How can I use Scrum to manage my personal or professional development?

An example of using Scrum in everyday life.

September 3, 2023
a desk for working on Scrum professional development

Maybe you’ve tried buying a big pile of books, registering for online courses, or writing out a list of skills you want to develop but are still struggling to progress in your personal or professional development. If that’s the case, I think you’ll be interested to see how Scrum can help you.

Most people start the year making new years resolutions and begin with enthusiasm, only to lose steam by spring break and not even remember them by the summer. 

Imagine what it might feel like to come to the end of the year and have completed your top 5 priorities related to personal or professional development.

That type of progress is achievable once you have clarity about your goal and a system to help you stay on track. In this article, I’ll explain how Scrum can provide this for you.

Here’s what I’m going to cover:

  • How Scrum enables you to get things done.
  • How I use Scrum to manage my professional development.
  • Things to consider for your setup.
Sometimes you just have questions about key Scrum terms. Download the Scrum terminology cheat sheet.

How Scrum enables you to get things done.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in new ideas. There’s a flurry of excitement around what’s possible and how it could solve significant problems. 

The problem is when you move to something new, it’s at the expense of what you were focusing on, leaving a wake of started but unfinished projects. 

Scrum helps you to stop starting and start finishing, and it does this by providing just the right amount of structure to time and attention. 

Scrum provides a window of focus.

Scrum organizes time into sprints, which can be any length of time, often one or two weeks. You begin the sprint by selecting what work you will complete by the end of the sprint, and this will require you to break big projects or tasks down into smaller pieces. 

The work you select goes into your sprint backlog, which is the list of Product Backlog Items you will complete by the end of the sprint. No new work enters this list during the sprint. The time is protected, allowing you to focus on finishing what has been selected.

Each day you will review progress using the questions:

  1. What did I complete yesterday?
  2. What will I focus on finishing today?
  3. Where am I stuck?

Usually, you’d ask these questions during the daily standup within the context of a team. For personal development projects, you might be a team of one, but you may also include anyone else who lives with you as maybe they are a stakeholder.

When you’ve decided to focus on a task from your sprint backlog, work it to completion. Don’t select another task until completed. Keep your work-in-progress limits to a minimum.

Scrum provides clear prioritization.

On a typical Scrum team, one person plays the product owner role. They work with internal and external stakeholders and the production team to prioritize all the work to be done. 

The backlog contains a list of all the PBIs and is ordered by priority. What’s at the top is most important. There are no ties, just a cleanly ordered list. When you maintain the disciple of ordering your backlog, you’re not only finishing work, you're completing the work that matters most. 

How I use Scrum to manage my professional development

The past ten years have been a fun journey of learning new skills and leveling up current ones. I love to learn, so it was like being a kid in a candy store. I was exploring courses, training, 30-day challenges, mentorship, books, portfolio projects… you name it.

I wanted to learn so many topics, but when I tried to do all of them at once, I never made meaningful progress in any of them.  I needed focus.

One of the subjects I was learning more about at the time was Scrum. So I thought, “Why not use Scrum to learn Scrum?”

As I mentioned, I was trying to do too much at once. I needed to triage my learning plans. I started by first setting a goal that could guide these decisions. I identified three areas I wanted to grow in and the level I wanted to attain for each.

To set meaningful goals, you need to know where you’re heading. What’s the long-term plan? What’s your vision for a future version of you? Take some time to work through this. 

Clarity about the end will be essential if you want clarity about the here and now. If you want some help working through your priorities, try this 5-day priorities challenge.

Building a professional development backlog.

I started by gathering all the development options I had considered and writing them on the whiteboard. I looked for ones that supported the three-part goal I had set for myself. These got prioritized and grouped together. 

I went back and looked through each area one at a time and asked, “Will this get me to my goal?” and “What do I need that’s missing?” Once this was complete, I had a clearer sense of what I needed to do to reach my goals. 

I added all these development opportunities to the backlog and ordered it by priority and dependencies. If I wanted to earn a certification that depended on another certification, then they should be prioritized in the order I can achieve them.

Most of these learning opportunities need to be broken down into small tasks so they could be completed in a shorter amount of time. Breaking them down gave me more granularity to prioritize tasks across different opportunities.

Now that I had clarity regarding where I was trying to go and at least initial clarity about what I needed to get there, I was ready to begin.

My Scrum professional development workflow

Scrum organizes time into sprints, usually one to three weeks long, to timebox the work you’re committing to complete.

I went with a two-week sprint because it gave me the best balance between focus and flexibility. I stayed focused for those two weeks on what was selected but could still have the flexibility to adjust as needs or opportunities changed. 

Before the sprint began, I set a sprint goal which provided a picture of what I hoped would be the result of the next two weeks. The sprint goal guides what gets selected from the backlog. I focused on the top of the backlog because that is what I had prioritized, but the goal provided guidance and flexibility if something a little further down the list made sense to do now. 

Once I had selected development items from the backlog, I would place them on my sprint board in the column labeled “to-do” I would then move one or two tasks to “doing” and focus on them until they were complete. 

I kept my work-in-progress limit to two, so I could stay focused, maintain momentum and bring learning tasks to completion before beginning new ones. This constraint felt like a discipline at first, but over time I was motivated because I had the experience from the progress I was making.

Each evening I would evaluate and plan using the following three questions:

  1. What did I get done today?
  2. What will I do to grow tomorrow?
  3. Where am I stuck?

This daily cadence kept me focused and moving forward. 

At the end of the sprint, I would evaluate what I finished and how things went. I discovered specific times of day or days of the week worked better for different kinds of learning. I took what I learned and applied it to the next sprint.

Tools I used for professional development.

I’ve used Trello, Asana and Monday to organize my ongoing professional development, and they have similar feature sets and good freemium functionality. Right now though I'm using ClickUp and I really like it. It has the same functionality (and more) but at a lower price point. I also took advantage of several learning platforms, including Coursera, LinkedIn Learning and Skillshare.

Things to consider for your setup

Are you ready to get started? Here are a few things to keep in mind as you progress ahead. These are primarily lessons learned from my own experience.

How confident are you in your end goal? 

Maybe you clearly know how you want to develop. That’s awesome! It’s also uncommon. 

Most people have an idea of areas they want to grow in but aren’t sure if they will still be interested once they get into it. You may want to iterate with small steps to validate the plan. Is there an MVP (minimum viable product) of the skillset you want to develop?

A portfolio-building project is an excellent opportunity to both develop skills and apply them to something in the real world. If you finish and feel like you never want to do it again, that’s a crucial insight. But if you can’t wait to do another, that’s also critical to recognize. 

Learning platforms and certifications.

There are a lot of options out there for taking classes and earning certifications. I’ve reviewed some of my favorite learning platforms and shared my experience with certifications

It can be easy to want to just check a box by finishing a course or gaining a certification. But remember, your goal is growth and opportunity. These are tools to help you get to your goals. Don’t trade in your goals for just a nice set of tools.

Don't forget about relationships.

Learning is a journey and not one you should take alone. Look for mentors ahead of you whose experience you can learn from. Look for peers alongside you who you can share the ups and downs of the journey with. Look for someone earlier in their journey who you could help. Teaching is also an excellent way to refine your own understanding.

Practice makes perfect.

I’ve found daily challenges to be as helpful to my growth as any class I’ve taken. They help you sharpen your growing skills, give you a feeling for what it looks like to do that kind of work each day and often expose you to others in the same field. 

Portfolio-building projects are another great way to practice. Do you want to develop the skill needed to be an app developer? Then you’ll need a portfolio that includes that kind of work. You could begin by designing the UX/UI of a hypothetical app that would solve a real-world problem.

Did you know Scrum applies to more than just developing code?

When you understand the essentials of Scrum and the nuance of how to apply it, you can use it to level up aspects of everyday life.

Related Guides

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I hope you’ve found this article helpful and that you feel prepared to go and level up your professional skills. Looking back over the past few years, I’m encouraged by what I see. You can be too. 

If you use Scrum to help you learn and grow, I’d love to hear about it. You can reach me on LinkedIn.

Action Plan

f you want to learn more about Scrum in general,  check out my What is Scrum? A Guide for Everyday People to Learn Scrum.

Still not sure about your next step with Scrum? I offer a couple of free coaching sessions each month. You can signup for a free 30 minute coaching session, and we can work together to identify a good next step for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to use Scrum

Why use Scrum?

It forces clarity and prioritization, which provides the focus necessary for teams to be effective. Scrum embraces complexity and change by keeping many things simple and iteratively evaluating and adapting. 

You can learn more about why to use Scrum and three challenges Scrum solves. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

When does Scrum not work well?

Scrum isn’t always the best option for teams. Scrum can fail when there is a substantial mismatch between organizational culture and the Scrum values. It also depends on the nature of the work you do. If you work if very linear, predictable and tightly defined, you may not experience many benefits Scrum provides.

Find out more about aligning your organizational values with Scrum or how Scrum might fit in your context. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

How do I know when to use Scrum?

Scrum functions at its best when you have a dedicated team focused on developing a singular product. Its agility shines when there are time constraints combined with uncertainty. 

Explore the pros and cons of Scrum along with expectations vs. realities with Scrum. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

What is Scrum?

What is the definition of scrum?

Scrum is founded on three essential pillars leading teams to ask the following questions:

  1. How does this make things more visible? (Transparency)
  2. Where does this create space to evaluate? (Inspection)
  3. When does this encourage growth? (Adaptation)

Further explore the definition of scrum. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

Is Scrum hard to learn?

This is because Scrum’s simplicity makes learning easy, but Scrum truly changes how you work, and that adjustment can be difficult. It changes power dynamics and expectations within the team and between the team and the rest of the organization.

You can explore further is Scrum hard to learn, along with the pros and cons of Scrum. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

When did Scrum start?

Scrum was initially used as a term related to project management in 1986 by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in their paper “New New Product Development Game” In the Harvard Business Review. The first recorded Scrum project came a little later in 1993 from Jeff Sutherland.

You can learn more about Scrum’s backstory. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

What do all the scrum words mean?

Learning Scrum for the first time can be overwhelming. There are a lot of new terms and concepts in Scrum. I’ve listed the most common terms in a Scrum glossary.

Learning to apply Scrum

How to choose between Scrum and Kanban?

Important factors include your team size and the type of work you do. Kanban is very process-oriented, so you should consider how defined, static, or long your process is? 

You can explore Scrum and other agile approaches. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

How does scrum help an organization?

Scrum forces clarity and prioritization, which are critical to organizational effectiveness. It provides a competitive edge by allowing teams to adapt as the market or priorities change. Teams operate more effectively because Scrum combines empowerment of the team members with alignment to top priorities.

Learn more about scrum’s impact on organizational culture. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

Is scrum a methodology or a framework?

Scrum is more of a framework than a methodology, and it helps teams adhere to Agile principles and get stuff done. Scrum provides basic rules but doesn’t prescribe how to do the work. It provides principles, values, rules, and some core structure but still leaves a lot undefined.

Learn more about scrum as a framework. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

What’s the difference between scrum and agile?

When people say “agile,” they usually refer to it as a mindset. Scrum is a framework for how to organize people and work in an agile way. If you’re practicing Scrum, you’re working in an Agile way.

Learn more about the relationship between scrum and agile. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

Scrum backlog

What is the backlog in Scrum?

There are actually two backlogs, the product backlog and the sprint backlog. They each contain the definitive list of work to be done. The product owner keeps the backlog ordered by priority. 

Learn to use the backlog in Scrum and check out the sprint backlog vs product backlog in Scrum.

How are the product backlog and sprint backlog different?

The product backlog prioritizes the features needed in the product. It is a singular visible source of requirements for the product.

The sprint backlog represents the work to do in a given sprint. It is a definitive list of all the scrum team is being asked to produce for the sprint. 

Learn more about the sprint backlog vs product backlog in Scrum.

What is a PBI (product backlog item)?

Each item in the backlog represents precise work and value to deliver. Often these PBIs are written using both user stories and acceptance criteria. The PBIs are what gets refined during the backlog refinement session, and if one is too large, it may be broken down into smaller PBIs.

Learn more about how backlogs are used in scrum, the sprint backlog vs product backlog in Scrum and explore the essential Scrum glossary.

What is the Scrum sprint backlog?

The Scrum sprint backlog is a prioritized list of items from the product backlog that the development team plans to complete during the upcoming sprint.

It is a plan for the Sprint and is created during the Sprint Planning meeting where the Development Team decides on how to build the functionality that meets the Sprint Goal. The Sprint Backlog typically includes user stories, bugs, technical work, and other items that the development team needs to work on during the sprint. Each item in the Sprint Backlog has a clear definition of done, so the team knows when the item is considered complete.

The Development Team is responsible for creating and updating their Sprint Backlog throughout the Sprint, making sure they are on track to meet the Sprint Goal. The Sprint Backlog is a working document that helps the Development Team visualize their progress and make any necessary adjustments to their plan as they go along. The Sprint Backlog is also transparent, allowing stakeholders to see what work is being done during the Sprint.

Learn more about the backlogs of Scrum.

What is the Scrum product backlog?

In Scrum, the product backlog is a prioritized list of features, bugs, technical work, and other product-related items that need to be addressed by the development team.

It serves as a single source of truth for what needs to be done on the product.

The items in the product backlog are ordered based on their importance to the product owner and the value they bring to the end-user. As the project progresses, the product backlog is constantly updated to reflect new priorities, changes in requirements, and feedback from stakeholders.

The product backlog is a living document that evolves throughout the project's lifecycle. It provides transparency and enables collaboration among all members of the Scrum team.

Learn more about the backlogs in Scrum.

Acceptance criteria

What's an example of acceptance criteria?

Acceptance criteria is structured using the template

  • Given that [context allowing me to take an action]
  • When [I take the action]
  • Then [a result occurs indicating success or failure]

Here are 3 examples:

Checkout process functionality

  • Given that I’ve added all the items to my cart and I’m logged in,
  • When I click the check out button,
  • Then the checkout page loads with all my payment and shipping information preloaded.

Advertising campaign

  • Given that someone fits our ideal customer persona,
  • When they search for keywords we’re targeting,
  • Then a link to a compelling offer is displayed above the fold.

Marketing campaign (Did you know you could use Scrum for marketing)

  • Given that a customer is already receiving email communications,
  • When they visit the site and engage content related to a specific product,
  • Then they will be automatically subscribed to nurturing campaign highlighting that product. Or

See more acceptance criteria examples and learn to write how to create your own or learn other essential scrum terms.

What is acceptance criteria in scrum?

Acceptance criteria is written using the following structure:

  • Given that [context allowing me to take an action]
  • When [I take the action]
  • Then [a result occurs indicating success or failure]

Learn more about how acceptance criteria is used in Scrum and explore the essential Scrum glossary.

How to write an acceptance criteria statement?

Acceptance criteria is broken down into three parts.

  • Given that [context allowing me to take an action]
  • When [I take the action]
  • Then [a result occurs indicating success or failure]

Learn more about templates for writing acceptance criteria or learn other essential scrum terms.

How are acceptance criteria and user stories different?

A user story focuses on the identity, goals and motivations of the user you’re designing for. It emphasizes the why of the new functionality.

Acceptance Criteria focuses on the action taken by the user to meet their goal. It highlights the what of the new functionality.

See more acceptance criteria examples and learn to write acceptance criteria or learn other essential scrum terms.

How are acceptance criteria and the definition of done different?

Acceptance criteria is specific to an individual task, but the definition of done applies to all work done by a team. Acceptance criteria answers the question, “What will be true when this task is completed.” The definition of done answers the question, “What are we committing to do every time we complete a task?”

See more examples and learn to write acceptance criteria or learn other essential scrum terms.

Ready to level up your company? Get in touch today!