Sprint planning is one of the most important ceremonies in the agile practitioner's toolkit, but it's also one that's commonly misunderstood or executed poorly.
Bad sprint planning meetings can leave teams feeling frustrated and disengaged right out of the gate, while good sprint planning provides the foundation for an aligned, productive sprint.
In this guide, we'll explore what effective sprint planning looks like with insights and examples from agile coach John Cutler.
You'll learn how to set meaningful sprint goals, refine and estimate the sprint backlog, secure team commitment, and make the most out of your precious planning time.
With the actionable advice in this guide, you'll be equipped to facilitate energetic sprint planning sessions that rally your team around a shared objective and tees them up for success when execution begins.
So park your cynicism about marathon sprint planning meetings at the door. Whether you're a seasoned agile coach or a rookie Scrum Master, this guide will give you new techniques to jazz up your sprint planning and send your teams sprinting.
Let's discover how to turn sprint planning from a boring chore into an inspiring rallying cry!
- Define a clear sprint goal upfront to align the team on objectives
- Break down work into granular tasks with owners assigned for accountability
- Foster open collaboration and accurately estimate capacity to build commitment
What is Sprint Planning?
Sprint planning is a key ritual that kicks off each sprint in agile frameworks like Scrum. It's a working session where the team comes together to define the objective, scope, and tasks for the upcoming sprint. At its best, sprint planning strikes a balance between structure and creativity, alignment and autonomy. It's an event that rallies the team around a meaningful goal and gets everyone on the same page about how they'll collaborate to achieve it.
Why Sprint Planning is Important
Great sprint planning is like a team huddle in sports - it energizes the team around a shared mission and helps them gel. Beyond just creating a sprint backlog, it enables teams to regularly align on goals, collaborate on ideas, and feel ownership over their commitments. Teams that nail sprint planning tend to have significantly better productivity, morale, and business outcomes.
But when done poorly, sprint planning can feel like pointless bureaucracy. Teams trudge through endless debates about estimates without linking work to any meaningful objective. Instead of leaving fired up, people leave exhausted and disengaged. That's why putting some intention into sprint planning is so critical.
Who Should Participate in Sprint Planning
To make the most out of sprint planning, it's important to have the right people in the room. That includes the full delivery team who will be doing the sprint work - developers, testers, designers, etc.
The Product Owner is essential for providing context on priorities and desired outcomes. And the Scrum Master plays a key role in facilitating the meeting and coaching the team.
Stakeholders like customers or managers occasionally join for visibility. But it's mostly an inward-facing event for the doers to plan their work.
Preparing for Sprint Planning
The sprint planning meeting is far more effective if prep work happens ahead of time. Don't treat sprint planning as a standalone event - it's a natural continuation of processes like backlog grooming and roadmapping.
Determine Overall Sprint Goal
Before planning the what, it's important to define the why - the overall objective and desired outcome for the sprint. This sprint goal provides crucial context and alignment for the team. It's determined collaboratively between the Product Owner and delivery team leads based on the current product roadmap priorities and latest stakeholder needs.
For example, a sprint goal might be "Automate manual processes to increase efficiency" or "Improve checkout funnel conversion rate." The sprint goal is like a North Star guiding the team in assessing which backlog items to tackle and how they fit together.
Refine and Prioritize Sprint Backlog
With a clear sprint goal in mind, the next step is to refine and stack rank the items that could be candidates for the upcoming sprint. This is often referred to as "grooming the backlog." The Product Owner usually takes the first pass at pruning the backlog and ordering high priorities to the top.
But the broader team should also be involved in providing estimates and influencing priorities based on dependencies and risks they see. Together, they build a refined backlog that is sized appropriately for the sprint length.
Ensure Team Has Capacity
Before planning what work can be committed to, it's prudent to clarify the team's availability for the sprint. Will there be any PTO or company events that would reduce capacity? Are there team members joining or leaving the project that influences bandwidth? Factoring in these capacity constraints ensures the Sprint Backlog will be realistic.
Schedule Meeting and Invite Participants
With the goal defined and backlog prepared, the last piece is scheduling the sprint planning meeting itself and inviting all of the required participants. This includes the Scrum team (PO, SM, delivery team) plus any key stakeholders who need visibility into the sprint plan.
The meeting should be scheduled for an appropriate length - usually 2-4 hours for a 1-2 week sprint. Avoid trying to cram planning into a shorter window, as thorough discussion of each item is crucial for the team to build collective ownership over what's committed.
Here is a detailed blog article in the style of John Cutler on conducting effective sprint planning meetings:
Conducting Sprint Planning Meetings
Sprint planning meetings are a crucial part of any agile development process. These meetings allow the team to plan out work for the upcoming sprint in order to meet the sprint goal. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to run an effective sprint planning meeting.
Revisit Sprint Goal and Discuss Objective
The sprint planning meeting should always start by revisiting the sprint goal that was defined in the previous sprint's retrospective meeting. The product owner should remind the team of the objective for the upcoming sprint. This helps set the context for the work that needs to be planned.
Some key questions to discuss:
- What is the objective we want to achieve this sprint?
- How does this tie back to the overall product roadmap and vision?
- Are there any new considerations or changes since the last sprint retrospective?
Walk Through Each Backlog Item
Next, the product owner and team should walk through each item in the prioritized product backlog. The product owner provides details on each item - what it is, why it's important, and anything else the team needs to know.
The team can then ask clarifying questions about the scope and expectations for each item. The goal is to ensure there is a shared understanding of the requirements and acceptance criteria.
Allow Team to Estimate Level of Effort
As the product owner walks through each backlog item, the agile team should estimate the level of effort involved. This doesn't need to be a precise estimate, rather a general sense of the work involved.
Common estimation techniques include t-shirt sizing (S, M, L), fibonacci sequence points, or relative ranking. The goal is to understand the size of each item relative to others.
Use Velocity From Past Sprints to Determine Commitment
Once all the backlog items have initial estimates, the team looks at velocity from past sprints. The product owner and team use this historical data to determine how many items they can reasonable commit to completing in the upcoming sprint.
The sprint commitment should feel challenging but achievable based on the team's capacity and historical velocity. Less is often more when it comes to sprint planning.
Break Larger Items Down Into Smaller Tasks
For backlog items that are large in scope, the team should break them down into smaller tasks or work packages. This allows for more precise tracking of progress during the sprint.
Each task should represent roughly 1-2 days worth of work for a given team member. Breaking items down into tasks provides clarity on the amount of work, effort, and skills needed.
Assign Owners for Each Task
Each task should have a designated owner on the team. While tasks require collaboration, having single person accountability helps ensure clarity on who is responsible for completing the work.
Ownership can be assigned based on skills, capacity, and interest. The goal is to divide up the work evenly and appropriately.
Confirm Sprint Capacity Has Not Been Exceeded
As smaller tasks are created and assigned, the scrum master and team should check that the overall sprint capacity has not been exceeded. If it has, they should determine what can be trimmed, moved to the next sprint, or remove scope from certain items.
It's normal to not plan 100% of capacity, as new items emerge during sprints. The team should feel confident they can complete the items committed to.
Get Commitment From Team on Sprint Goal and Backlog
The final step is to get public commitment from the full team on the sprint goal, objective, and backlog items. Each team member should agree to the work planned before closing the sprint planning meeting.
If there are reservations, the team should continue discussing until there is clear agreement and shared commitment amongst the group.
The sprint backlog is now set and the team can get started executing on those items when the new sprint begins!
- Reaffirm the sprint goal and objectives
- Break down large backlog items into smaller tasks
- Estimate effort level for each item
- Determine sprint commitment based on velocity
- Assign owners to each task
- Get public commitment from full team
Sprint planning meetings set your team up for success in the upcoming sprint. Use this guide to ensure your meetings are productive, collaborative, and lead to clear sprint commitments. With an effective planning session, your team will be poised to deliver value and achieve the sprint goal.
Following Up After Sprint Planning
The sprint planning meeting sets the stage for work to be done, but execution relies on collaboration and communication amongst the team. Here are some tips on following up after sprint planning to ensure clarity and alignment.
Share Notes and Next Steps
The scrum master or product owner should share notes from the sprint planning meeting with the broader team. These notes should include:
- Sprint goal
- Backlog items committed to
- Task breakdown and owners
- Any other important information discussed
Sharing notes ensures everyone has visibility into what was decided. The scrum master should also send out next steps so the team is clear on upcoming milestones.
Add Details to Task Board
All the tasks defined during planning should be added to the team's sprint task board or workflow management tool. Adding them to the board makes the commitment tangible.
Ensure task details like owners, time estimates, and priorities are included on the board. This gives the team a clear picture of the work ahead.
Check in on Progress During Sprint
During the sprint, the scrum master and team should periodically check in on progress. This can be done at stand-ups, but more frequent check-ins may be needed if things go off track.
The goal is to identify roadblocks quickly and course correct if needed. The team shouldn't wait until the end of the sprint to determine if things are on track.
Following up frequently fosters collaboration and surfaces issues early when they are easier to resolve. This helps the team execute sprint tasks efficiently.
- Share meeting notes and next step actions
- Add all tasks to sprint board with details
- Frequently check in on progress during the sprint
Proper follow up and communication after planning will enable your team to successfully execute on the sprint goal and commitment.
Here is an expansion on keys to successful sprint planning:
Keys to Successful Sprint Planning
While the sprint planning process may seem straightforward, certain elements are critical for having an effective planning session.
The sprint planning meeting should foster open communication and collaboration. All team members should feel comfortable discussing estimates, asking questions, and raising concerns.
Encourage input from everyone, not just the loudest voices. Facilitate a collaborative environment where the team self-organizes to plan out the work.
Clear Sprint Goal
The sprint goal should be clearly defined and understood by everyone before starting to plan the backlog items. Lack of clarity on the goal often leads to misalignment.
The product owner is responsible for articulating the objective and desired outcomes for the sprint. Check for understanding amongst the group before diving into the details.
Accurate Velocity Estimates
Estimating sprint capacity relies heavily on having accurate historical velocity data. The team should be disciplined about measuring and recording velocity to have reliable metrics.
Without good velocity data, it’s nearly impossible to accurately gauge how much work can be completed in a sprint.
Timebox the Meeting
Sprint planning meetings should be timeboxed to avoid going over. Aim for 2 hours for a 1 week sprint, 4 hours for a 2 week sprint. If needed, have follow up sessions rather than one long meeting.
Ensure you stay on track against the agenda and cadence to respect people’s time. Running an efficient meeting shows respect for the team.
- Foster open communication and collaboration
- Clearly define sprint goal upfront
- Discipline around tracking velocity
- Timebox meeting and stick to agenda
With some focus on these critical elements, your sprint planning meetings will be engaging, productive, and lead to an achievable commitment by the team.
Here is an expansion on common sprint planning pitfalls to avoid in the style of John Cutler:
Common Sprint Planning Pitfalls to Avoid
Even with the best intentions, sprint planning meetings can go awry. Being aware of common pitfalls can help you avoid them and have smoother planning sessions.
No Clear Sprint Goal
Don't start planning the sprint backlog without first defining a clear sprint goal. The goal sets the purpose and provides context for why items are being prioritized.
Take the time to articulate the objectives, outcomes, and metrics for success before diving into the weeds of task estimation. A fuzzy goal leads to misalignment.
Too Many or Too Few Items Selected
Picking the right number of items is an art and dependent on team velocity. Don't cram in too many items that exceed capacity or take on too few items and under commit.
Balance stretch goals with achievable objectives based on data. Build in buffer for discovery work and unknowns. Challenge team thinking on priorities and scope.
Fuzzy or Missing Task Breakdowns
Don't complete planning until large items are broken into tasks of 1-2 days work. Tasks should have owners assigned and clear expectations.
Ambiguity on task breakdowns and owners leads to poor execution. Take the time to ensure clarity for the team before finalizing the plan.
Key Members Missing From Discussion
Missing perspectives during planning undermines commitment. Don't allow a few loud voices to dominate conversation. Facilitate broad input.
Ensure product owners, engineering leads, designers, etc are present. They offer critical context. Plan around availability if possible.
- Invest time in defining sprint goal
- Use data to select appropriate number of items
- Breakdown ambiguous items into clear tasks
- Get broad input - don't allow silos
Avoiding common missteps will result in stronger alignment, greater buy-in, and increased ability to execute on the sprint plan.
Effective sprint planning meetings are crucial for agile team success. With good preparation and facilitation, your team will be set up to deliver on commitments.
Sprint Planning Purpose and Process
In summary, the sprint planning meeting serves to:
- Establish clear objectives and goals for the sprint
- Gain agreement on which product backlog items will be done
- Break down items into executable tasks with owners
- Make an achievable commitment based on team velocity and capacity
- Obtain buy-in and commitment from all team members
Following the step-by-step planning process outlined earlier enables teams to meet these goals collaboratively.
Tips for Continuous Improvement
Like all agile practices, continuously look for ways to improve planning meetings. Try some of these ideas:
- Send out pre-reads and agenda in advance
- Timebox discussions more tightly
- Bring in outside perspectives to challenge thinking
- Track accuracy of estimates and velocity
- Iterate on planning formats to engage the team
By regularly inspecting and adapting, your sprint planning meetings will evolve over time. The more efficient and collaborative they become, the easier it will be for your team to execute sprints effectively.
- Sprint planning sets up the team for success
- Follow the step-by-step planning process
- Continuously look for improvement opportunities
With diligent planning and preparation, your agile teams will be able to meet their commitments sprints after sprint. Successful execution compounds over time to help deliver greater value to customers.