guide for choosing between the two approaches.

Kanban or Scrum? One size doesn't fit all

Both methodologies give you the ability to visualize and measure progress, which is beneficial for any project. But as you can see, kanban and scrum offer different benefits once you go under the surface. So here are some things to think about when choosing between the two.

Flexible vs. structured

Overall, kanban is the more flexible methodology and its ideal if your team needs a more fluid and adaptable workflow. Meanwhile, scrum is more structured and predictable, which can transform your productivity for the better if the work you're doing suits that style of organization. This is certainly the case for product and software development, two functions where scrum has become extremely popular. So take stock of your team members, type of work, and need for structure, and see how those guide you towards kanban or scrum. 


How KPIs apply to kanban and scrum is another way to decide which approach makes sense for you. 

With kanban, your options for measuring and impacting KPIs include:

  • WIP limits: how many tasks a team member is working on at a given time

  • Cycle time: how much time a task spends going through your process, starting from when a team member starts working on it

  • Throughput: the total amount of work your team delivers within a certain period of time

  • Team performance: how quickly work gets done (cycle time) and how much work gets completed (throughput). Naturally, short cycle times and high levels of throughput indicate good team performance

With scrum, your options for measuring and impacting KPIs include:

  • Story points: a relative unit of measure that scrum teams decide on to estimate the amount of effort required to a achieve a product backlog item or any other piece of work

  • Stories completed vs. stories committed: the number of stories, or story points, your team completes within a given sprint compared to how much they estimated for the sprint

  • Team velocity: the consistency of the team's estimates from sprint to sprint. Calculate this by comparing story points completed in the current sprint with story points completed in the previous sprint. The goal is to have less than a 10-percent variation

Visual tracking with a board

Kanban and scrum allow you to customize visual tracking with boards, so considering how each board's functionality relates to your project is a great way to decide between each approach. 

Would it make sense to break down your project tasks into story points and added to a two-week sprint? If so, scrum is your choice. But if your tasks are so unique and varied that it makes more sense to set overall workload limits for each team member rather than time limits for tasks, then kanban might be for you. 

Whether you decide to adopt kanban or scrum (or both), Airtable has capabilities that support either agile process elegantly. For example, Airtable supports:

  • Customizable visual board set up for any team size or make-up. 

  • Ability to designate unique "roles", where different roles can leverage customized views of ongoing workflows/boards

  • Real-time data to help product managers (and other key stakeholders) see how efficiently sprints are progressing or address work-in-progress limits as they're reached 

  • A single source of truth in a robust visual Airtable base that helps all stakeholders immediately gauge the progress of their efforts. 

Don't put too much pressure on yourself when deciding between kanban and scrum because there's no need to try and fit yourself into the agile process. Instead, think about how you can tailor the agile methodology to your unique production priorities.

Stay agile with Airtable

Kanban and scrum share core principles so it's natural to mix them up every now and then. Fortunately for you, however, this article has given a clear rundown of what makes these two agile approaches unique, helping you keep them straight and achieve more success with them. 

In sum, kanban is a simple, visual framework to organize your project tasks from start to finish, allowing you to adapt and adjust your cadence as you go. Scrum is a structured way to work through complex projects using fixed time intervals and team roles, and a single common backlog. 

There isn't a right or wrong choice between the two approaches, and you can even implement both if you so choose. Airtable makes it easy to tailor your agile approach to the maximum benefit of your entire team.

Begin designing your custom kanban or scrum board with Airtable now.

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About the author

Airtable's Product Teamis committed to building world-class products, and empowering world-class product builders on our platform.

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