Everything you need to know about sprint planning

Discover the process of sprint planning and useful dos and dont's to make sure you set your team up for success.

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Sprint planning is an essential part of the Scrum process that provides direction, focus, and clarity for the team, helping to ensure customers get value quickly.

Team leaders who prioritize workload management take the extra time to plan each sprint carefully, ensuring their teams are working on the right tasks, and delivering high-quality work that meets stakeholders' expectations. If this sounds like a good goal for you and your team, keep reading!

We'll explore the key considerations for effective sprint planning, cover some critical do’s and don’ts, and provide you with the tools and guidance needed to ensure your sprint planning process goes smoothly.

What is sprint planning?

Sprint planning is the process of determining the scope and delivery timeline of a project's development over a fixed period of time. It’s done at the beginning of each sprint when the team defines what they plan to work on for the next sprint or iteration (typically two to four weeks).

When done well, sprint planning plays a vital role in resource and capacity estimation, and can make the difference between project success and failure.

The goal of each sprint planning session is to determine what will be done next and begin to plan how to achieve the next goal. During this session, the team:

  • Reviews the prioritized product backlog to identify the items that are most important to work on next
  • Breaks these items down into smaller, more manageable tasks
  • Creates a sprint goal (outlining what they aim to accomplish during the sprint) and a sprint backlog.

This entire process typically takes one to two hours for each week of the sprint, meaning sprint planning for a two-week sprint should take no more than four hours.

Who participates in sprint planning?

This meeting involves the entire Scrum team, including the Product Owner, the Scrum Master, and the development team:

  • The Product Owner has the most crucial role in sprint planning, as they bring in the product backlog and work with the team to prioritize items for the upcoming sprint.
  • The Scrum Master ensures that the team is adhering to the Scrum framework and helps facilitate the meeting, keeping the conversation focused.
  • The development team members help analyze the product backlog items, estimating their complexity and identifying dependencies.

Together, they determine which items can be completed within the next sprint.

By the end of the sprint planning meeting, each person should understand what’s coming next for the team and who needs to do what—and then it's off to the races for that iteration.

What’s the importance of sprint planning?

Sprint planning is important because it helps the team collaboratively lay the foundation for a successful and productive sprint, before they get started with actual work.

Without proper sprint planning, the team risks working on the wrong tasks, taking on more work than they can handle, and facing delays in the project's completion. This can lead to significant problems, including missed deadlines, budget overruns, and dissatisfied stakeholders.

For example, suppose a team jumps right into the sprint without taking the time to plan out their tasks. In that case, they might waste the first few days trying to figure out what needs to be done, instead of completing critical work. They might work on low-priority tasks, miss key deliverables, and frustrate stakeholders who are counting on the project being completed on time.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this scenario time and time again. By the time a team gets organized enough to know what should be done, the sprint ends. The worst possible outcome is that the team decides Scrum isn’t for them after all, and most often reverts to their previous methodology or throws the idea of time-boxed work increments out the window.

The truth is, if you want to be a successful project or development leader, you need to spend the time and effort necessary to complete sprint planning for every sprint or iteration. This is how you can reap the benefits of the Scrum methodology.

How to prepare and run a sprint planning session

The Sprint Planning Meeting can be divided into two parts:

  • The first part usually takes one to two hours as the Product Owner presents the product backlog items the team has to work on.
  • The second part is where the team decides and commits to what they can deliver during the upcoming sprint. This part of the meeting includes a discussion of how to achieve the sprint goal and how to break the backlog items into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Preparation is the key success factor for an effective sprint planning session. But, each role on the scrum team has different responsibilities when it comes to preparing for an effective sprint planning session. Here are tips to prepare for the sprint planning session for each role:

How to prepare as a Product Owner

  • Review the success of the development team in the previous iteration. If any items were not finished, put them back into the prioritized backlog.
  • Confirm the product backlog is prioritized and up to date.
  • Ensure that all user stories are well-written and easy to understand–include success criteria wherever possible to ensure you get what you ask for!
  • Identify the sprint goal and prepare to communicate it to the team.

How to prepare as a Scrum Master

  • Set clear expectations for the sprint planning session and communicate them to all team members beforehand. This might also include training, especially when the team is new to the process as a whole.
  • Ensure that the development team is available for the entire sprint planning session. This can also include booking the meeting.
  • Prepare the necessary tools, such as a planning board, planning poker cards, and a timer, to keep the meeting on track.

How to prepare as a member of the development team

  • Finish as much work as you can in the prior sprint. Ensure all work is correctly documented in the task tracking tool and visible to the Product Owner.
  • Prepare to review the prioritized backlog and ask questions to clarify any uncertainties. Also, think about estimates for the effort required to complete each item so you can provide them in the meeting.
  • Be ready to commit to the sprint goal and come up with a plan on how to achieve it.

A well-prepared Product Owner, Scrum Master, and development team can help ensure a smooth and productive sprint planning session.

Example agenda for the sprint planning meeting

The Scrum Master is often responsible for facilitating this meeting and ensuring that it is effective and productive.

Here’s an example agenda that may come in handy:

  1. Review the prioritized product backlog: The Product Owner presents the items in the product backlog, and the team has an opportunity to ask questions and clarify any ambiguities.
  2. Define Sprint Goal: The Product Owner presents their idea for the sprint goal and discusses with the team to agree on what they are trying to accomplish in the iteration.
  3. Create product backlog: The team selects a portion of the prioritized backlog that they feel can be accomplished within the next sprint, including estimates of time, resources required and dependencies for each task.
  4. Committ to sprint goal: The team commits to achieving the sprint goal, and the Product Owner commits to not introducing any changes to the sprint backlog during the sprint. In the event that changes are critical, the Product Owner will consult with the development team (changes are rare, but people still try to sneak stuff in).

At the end of sprint planning, the team should have a clear understanding of the sprint goal, a prioritized sprint backlog, and a shared knowledge of what tasks need to be done.

With the conclusion of an effective Sprint Planning Session, the sprint is locked and loaded and the team should be ready to go!

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Do’s and Don'ts of Sprint Planning

When it comes to sprint planning, there are a few things that you should do and some things you should avoid doing in order to make the most out of your time. Here are some common “dos” and "don'ts" of sprint planning to keep in mind:

Do:

  • Involve the entire team in the discussion.
  • Stay focused on the scope of the upcoming sprint.
  • Start the meeting by reviewing the sprint goal and the highest-priority user stories.
  • Focus on breaking down the backlog items into manageable tasks.
  • Discuss each user story in detail and determine the acceptance criteria and any dependencies or risks.
  • Estimate the effort required for each user story and plan how many can be accomplished within the sprint.
  • Use data-driven forecasting to accurately predict the backlog items that can be accomplished during the sprint. Think velocity—which is a rate determined over time and represents the amount of work that can be accomplished by the team during a sprint or iteration.
  • Determine who will be responsible for each user story and assign tasks accordingly.
  • End the meeting with a clear plan for the sprint, including a list of user stories and assigned tasks.

Don't:

  • Don’t start sprint planning until the Product Owner can attend. Don’t run Sprint Planning without the person who built and prioritized the backlog!
  • Don't underestimate the importance of prioritization. Make sure that you're focusing on the most important tasks first and allocating resources accordingly.
  • Don't try to plan out every detail of the sprint. Sprint planning is meant to be an overview, not a detailed project plan. Keep it high level.
  • Don't skip over important discussions or debates. If there are issues that need to be resolved, address them now before they become bigger problems later.
  • Don't assume everyone is on the same page. Make sure that everyone understands the goals and objectives of the sprint and is aligned on what needs to be accomplished.
  • Don't forget to involve the entire team. Sprint planning is a collaborative effort, and everyone's input is valuable. Don't let one person dominate the conversation.
  • Don't forget to account for unexpected obstacles. Remember that things don't always go as planned, and you need to be prepared to adjust as needed.
  • Don't neglect to assign specific tasks and responsibilities. Make sure that everyone knows what they need to do and when it needs to be done by.

By keeping these “dos” and "donts" in mind, you can avoid common pitfalls during sprint planning and ensure that your team is on the right track for a successful sprint.

Stories from the field

I have personally implemented Scrum with many teams throughout my work history. If you are implementing Scrum in your organization or team, the Sprint Planning event is one of the most critical when helping build confidence among a new team working in the Scrum methodology.

In late 2019, I implemented Scrum in a training development team. We were under a tight timeline to implement a customer-facing learning program. The team was small, and they needed clear guidance on what to work on first after we had identified a whole list of classes we wanted to create. I acted as the Product Owner in this group, so I prioritized the backlog of courses based on what users would experience first, knowing that we could develop more advanced courses as users progressed through the lower-level courses.

With this team, each week we would start with a meeting to look through what we accomplished last week and plan for the week ahead. This was like a mini sprint review, retrospective, and sprint planning all in one. We were a small team of four, so this went pretty smoothly and quickly, especially because I always came prepared with a prioritized backlog. After our sprint planning meeting, we were off to the races! Over time, I taught the team about Scrum, and one of the team members was so impressed with the success of the process that he became Scrum Master certified and is now a Product Owner for the company’s largest product!

All this to say, Scrum is not limited to software development teams. Scrum and sprint planning can work for many different types of products, projects and initiatives. If you are working towards a goal that can be tackled step by step, Scrum might be a great way to break the work into smaller bite-sized pieces and help you get started with a plan.

Plan the Sprint!

Sprint planning ensures the team is aligned to the upcoming sprint's scope, commits to the deliverables, identifies potential risks and challenges, and stays focused and motivated throughout the sprint.

Conducting an effective sprint planning meeting requires involving the entire team and data-driven forecasting. With the tips we shared in mind, you can conduct a successful sprint planning meeting and deliver value to the stakeholders.

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