The Perfect Guide To Master Sprint Planning

A strong sprint planning is the foundation of any agile, engineering team. Even numbers seem to agree! Teams who regularly plan their sprints have recorded faster project delivery rates, with 68% projects finished within deadlines, and limited resources- All with carefully orchestrated, and iterated sprint planning meetings, and fulfilling execution. 

Finding the right rhythm to your sprint process is opening yourself to a pandora box of iterations, complexities, unplanned work, initial team frictions, and reaching to the point of perfect collaboration. 

In this guide to sprint planning, we'll take you through what exactly is sprint planning. the right sprint length, and best practices to have successful sprints.  

ūüí°Don‚Äôt forget to keep the sprint planning checklist handy for your next sprint session.¬†

What is Sprint Planning?

Sprint planning is a sacred component of a company’s Agile processes. It is a time-boxed event where an engineering team sits together, brainstorms, and plans the work for the next few weeks. 

An ideal sprint planning session involves the project manager(s) defining the sprint goal, the development team creating timelines for the roadmap, product backlog, and WIP items.  

Objectives of Sprint Planning 

The main objective of sprint planning is to convert ideas into real, actionable tasks by defining work for upcoming sprint- who does what, and when and how the work will be delivered. 

A sprint planning meeting empowers teams to answer- why should they invest in a product, and the impact they are looking to create with the investment, and the roadmap to get the most value out of the product plan. 

[Read more: The What, Why, and How of Agile Sprint Planning] 

Why Should Agile Teams Plan Sprints? 

A driven sprint planning session sets the tone of success of a sprint.  The key benefits of having an agile sprints are: 

1. Improved Project Delivery

Teams conducting regular sprint planning¬† deliver 250% better quality projects than teams who don't. Moreover, the ongoing iterations help teams to achieve their ‚Äėcontinuous improvement‚Äô flow, and even higher efficiency.¬†

2. Team Cohesion 

Sprint planning fosters better collaboration, and empowers teams to reduce their frictions through smoother hand-offs, and documented communication. By working together on backlog items, dividing tasks, and estimating timeframes as per a team’s pace, devs can gain a better understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses- all leading to transparent, and focused teams, improved morale, and even improved developer experience. 

3. Higher Productivity

Finally, sprint planning leads to higher productivity. Teams following the sprint rituals are 28% more productive than those who don't. Most sprint planning discussions take care of all planned, and unplanned tasks, define the backlog, and how to achieve the targets without compromising on quality. 

With sessions so detailed, each IC knows their task items, specifically communicated product requirements along with a clear context of what’s next- all leading to higher efficiency,  no alienation, and happy developers. 

A Typical Sprint Planning Meeting

A typical sprint meeting involves the entire Scrum team, including the product owner, scrum master, and the engineering team.

The scrum master kicks off the meeting by welcoming everyone and reminding the team of the sprint goal. The sprint goal is a short, concise statement that summarizes what the team aims to achieve during the upcoming sprint. 

Once the expectations are set, the team reviews the previous sprint-  what went well and what didn't, discussing the bottlenecks, and finding the rooms for improvement. 

Most teams underestimate sprint reviews and take them as a time-consuming, energy draining exercise, with the same four questions, and no discussions over what’s next. Reviews are only successful when teams have a larger context on how to consistently achieve the ideal workflow state. 

A Typical Sprint Planning Meeting

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:

  • A reviewed codebase¬†
  • Automated tests pass
  • Manual tests pass
  • 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] 

ūüí°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:

Product Owner

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 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôt 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. 

3. Overcommitment

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.¬†¬†

ūüí° 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‚Äôt 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‚Äôt 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. 

ūüí°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. 

Hatica project delivery dashboard

Hatica supports engineering teams in mapping their sprint over sprint trends with delivery velocity, and effort breakdown, so teams have end-to-end visibility into what’s happening in your current sprint. 

That way, managers can minimize sprint risks and even stop sprint overflow way before the first red flag occurs. And that’s how devs can achieve the feat of continuous improvement in real time. 

Improve planning accuracy with Hatica

Conclusion

Initially, the idea of sprints was just to streamline team efforts, and keep every member on the same page. However, agile is evolving, and so does the idea, and execution of sprint planning. 

Today, sprints help engineering teams to gauge their workflows, and even speaks volume on project health. It takes time to get agile sprint planning right, but teams should not lose their momentum. 

Simplifying sprint planning goes a long way towards bringing order into chaotic engineering workflows, and figuring out team work balance. A healthy sprint is a win-win for everyone, and the first step towards it is to get your sprint planning right. 

Subscribe to the Hatica blog today to read more about unblocking developers, and boosting productivity with engineering analytics. 

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Table of Contents
  • What is Sprint Planning?
  • Objectives of Sprint Planning¬†
  • Why Should Agile Teams Plan Sprints?¬†
  • 1. Improved Project Delivery
  • 2. Team Cohesion¬†
  • 3. Higher Productivity
  • A Typical Sprint Planning Meeting
  • Definition of Done (DoD)
  • Sprint Planning Stakeholders¬†
  • Product Owner
  • Scrum Master
  • Software Engineering Team
  • The Right Length Of A Sprint¬†
  • How To Run A Perfect Sprint Planning Meeting?
  • Sprint Planning Pitfalls¬†
  • 1. Poorly Defined Backlog Items
  • 2. Lack of Team Alignment
  • 3. Overcommitment
  • 4. Unclear Priorities
  • 5. Lack of Flexibility
  • Checklist For Your Next Sprint Planning Session¬†
  • 6 Tips For Engineering Teams to Ace Sprint Planning¬†
  • 1. Set Realistic Goals, and Deadlines¬†
  • 2. Don‚Äôt Boss Around Your Team. Enroll Them!¬†
  • 3. Set Priorities That Fit in Your End Goal¬†
  • 4. Break down tasks
  • 5. Continuous Feedback= Continuous Improved, and Successful Sprints¬†
  • 6. Celebrate Your Sprint‚Äôs Success
  • Perfecting Your Sprint Planning with Hatica
  • Conclusion