The Best Scrum Project Management Tools for Your Agile Team

By: on November 23, 2015

Agile project management (PM) methodology involves breaking projects down into incremental phases so teams can deliver completed pieces of a project on a frequent basis.

The goal of agile PM is to reduce waste, quicken time-to-market and provide more opportunities for customer feedback and team improvement. PM software vendors now offer agile tools that are a key driver in helping teams achieve their goals.

This report is the second in a two-part series on agile project management software, highlighting Kanban and Scrum tools—check out part one about Kanban workflows. In this installment, we’ll focus on Scrum project management tools.

What Is Scrum Software?

Scrum is one of the most popular agile frameworks. It’s built on the belief that transparency, frequent iterations and ongoing collaboration and adaptation are best practices for success.

Scrum project management tools help users visualize the amount of work required for individuals and teams during each iteration of a project. In this way, Scrum tools help users better structure their workflows to reduce wasted time and effort.

Online Scrum tools, which can be accessed via internet connection, facilitate real-time information exchange and collaboration for the significant part of the workforce that works remotely at least part-time.

Here we highlight five common Scrum project management tools that can help agile teams structure and improve their workflows.

In the following sections, we’ll discuss:

User Stories
Scrum Boards
Sprint Backlogs
Burndown Charts
Velocity Charts

Note that the Scrum PM framework is complex, and the following descriptions of Scrum tools are meant to be informative, not prescriptive. The purpose of this guide is to help potential buyers evaluate different products and choose the right tools for their business.

User Stories

User stories are the most common way Scrum-based teams break down and measure their work.

A user story, written from the perspective of the customer or end-user, describes an overarching project requirement that teams must complete over the course of one iteration, or “sprint.” The story is then broken down into tasks, issues or bugs teams must resolve.

An example of a user story is depicted in the screenshot below, which encompasses requirements such as “integrate with shipping company” and “communicate with seller,” represented as individual tasks under the umbrella of the user story.

Example user story in Eylean Board

User stories are assigned a number of points that represent the level of effort, skill and time needed to deliver the project requirement at the end of one iteration. For example, a story assigned three points should be three times as complicated as a story assigned one point.

User Story Highlights

With user story tools, teams can:

  • Create user stories and tasks (often using filters and/or drop-down fields)
  • Group related tasks and stories
  • Assign team members to tasks and stories
  • Create deadlines and set due-date alerts
  • Attach documents and files to stories and tasks
  • Assign story points

Some vendors offer story-point estimation scales that can be customized for individual teams. These tools provide automatic estimates of the number of points that should be assigned to a story, eliminating guesswork for users and providing a more standardized process.

Story-point estimation scales are based on variables like the number of team members who need to collaborate on the story, the relative skill levels of team members and the amount of time and/or effort required to complete the story.

Key Benefits of User Stories

  • A high-level overview of project requirements.
    • Streamlined data entry.
      • The ability to “remember,” or link, similar tasks, meaning that over time, story-point estimating will become more accurate.

      Scrum Boards

      Scrum boards, or “task boards,” are shared hubs that serve as a team’s home base. Agile teams use Scrum boards to track sprints (typically, one board will show all user stories for one sprint).

      When teams reach the end of a sprint, they can look back at the corresponding board to see what was completed during that time period, what wasn’t and why. During a sprint, a Scrum board acts as a visual progress meter and performance indicator and allows team members to course-correct to meet a deadline.

      Scrum planning board in SpiraPlan

      Scrum Board Highlights

      Digital Scrum boards are like physical whiteboards, with user stories and tasks displayed in the form of electronic sticky notes, or “cards.” Team members can drag and drop cards to different columns on the board as the stories or tasks move through different workflow stages (e.g., “to-do,” “in-progress” and “done”).

      With digital Scrum boards, teams can:

      • Set deadlines for the board as a whole (representing the entire sprint), as well as for individual tasks.
        • Set automatic due-date notifications.
          • Automatically track time spent on each item.
            • View boards in “plan mode” and “work mode,” with some systems offering multi-board views.
              • Set sharing privileges so team members can access boards from any location.

              Key Benefits of Scrum Boards

              Scrum boards provide a central location where team members can track progress on user stories and tasks and stay on top of impending deadlines. Many teams find that the deadline-driven nature of Scrum workflows helps increase efficiency.

              Other benefits of Scrum boards include:

              • Managers can monitor the amount of time used and remaining to complete work items.
                • “Plan mode” allows managers to evaluate workloads before starting a new iteration, when they’re not ready to set final deadlines.
                  • Multi-board views help managers plan and track progress for multiple teams.
                    • Remote workers can access all important project information.

                    Sprint Backlogs

                    Agile project management teams use two types of backlogs:

                    • Project backlog: A working list of all items within the scope of the project that must be completed to meet the end goal.
                    • Sprint backlog: A list of user stories and tasks, pulled from the project backlog, to be completed during a single sprint.

                    The sprint backlog represents the items in the “to-do” column on the Scrum board. Sprint backlogs were traditionally tracked in spreadsheets, a design that is often replicated in Scrum PM software tools (see screenshot below).

                    Backlog in JIRA Software

                    Sprint Backlog Highlights

                    During sprint planning, select user stories are moved from the project backlog into the sprint backlog. Drag-and-drop functionality allows managers to easily move items, so the team’s pressing tasks are clearly prioritized in the sprint backlog.

                    With sprint backlog tools, teams can:

                    • Customize backlog views (e.g., in the screenshot above, the manager can view the current sprint backlog while planning the next).
                      • Set alerts to flag changes made to backlog items.
                        • Enable multi-user views and sharing capabilities.
                          • Prevent duplicate entry through built-in version control.

                          Key Benefits of Sprint Backlogs

                          A sprint backlog is in a state of constant flux due to prioritization changes, story updates and shifting team workloads and productivity rates. Agile teams can benefit from using sprint backlogs to ensure members always have the most up-to-date information.

                          Other benefits of sprint backlogs include:

                          • Managers have greater control over how they organize and plan their team’s sprints.
                            • Teams stay updated about changes to important action items in real time (e.g., changes in priority, requirements or schedule).
                              • Duplicate entry is prevented, saving time and effort.
                                • Teams can more easily collaborate on user stories through centralized project information.

                                Burndown Charts

                                Burndown charts are graphical representations of sprints, plotting the amount of work left to complete in the sprint backlog against the time left in the sprint. Typically, the vertical y-axis on the burndown chart measures the total number of user stories to be completed. The horizontal x-axis measures the time in the given sprint cycle.

                                The ideal burndown chart shows a steady slope downward (see screenshot below). This means that, over time, user stories and tasks are being completed, with all being finished by the end of the sprint.

                                In addition:

                                • Upward spikes show when work has been added.
                                  • A horizontal line means no work was completed during that amount of time.
                                    • A vertical line means either that tasks were dropped, or progress was not reported.

                                    Burndown chart in SpiraPlan

                                    Burndown Chart Highlights

                                    Burndown charts are used to visualize when the work in a sprint is scheduled to be completed, and whether teams are on track to finish it in time. Many managers run these charts daily and share them with their team.

                                    With burndown chart tools, managers and team members can:

                                    • Schedule automatic chart creation (reviewing charts daily is recommended).
                                      • Quickly visualize progress and performance.
                                        • Use search functionality to recall data when planning future sprints (e.g.,a manager planning a sprint for a five-person team rather than their typical six-person team can consult performance data from previous five-person sprints).

                                        Key Benefits of Burndown Charts

                                        Consulting burndown charts daily forces teams to constantly evaluate their performance, and reprioritize work as needed. This helps maintain the accuracy of sprint and project backlogs as well as the Scrum board.

                                        Other benefits of burndown charts include:

                                        • Managers save time by using software to automatically run charts, rather than creating them manually.
                                          • Team members save time by tracking progress visually, instead of sorting through email, tasks and documents for status updates.
                                            • Managers can plan more effectively, especially when teams have to add or drop members, by consulting chart data from previous sprints.

                                            Velocity Charts

                                            While burndown charts measure the work completed in each sprint, velocity charts measure the work completed over the course of an entire project. The vertical y-axis represents the number of story points, and the horizontal x-axis represents the number of sprints (see screenshot below).

                                            Velocity is calculated by adding up the story points completed by the team in each iteration. The average velocity is simply the average of all sprints completed to date in a project.

                                            For example, if a team completes five user stories and the sum of those stories equals 30, the team’s velocity is 30. If the team completes 40 story points in the next sprint, the team’s average velocity is 35.

                                            Velocity chart in SpiraPlan

                                            Velocity Chart Highlights

                                            Calculating a team’s average velocity gives managers a high-level overview of the effectiveness and productivity of the team.

                                            With velocity charts, teams can:

                                            • Schedule reports to run concurrently with a project, automatically re-calculating average velocity as teams complete each sprint.
                                              • Use built-in search functionality to easily recall previous project data.

                                              Key Benefits of Velocity Charts

                                              The velocity of an experienced agile team tends to stabilize over the course of a project, so reporting on average velocity becomes a useful planning tool for current and future projects.

                                              Other benefits of using velocity charts include:

                                              • By viewing all sprints at once, managers can adjust the project backlog and determine an estimated project end-date—even if customer requirements change.
                                                • Team members can review past performance and predict the amount of work they can reasonably expect to complete in future projects.
                                                  • Managers can use past performance data when evaluating new projects and taking on future clients.

                                                  How Can I Find Tools For My Team?

                                                  The Scrum project management tools highlighted above help agile teams in three key ways:

                                                  1. Their visual nature helps increase transparency into team productivity and rates of progress.
                                                    • With frequent evaluations of performance, teams can increase accuracy and optimize their time and effort.
                                                      • By measuring past performance, teams can more accurately predict how much work they can complete by a specific date.

                                                      If you’re interested in using Scrum tools, our experienced project management software advisors can help. With one short phone call, they’ll work with you to evaluate your agile team’s unique needs, and provide you with a list of products to help structure and improve team workflows.

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