Point of caution: Engineering teams are naturally ambitious, and sometimes it might backfire as they fail to define the scope of sprint, and continue moving forward without setting boundaries for each product feature/update.
The next step is review of the product backlog where PMs prioritizes changes for upcoming sprint. Teams then break down the backlog into smaller tasks, and track team dependencies- SREs, product team, QA- all sit together to find the common ground.
Here comes the crucial, and the most difficult step where managers divide tasks between ICs with a timeline on how, and when to get the work done. Each dev is different, and managers know best on how to unleash the best out of each contributor. The tasks must be divided in a way so the work falls under their strong suits. Moreover, EMs should be cautious about any roadblockers that might derail the sprint, and be prepared in advance.
For example, if a particular task is a high risk, with previous build failures, EMs may assign it to a senior SE.
Definition of Done (DoD)
Finishing off tasks of your checklist is one thing, and perfecting it as per the product’s vision is a completely different ballgame. That’s where DoD comes into the picture.
DoD ensures the work performed by ICs meets reasonable expectations of the team. DoDs are consensus-based, and vary from teams to teams based on their size, complexities, and product tasklist.
Some common elements of a DoD include:
- User documentation is updated
- Code is integrated into the main codebase
- Code is deployed to a test environment
Moreover, DoD should be reviewed and updated regularly, especially if the team has some foundational bottlenecks to resolve each sprint- high cycle time, low maker time, or low deployment frequency.
Once a sprint ends, stakeholders sit together to discuss what worked for the team, and what went sideways. These retrospectives also help teams identify workflow bottlenecks, and a plan of action to better future sprints.
[Read more: Data-driven sprint retrospectives]
💡This is how most sprints work, however all teams have their own rhythm of getting work done. What works for a small-sized team working on a single product can backfire for large sized organizations with multiple projects. Above is a general outline, and teams should improvise them as per their needs, vision, and requirements.
Sprint Planning Stakeholders
A typical sprint planning meeting usually involves:
The Product Owner presents the product backlog, communicates the vision behind building it, and clarifies any ambiguous item. They lead the sprint planning, with help from engineering managers, and scrum master.
Scrum Masters sets the tone of sprints by establishing guidelines, defining the sprint agenda, and managing the sprint flow- right from PMs to individual contributors.
Software Engineering Team
The Development Team breaks down backlog items into actionable tasks and maps them with timeline, elaborate features, and how they work will be carried out.
The Right Length Of A Sprint
Sprints stands for continuous evolution, and can be melted into a team’s working style, methodologies, and workflows. Usually, sprints vary somewhere from 10 days to 2 weeks. The numbers are not casted in stone though, and can be improvised as per tasks encountered, nature of the project, the team's experience, and the stakeholders' expectations.
Here are some factors to consider when deciding on the length of a sprint:
- If the project is complex or involves a high level of uncertainty, a shorter sprint length is the way to go. Shorter sprints help with timely feedback, so teams can adjust their plans well in advance.
- For new joinees, teams working together for the first time, a shorter sprint length allows ICs to learn and adjust their approach as they move ahead. For experienced teams who know each other’s nooks and crooks, longer sprints is a better way to drill down.
- The stakeholders involved, right from CTOs, and directors, to EMs, and product owners may have expectations about the frequency of product releases or updates. If they expect frequent updates, a shorter sprint length may be more appropriate. However, if the team is comfortable with longer release cycles, a longer sprint length might suit their needs better.
Ultimately, the agile teams need to decide what makes sense for them- sprint should be long enough to allow the team to deliver a potentially shippable product increment, but short enough to have room for feedback and adjustment.
How To Run A Perfect Sprint Planning Meeting?
Running an effective sprint planning meeting is the bedrock of successful sprints. Here are some steps to follow to run a successful sprint planning meeting:
- Have all stakeholders join the sprint: The sprint planning meeting should include the entire scrum team- product owner, development team, and scrum master. Invite other stakeholders including senior engineering managers if the scheduled product updates are super crucial, and relevant organization-wide.
- Set the stage: The scrum master should start the planning meeting with a sprint goal and reviewing the agenda for the meeting.
- Review the product backlog, and ensure all team members are on the same page about what needs to be delivered. Break down the product backlog items into smaller tasks and estimate their effort. Use story points, and epics to categorize each task as per issue breakdown, and priorities.
- Create a sprint backlog for all tasks to be achieved during the sprint. It’s better to reverse engineer your work process, and create a timeline spanning daily, weekly, and mid-sprint.
- Agree on the Definition of Done (DoD) so teams don’t compromise on quality while running a top-notch sprint
Sprint Planning Pitfalls
Sprint planning, despite marked as a high priority task is often neglected by dev teams The reasons might vary, but here are the common challenges most sprint planning sessions have to deal with:
1. Poorly Defined Backlog Items
17% of development projects fail because they were defined haphazardly, or the teams weren’t enrolled. Teams often struggle when their backlog has overarching tasks, without any plan in place to cover them up.
It’s important for teams to shoot for the moon, but do not forget their grounds, time and resources available in the process.
When backlogs are defined poorly, bottlenecks like overcommitment, missed deadlines, and stumbling teams are bound to happen.
2. Lack of Team Alignment
Employee burnout is not a rare phenomenon anymore. Teams set them for failures when ICs get alienated or disenchanted from the work. And a common cause behind dev frictions is lack of alignment between product, engineering, and business teams.
In a practical world, the three teams work with disparate philosophies, with minimal common grounds- all leading to ambiguity over next steps, changed goals, and workflows, team misunderstanding, and decreased productivity.
Dev teams often struggle with speaking their mind, and at times, the result of this unclear communication is overcommitment. At times, PMs have expectations written in stone about how exactly a product should look like, without keeping in consideration the engineering challenges.
All this can make teams overwhelmed, even leading to skipped deadlines- 64% of teams who overcommit to work during sprint planning experience delays in project delivery.
4. Unclear Priorities
45% of employees spend way too much time on tasks that aren't a priority. This happens when a sprint backlog is either poorly defined, or the team lacks mutual space to work with each other.
The result is a lot of unplanned work, failed sprints, wasted efforts, and most importantly, decreased productivity.
5. Lack of Flexibility
Agile, and sprints are based on the idea of flexibility towards change. Most sprints fail as teams struggle to adjust their plans with current challenges. PMI has reported about how 39% of development projects fail because teams do not adapt themselves to changing circumstances- high workload, failed build, or too many bugs.
[Read more: Warning signs of failing sprint]
While a sprint needs a well-defined plan to succeed, engineering teams should also make some space for issues that might come in the future. If the bug escape rate is more than 30%, it makes no sense to release a product to end-users on the same day. The idea should always be to have sprints in a constructive way that ultimately impacts the larger user base.
Checklist For Your Next Sprint Planning Session
So, how to ensure a smooth sprint planning session that actually offers definite results. The answer? Create a checklist before conducting your next sprint.
Here's a sprint planning checklist for a successful sprint:
- Refine product backlog: Make sure the product backlog is up-to-date and have defined user stories. Have a detailed issue type breakdown with priorities so each IC has a right mix of bugs, story points, incident load, and more.
- Team availability: Check the availability of team members for the duration of the sprint.
💡 Try to keep your sprint planning sessions on the same days, and time every two weeks. When teams have consistency in planning, they show better uniformity in delivering actual work.
- Sprint goal: Start with the bigger picture of why you are building what you are building (attention scrum masters!) and then move on to define the sprint goal. The goal should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).
- Divide the tasks as per strengths and strong suit of ICs. Offer them enough autonomy to micromanage themselves.
- Create a sprint backlog to break down user stories into specific tasks. Ensure that the team has estimated the effort required for each task and that the backlog is achievable within the sprint timeframe.
- Sprint Reviews: Don’t forget your sprint reviews. Set aside 15-20 minutes after your core planning tasks are over. Clean up the board, engage stakeholders, and prepare to brainstorm about how to get work done better next sprint.
- Sprint Retros: Schedule separate meetings for the sprint retrospective. Do a quick feedback analysis from each stakeholder. Create a separate list of suggestions, and don’t let one failed sprint dilute your team efforts.
6 Tips For Engineering Teams to Ace Sprint Planning
Here are some best practices to follow for your next sprint planning:
1. Set Realistic Goals, and Deadlines
Set realistic expectations for your team. If your team has consistently completed five backlog items per sprint, don't try to accomplish ten in the next sprint. Instead, focus on achievable goals that align with the overall project objectives. This will help your team feel motivated and productive.
Sprint doesn’t have to be all about chasing story points, checking off a task from your list. Gauge developer velocity from previous sprint trends- this helps you to prepare for any unforeseen challenge.
2. Don’t Boss Around Your Team. Enroll Them!
Sprint planning is a team effort, and each stakeholder offers unique insights into how a product should be shaped. Value your team- they are your most precious resource.
Ensure all team members have a say in selecting the backlog items and creating the sprint plan. For starters- use a voting system or a prioritization matrix to ensure everyone's input is taken care of. This is a pragmatic way to get everyone on the board invested in the success of the sprint.
3. Set Priorities That Fit in Your End Goal
When developing a website, what should a team prioritize? A blog landing page, or user login columns, and CTAs. You got your answer, and that’s why prioritizing work becomes super important to your project’s success.
When selecting items from the backlog, prioritize based on value to the customer. Do not ignore sprint risks, including technical debt, and communication gas between teams.
4. Break down tasks
Breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces can help teams to reduce the menace of missing deadlines. If the task is to develop a website feature, break it down into designing the UI, coding the feature, and testing it separately.
5. Continuous Feedback= Continuous Improved, and Successful Sprints
Regular progress reviews ensure the team is on track to meet its goals. Schedule frequent check-ins to review the sprint plan, assess progress, and identify any issues or obstacles that need to be addressed. Encourage async check-ins to know each IC’s workday without having to schedule constant update meetings.
Moreover, surveying teams mid-sprint is a quick idea to gauge your team health and overview project delivery closely. You can either send out feedback forms, or talk to each IC separately if something is bothering their current workflow. Analyze their answers, coupled with team’s data so you know where teams are blocked, or if there are instances of unproductive work.
💡Agile project management is all about flexibility, and sprint planning is no exception. Adapt and adjust your sprint plan to accommodate any roadmap change. For example, if the client requests a new feature mid-sprint, be prepared to adjust the sprint plan and reprioritize tasks accordingly.
6. Celebrate Your Sprint’s Success
Devs deal with imposter syndrome atleast in the initial years of their career. Celebrating a sprint’s success and recognizing dev’s hard work can empower teams to come ahead with their honest feedback, boost morale and reduce communication debt, so your teams are happier, and productive. These efforts, no matter how trivial they sound, can help you to break ice between team mates, and even help devs to be their best version- a prerequisite to successful sprints.
Organize team lunches or social events to celebrate no backlog, or ticking off 10/10 tasks out of your worklist.
Perfecting Your Sprint Planning with Hatica
Hatica empowers engineering teams to be successful using data-driven insights. With all collated data and visibility in place, it becomes easier to know challenges in previous sprints, so teams can ramp up their sprint game.