Sprint planning is similar to creating a timeline-driven work roadmap, with tasks needed to be accomplished within a given timeframe. In this post, lets look at how engineering teams should use data to plan accurate sprints, and achieve perfect project deliveries.
This year, Agile will enter its 22nd year of inception. While devs have internalized the benefits agile brings on the table, most teams often struggle with the methodology. And it is team sprints that bear the brunt of failed agile transformations.
Sprint planning might seem a simple management task, however, if engineering teams are not careful, they can easily distort development velocity and lead to misplaced project priorities. In this post, let's talk about the basics of sprint planning, why it is a sacred business, and not just another team meeting, the common pitfalls, and best practices to conduct sprint planning with integrity.
What is Agile Sprint Planning?
Sprint planning is similar to creating a timeline-driven work roadmap. The process is a culmination of tasks needed to be accomplished within a given timeframe. Usually, sprints begin with devs reviewing their engineering backlog, prioritizing user stories and creating upcoming sprint tasks. The team then estimates durations (biweekly, weekly, fortnightly) for each task based on complexity and potential impediments. Once curated, the timelines and project tasks serve as a north-star for teams for next sprint plans.
Sprint helps teams stay organized by mapping out project expectations, and identifying what needs to be done, in given deadlines and assignees. Moreover, sprint speeds up the software development process by accurately delivering user-requested features in the shortest possible time.
Initially, teams used agile sprint planning to be on top of project delivery, or produce tangible, measurable results. However, sprints are much more than just checklists. They are a data-driven way to ensure a team is constantly making progress, or moving forward. That’s why planning is the most crucial phase of sprints- it helps to get priorities straight. Without the planning stage, conducting project delivery is like assembling electronics without reading the manual. It is definitely possible, but a lot more harder, and full of chaos.
Why Sprint Planning is Important?
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 ‘continuous improvement’ 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, and specifically communicates product requirements along with a clear context of what’s next- all leading to higher efficiency, no alienation, and happy developers.
What are the 4 Phases of Sprint in Agile?
In Agile methodology, a Sprint is like a dedicated time window where a team works together on a bunch of planned tasks to make something they can potentially ship to customers. During a Sprint, there are four key phases involved:
1. Sprint Planning:
This phase is like gathering your team around a table to plan the upcoming work. First, you identify all the tasks that need to be done. Then, you set a clear goal for the period, like planting a flag on a mountain. Finally, you create a roadmap, assigning tasks and estimating how long they'll take. It's about getting everyone on the same page and ready to tackle the work ahead.
2. Sprint Execution:
This is the core phase of the Sprint, where the team focuses on completing the tasks from the Sprint backlog. Team work collaboratively and use Agile practices like daily stand-up meetings to discuss progress, any impediments, and adjust the plan as needed. The team can self-organize and decide how to complete the work within Sprint best.
3. Sprint Review:
At the end of the Sprint, the team conducts a Sprint Review meeting. They showcase the completed work to stakeholders, including the Product Owner and possibly end-users or customers. The goal is to gather feedback and ensure that the product increment aligns with the stakeholders' expectations. The team also reviews what went well and what could be improved in their processes.
4. Sprint Retrospective:
This phase is a reflective meeting for the team to evaluate their own performance during the Sprint. They discuss what worked, what didn't, and what improvements they can make to enhance their productivity and quality in the next Sprint. The focus is on the team's internal processes and how they can continually refine and adapt their approach.
These four phases are repeated cyclically throughout the Agile project. Each Sprint typically lasts from 2 to 4 weeks, and the team aims to deliver a potentially shippable product increment at the end of each Sprint, allowing for flexibility and adaptation as they progress toward the project's goals.
Agile Sprint Planning Best Practices
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, or 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 at least 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 more productive. These efforts, no matter how trivial they sound, can help you to break the ice between teammates, 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.
How to Run a Perfect Sprint Planning Meeting?
In Agile methodology, sprint planning meetings are the cornerstone for productive sprints. Following a well-structured approach is essential to ensure these meetings are executed flawlessly. Let's take a look at a step-by-step breakdown of key practices to run the perfect sprint planning meeting.
1. Keep Sprint Planning Meetings Within a Time Frame:
It's crucial to keep sprint planning meetings within a specified timeframe. This discipline prevents meetings from running too long and losing focus. Allocate 2-3 hours for a meeting, though adjust based on team experience and project complexity. The goal is to maintain efficiency and respect everyone's time.
Sprint planning meetings should have a time limit, like setting a timer for a game. This is important for a few reasons:
- Avoiding Overlong Meetings: Just like how a game can become less fun if it goes on for too long, meetings can become less productive if they drag on. People might start talking about things that aren't important to the meeting's goal.
- Staying on Track: When you know there's only a certain amount of time, you're more likely to focus on what's really important. It's like having a deadline for a school project – it helps you get things done efficiently.
- Respecting Everyone's Time: People have other things to do, so finishing the meeting on time is important. It's like showing up to a friend's party and leaving when it's supposed to end – you're being considerate of their time.
- Adjusting as Needed: While a sprint planning meeting usually lasts 2-3 hours, you can make it shorter or longer based on your team's experience and the project's complexity. The goal is to find the right balance between completing the work and not making the meeting too tiring.
2. Smart Decision-Making with Estimations:
Effective sprint planning relies on accurate estimations. Overloading the team with tasks can lead to burnout and reduced quality. Agile estimation techniques, such as story points, help gauge capacity. This ensures that you set attainable goals, maintain motivation, and establish a consistent workflow.
Think of using estimates in sprint planning like planning a road trip. You wouldn't want to drive too far in a single day, as it can be tiring and you might miss out on enjoying the journey. Here's why using estimates is crucial:
- Preventing Burnout: Just as driving long hours can exhaust you, overloading your team with too many tasks can lead to burnout. When people are tired and overworked, the quality of their work often suffers.
- Maintaining Motivation: Imagine if you planned a road trip that was too ambitious, and you never had time to stop and see the interesting places along the way. It would make the journey less enjoyable, right? Similarly, setting realistic goals for your team keeps them motivated. They can see the finish line and feel a sense of accomplishment when they reach it.
- Ensuring Consistency: When you plan a road trip, you estimate how long it will take to reach each destination. Agile estimation techniques, like story points, work in a similar way. They help you understand how much work your team can handle during a sprint. This knowledge ensures a consistent workflow, preventing bottlenecks or rushed work.
3. Keeping Your Sprint on Track with Clear Goals and Outcomes:
Clarity is paramount for a successful sprint. Clearly define the goals and outcomes for the sprint, aligning them with past experiences and customer needs. Encourage open communication to address any uncertainties before starting work. Display the sprint goals prominently for constant reference.
Imagine you're embarking on a treasure hunt. To succeed, you need a clear map, right? Well, in sprint planning, clear goals and outcomes are your treasure map. Here's why they're so important:
- Navigating the Sprint: Think of your sprint as a journey. Without a map, you might wander aimlessly or even get lost. Similarly, setting clear goals in a sprint is like plotting your course. It provides a clear direction for your team, ensuring everyone knows what needs to be achieved.
- Connecting Past and Present: Just as a treasure map builds on knowledge of past explorations, your sprint goals should connect with what you've learned from previous sprints. This helps you avoid repeating mistakes and build on past successes.
- Addressing Uncertainties: In any adventure, unexpected obstacles can arise. Encouraging open communication within your team is like having a trusty guide. Team members should be at ease when it comes to inquiring and expressing any worries. This way, you can address uncertainties before they become major roadblocks.
- Constant Reference: Promising your sprint goals is like keeping that treasure map in hand throughout the journey. It serves as a reminder of your mission and keeps everyone on track.
4. Clarifying the 'Done' Criteria in Sprint Planning:
Defining "done" criteria is vital. Agreement on completion standards prevents misunderstandings and sets achievable goals. Ensure everyone understands the definition of "done" for each task, including criteria like code reviews, testing, and documentation.
Imagine you're baking cookies. You need a clear recipe and a timer to know when they're ready. Defining "done" criteria in sprint planning is like setting that timer. Here's why it's so important:
- Clear Expectations: Just as you don't want undercooked cookies, you don't want unfinished tasks in your sprint. Defining what "done" means sets clear expectations. It makes sure that everyone understands exactly what needs to be done for each task or project.
- Preventing Misunderstandings: Imagine if your recipe didn't specify when the cookies were ready – it could lead to confusion. Similarly, having a shared understanding of "done" prevents misunderstandings. It means everyone agrees on the standards for completion, reducing the chances of disagreements or confusion.
- Quality Assurance: When you bake cookies, they must be not just done but also delicious. In a sprint, "done" doesn't just mean finished; it means meeting quality standards. This might include criteria like code reviews, testing, and documentation. These ensure that the work is completed and meets the desired level of quality.
- Tracking Progress: Just as you keep an eye on the timer to track your cookies' progress, defining "done" helps you track your project's progress. You can see how close you are to completing each task and the overall sprint.
5. Ensure Sprint Goals are Aligned with Product Objectives:
Every sprint should contribute to overarching product objectives. While addressing specific issues, always align with the product's strategic goals. Choose backlog items that connect to the broader product strategy. This alignment ensures that each sprint is a purposeful step toward fulfilling customer needs and achieving product milestones.
Imagine each sprint as a jigsaw puzzle piece that completes the whole picture. Here's why alignment is crucial:
- Achieving the Bigger Picture: Each puzzle piece contributes to the overall image, so each sprint should contribute to the broader product objectives.
- Staying on Track: As you wouldn't use a puzzle piece from a different set, backlog items should align with the product's strategic goals. This prevents sprints from becoming disconnected efforts.
- Fulfilling Customer Needs: Aligning with product goals ensures that each sprint addresses customer needs and takes you closer to product milestones.
Is Sprint not going as planned? Learn how to fix sprint issues effectively and foster seamless team communication.
The ‘Not so Secret’ Ingredients of a Perfect Sprint Plan
A lot of data, team insights, and personalization goes into creating a sprint plan. Here are the common elements omnipresent across all team sprints:
1. Sprint goal:
Measurable, quantifiable, and achievable- the three terms that define a sprint goal. For example- your next goal could be about delivering ten product features, revamping the website, or bringing down incident rate by Y%.
2. Define sprint tasks:
List of tasks needed to be performed for achieving your sprint goal. It’s better to reverse engineer your work process, and create a timeline spanning daily, weekly, and mid-sprint.
3. Enrolling team members in sprint tasks:
The next step is the hardest- ensuring all members have a sustainable workload per sprint. Most sprints fail because either the team members are overburdened with the last sprint task, or don’t have enough productive time to code, or focus on key priorities. Hatica’s maker time metrics helps you to map available hours per dev so engineering managers can distribute sprint tasks by optimizing developer workload.