Agile 2023-03-07

Agile Sprint Planning - An Ultimate Guide in 2023

Sprint planning made simple! Discover the art of successful Agile sprint planning, avoid pitfalls, and achieve higher productivity for your engineering team.
Agile sprint planning

Agile 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.

Agile 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 sprint planning 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 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 ‘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, specifically communicated product requirements along with a clear context of what’s next- all leading to higher efficiency,  no alienation, and happy developers.

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.

Maker time dashboard by Hatica

4. Sprint backlog:

List of all the tasks with their priority levels set to be completed in the current sprint.

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.

Sprint Planning Pitfalls Every Remote Engineering Team Faces

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. 

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.

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:

  • Step1: 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.
  • Step 2: Set the stage: The scrum master should start the planning meeting with a sprint goal and reviewing the agenda for the meeting.
  • Step 3: 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.
  • Step 4: 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. 
  • Step 5: Agree on the Definition of Done (DoD) so teams don’t compromise on quality while running a top-notch sprint

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, 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.

Is Sprint not going as planned? Learn how to fix sprint issues effectively and foster seamless team communication.

Using Engineering Analytics For Your Upcoming Sprint Planning

An engineering analytics platform helps engineering teams to achieve their sprint benchmarks using data-driven insights. With all collated data and visibility in place, it becomes easier for teams to know why their previous sprint failed, and future steps to evolve in their sprint game.

Hatica’s project delivery overview was created to resolve all sprint-related challenges for engineering managers and team leads. Hatica integrates with all your digital toolstack- from VCS, to Jira, GitLab, and CI/CD pipeline tools to collate data. Once the sprint tasks and story points are fed into the dashboard, Hatica helps teams visualize sprint over sprint trends, delivery velocity, and effort breakdown, from issues to story points. With strong visibility into developer tasks and sprint delivery, managers can minimize sprint risks and even stop sprint overflow way before the first red flag occurs.

Agile Sprint Planning

The delivery dashboard is a natural progression from manual sprint velocity calculations or burndown charts. While the conventional planning tools help teams keep a track of ‘objectives’ and ‘goals’ of sprints, they often lack insights about how the tasks are achieved, or why some of them are still in the backlog. For example- a team that planned to complete 50 story points this sprint might be lagging by 30 points mid-sprint. A burndown chart can only help in visualizing the complete vs incomplete tasks, but cannot go into qualitative depth.

Now, teams can exactly know where they are failing, and what needs to be done- the week might be bug heavy, or devs encountered unplanned work not part of the original sprint plan. All these inferences can only be derived when teams have a 360 degree visibility into each sprint step. Knowing the nuances of sprints, it becomes natural for managers to improve planning accuracy per sprint, and deliver engineering work before time.

Improve team's planning accuracy with Hatica

When coupled with the sprint performance dashboard, it becomes easier for teams to conduct data-driven sprint retrospectives. The dashboard presents data from the last four sprints so teams can get to the bottom of project impediments. From incorporating developmental metrics like cycle time, and code churn, to developer well-being, and maker time, the performance dashboard brings all moving parts of a project at one place- devs work trends, SDLC flow, project status, and percentage of unplanned work. And that’s how engineering teams achieve the ‘pace’ of continuous improvement in real time.

Project health & Sprint Progress Dashboard

Once your current sprint falls back on track, the delivery dashboard also helps you to figure out the next obvious step: how to accelerate my project velocity. A healthy sprint planning goes a long way in determining the effectiveness of a team’s development process. Teams with tight-hold over agile sprint planning have well-ordered SDLCs and optimized developer workflows- an inevitable trait of any successful dev team.

Dos and Don'ts For a Trouble-free Sprint Meeting

Although, the list is fairly personalized, and all teams face different sprint challenges, here are the common, evergreen pitfalls across the spectrum: 

No Feedback, or Receiving Conflicting Feedback

Sprint retros are a team’s safe space for open feedback, or sometimes teammates hold back comments to avoid conflicts; however, on the contrary, these conversations might sometimes create misunderstandings amongst team members and threaten team cohesion. 

Ignoring Sprint Risks 

Sprint health can speak volumes, if teams are closely listening. Surveying teams mid-sprint is a quick idea to gauge your team health and overview project delivery closely. Sometimes, even the most trivial issues can harm your sprint velocity, if not resolved in the initial periods. If your team is only debugging in the first three days of current sprints, and hasn’t yet started working on story points- it’s a risk most managers would not want to avoid. Solution? Keep a stock of your dev’s work items through the Hatica activity log, sprint over sprint, and that’s how you can get to the bottom of all throughput challenges. 

Unrealistic Deadlines

Deadlines are essential for keeping projects on track; however, sometimes sprint becomes all about chasing ‘definite’ story points over actually delivering value. It’s a common hitch across engineering teams, and mostly originates from the ‘we can figure it out’ approach of devs. The idea here is to gauge developer velocity beforehand, and then plan work items by keeping customer delivery expectations and team capacity on the same page.

What’s Next: Conducting Sprints the ‘Right’ Way 

Engineering teams should always remember that sprints are a sacred business. Once an agile sprint planning meeting has defined scope of work, there should be no middle sprint shiftings. It takes time to get agile sprint planning right, but teams have to set benchmarks somewhere. 

Simplifying sprint planning goes a long way- most devs turn blind eyes to sprints because of an overly chaotic process, changes mid-sprint, and unplanned work that no one in the team has figured out. A healthy sprint is a win-win for everyone across the business cycle: right from customers, to CTO, CEOs, engineering managers and individual contributors. 

Ensure perfect, and agile sprint planning with Hatica! Request a demo today→

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Table of Contents
  • What is Agile Sprint Planning?
  • Why Should Agile Teams Plan Sprints? 
  • 1. Improved Project Delivery
  • 2. Team Cohesion 
  • 3. Higher Productivity
  • The ‘Not so Secret’ Ingredients of a Perfect Sprint Plan 
  • 1. Sprint goal:
  • 2. Define sprint tasks:
  • 3. Enrolling team members in sprint tasks:
  • 4. Sprint backlog:
  • Right Length of a Sprint 
  • Sprint Planning Pitfalls Every Remote Engineering Team Faces
  • 1. Poorly Defined Backlog Items
  • 2. Lack of Team Alignment
  • 3. Overcommitment
  • 4. Unclear Priorities
  • 5. Lack of Flexibility
  • How to Run a Perfect Sprint Planning Meeting?
  • Agile Sprint Planning Best Practices
  • 1. Set Realistic Goals, and Deadlines 
  • 2. Don’t 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’s Success
  • Using Engineering Analytics For Your Upcoming Sprint Planning
  • Dos and Don'ts For a Trouble-free Sprint Meeting
  • No Feedback, or Receiving Conflicting Feedback
  • Ignoring Sprint Risks 
  • Unrealistic Deadlines
  • What’s Next: Conducting Sprints the ‘Right’ Way 

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Overview dashboard from Hatica