Nick Woodrow |

Agile Methodology and NEC Contracts – would infrastructure projects benefit from Scrum?

Scrum framework by Dr Ian Mitchell, from Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

  • A product owner creates a prioritized wish list called a product backlog.
  • During sprint planning, the team pulls a small chunk from the top of that wish list, a sprint backlog, and decides how to implement those pieces.
  • The team has a certain amount of time — a sprint (usually two to four weeks) — to complete its work, but it meets each day to assess its progress (daily Scrum).
  • Along the way, the Scrum Master keeps the team focused on its goal.
  • At the end of the sprint, the work should be potentially shippable: ready to hand to a customer, put on a store shelf, or show to a stakeholder.
  • The sprint ends with a sprint review and retrospective.
  • As the next sprint begins, the team chooses another chunk of the product backlog and begins working again.

“Ok, so I can see how it would work for software development, you’ve got a product which can be empirically evolved, tested and released to market quickly with a regular feedback loop to control and improve quality.  How could that be applied to construction and my NEC Contract?!”
Construction projects are inherently complex with large scale works generally broken down to smaller tasks and often priced in this way with the use of a priced Activity Schedule.  NEC Contracts take advantage of this and also feature other mechanisms like the early warning process and programme submission and acceptance cycle which is similar to the feedback loops and backlog management of the Scrum process.

“So how could Scrum be practically applied to the construction site and traditional management of NEC Contracts?”
Well let’s break Scrum methodology down to its constituent parts and roles to see how the NEC Contract and project management processes embedded in it could be managed with this new Agile approach – 

Scrum process/role NEC ECC Contract equivalent?

Product owner

This looks like the Project Manager or Contractor’s Manager. This person liaises with the stakeholders to manage the product backlog.

Product backlog

All the increments required to deliver the whole project. Analogous to Works Information in an NEC ECC Contract? It could align to a priced Activity Schedule and form a link to the Accepted Programme which would set out the long term programme. Changes to the product backlog (Works Information) could take the form of instructions from the PM which may be compensation events.

Development team

The project team. In scrum this team is self-organising and this could also be true at certain levels of a construction project. Engineers and work gangs would organise the allocation of work based on competencies and best for project decisions.

Sprint planning

What work is planned for the next month? (we’ll use month as that is the common interval for programme review and acceptance). On review of the product backlog (programme) a sprint goal is agreed by the project team. For example, this might be site establishment, fencing and site clearance or complete section of piled foundation with 20% pile cap complete. A sprint goal should be any specific and measurable output.

Sprint backlog

Break down the task from the product backlog into a short term plan. A four week lookahead programme may show tasks every day.


A one-month block of time (or may be shorter although aligning to the programme submission timescale is probably useful).

Daily scrum

Daily pre-start meeting. The project team confirm what was complete yesterday, what’s planned today and any impediment there might be to achieving the daily goal. Issues raised at this meeting may be notified as early warnings and with integrated project management teams precede risk reduction meetings. The early warnings collected from the daily scrums could be dealt with at a weekly risk reduction meeting or if required the risk reduction meeting may be held immediately following the daily scrum to try and address the issue.

Scrum master

Site Agent, Section Engineer, other manager depending on level of project being managed using this method. The Scrum master owns the process, records progress and facilitates the various scrum meetings.

Product backlog refinement

Time should be set aside by the project team to review the product backlog and refine the activities and tasks with input from the product owner. This should help with sprint planning following the current sprint. The updated programme with amendments introduced through instructions changing the Works Information may form the basis for programme submission.

Potentially releasable increment

This could be a section of works delivered defect free or handed over to the next team to work on.

Sprint review

The project team review progress and assess whether they delivered the sprint goal. Any gaps are recorded for potential inclusion in the next sprint. The programme could be updated again to reflect progress in readiness for submission.

Sprint retrospective

A retrospective differs from the review in that the team review process and performance to identify what went well and not so well in order to make modifications to the way works will be delivered in the next sprint. This is like a monthly lessons learned session rather than just one at the end of the project.

“It all sounds very simple but construction projects are not simple and often contain many different silos and management approaches.  What values must be adopted to make this sort of Agile management approach work?”

Scrum has its own set of values and these can be broken down into practical steps to supporting successful implementation of the scrum methodology –

  • Commitment –
    • As with all management processes and anything different from traditional approaches commitment is essential.  There must be sponsorship of the framework from the most senior levels of the business and empowerment to the teams in order to have successful implementation.
  • Courage –
    • It takes courage to do things differently.  It also takes huge courage to empower teams to stop.  In order to make Agile and scrum work teams must be allowed to stop work and review what has been achieved and what is planned.
  • Focus –
    • Work is defined and then constrained within the sprint.  Teams must be focussed on delivering the sprint goal and not be deviated from this collaborative effort.
  • Openness –
    • The NEC Contract is underpinned by obligations of mutual trust and cooperation and these are key components of the scrum framework.  Product owners, scrum masters and teams must be open with their requirements and also issues as and when they arise.  The early warning mechanism should facilitate this and allow an open forum to discuss and agree actions to mitigate risk and allow the sprint goal to be achieved.
  • Respect –
    • The process, individuals and the collective team should be respected.  A self-organising team which reviews a backlog and defines their own sprint goal will often be best placed to assess the time required to deliver works.  This must be respected by product owners and pressure should not be applied to deliver more with less resource.  This also links back to focus and courage as this level of trust in the team is often difficult to develop on complex and pressurised projects.  If an experienced team is unable to regularly deliver the expected output then the resource levels are probably inaccurate, not the performance levels of the team.

“A whole new approach may be too much to implement in one go, what bits of Agile and Scrum could be utilised without wholesale changes to the way projects are managed?”

Implementing scrum could be unsettling for a mature construction project team used to a more traditional approach however certain key aspects could be adopted together with best practice approaches to NEC Contract administration which may swiftly bring benefits –

  • Daily scrums
    • Short and sharp team meetings prior to work starting asking three questions –
      • What did I achieve yesterday?
      • What am I doing today?
      • What blockers do I need help with?
  • Stopping to review!
    • The construction industry is traditionally very poor at this.  We’re always too busy to stop and review what’s happening to gain knowledge of what’s going wrong and what can be done better.  It takes courage but surely in any project where resource costs are very high having the ability to review and make forthcoming work increasingly more efficient is a positive step.  Let’s learn on the job instead of at the end of the job!
  • Break down the plan and plan with the team
    • Construction programmes can be highly complex and difficult for non-specialists to understand and contribute to.
    • Break down the potential thousand line construction programme into manageable chunks for each team.  Break down the 3 year plan into 4 week “sprints”.  Engage with the team and create a plan that has everyone’s buy in.  At the end of the sprint review what was achieved and update the forward plan accordingly.

A constant theme running throughout these planning techniques is communication and the sharing of knowledge in collaborative spaces.  Everyone should have access to the right information at the right time and be able to contribute where they would add value.  For NEC Contracts that may mean utilising a web based software system such as CEMAR.  With an intuitive interface, shared registers and reports along with extremely powerful aggregated reporting project teams can start to both administer and unlock the value in their everyday processes.

We are increasingly seeing teams shunning traditional meeting formats and moving towards interactive sessions where the software tools are presented, amended and updated live in order to gain maximum value from the time together.  No more meeting minutes, no more lever arch files!

You can learn more about CEMAR at and read our blog about what lead indicator behaviours may highlight high performing teams here.


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