The ultimate guide to Agile Sprint planning

Learn everything about Agile Sprint Planning! Our guide helps you master effective sprint strategies, sidestep usual mistakes, and enhance your dev team's output.

The ultimate guide to Agile Sprint planning

Starting a significant engineering project is like exploring a bustling new city with unfamiliar streets and a sense of disorientation. Just as you wouldn't aimlessly wander through an unknown city, you wouldn't dive headfirst into a project without a plan. That’s where Scrum comes in—an agile framework that allows you to break down the project into manageable "sprints," each with its own focus and direction.

Effective Sprint planning transforms how teams approach projects to deliver successful results in predetermined timeframes. You know what’s even better? Even if you’re not good at it, you can practice improving over time with the proper guidance.

We’ve compiled this comprehensive guide with everything you need to know to run efficient Agile sprint planning meetings. It’s a roadmap for engineering teams striving to excel in contemporary development environments.

Understanding Agile sprint planning

Before we dive into the intricacies of effective Sprint Planning, let's revisit the Agile methodology. Agile is not just a set of practices but a mindset that values:

  • Working solutions
  • Customer collaboration
  • Individuals and interactions
  • Responding to change over rigid processes and tools

At the heart of Agile exists Sprints. These are time-boxed iterations, usually spanning two to four weeks, during which a cross-functional team collaborates to deliver a potentially shippable product increment.

The five stages of agile sprint planning

Story refinement

Before you start sprint planning, engaging in story refinement, also known as backlog refinement, is crucial. This ongoing process ensures that user stories in the product backlog are continuously enhanced, incorporating lessons learned, customer insight, and business value. The collaborative efforts of the Product Owner, Development Team, and other stakeholders contribute to maintaining an optimal backlog state.

Story Refinement involves

  • Reviewing and discussing user stories
  • Clarifying acceptance criteria
  • Breaking down significant stories into manageable tasks
  • Addressing any questions or uncertainties

It is also a well-planned opportunity to identify and add new user stories or update priorities based on changing requirements.

Doing this ensures that the stories are ready for selection during sprint planning and the team can seamlessly select and commit to tasks, contributing to the overall success of the Scrum development process.

Sprint planning

The sprint planning sessions establish the foundation for successful sprints by gathering the team, identifying tasks, and creating a roadmap. It ensures team alignment with project goals.

  • The team meticulously outlines the sprint's goal, selects backlog items precisely, and estimates effort for harmonized execution.
  • The sprint goal guides collaborative efforts, and effort estimation involves assigning story points or time estimates for workload and investment distribution. It ensures your team takes up work they’re capable of and aligns with your sprint goals.
  • To make your sprint planning more effective, you must estimate the number of story points and issues to be completed within the sprint, the team velocity, cycle time and lead time. These metrics will help optimize team performance.
An Overview of Lead Time Metric in DevDynamics

Sprint execution

The team focuses on task completion in this core phase, requiring effective communication and adaptability. Ensure that the tasks align with the sprint plan.

  • The team commits to executing tasks outlined in the plan, with daily stand-up meetings to monitor progress and foster proactive problem-solving. It promotes alignment, cultivates accountability, and keeps the team focused on the sprint goals.
  • You can track key insights like issues closed count, PR merged count, PR cycle time, and PR size using engineering analytics tools to get a complete picture of the engineering team for better decision-making.
  • Use pre-configured sprint velocity reports to identify how to increase developer velocity or if someone from the team is facing burnout.

Sprint review

Post-sprint, the team showcases completed work to stakeholders, fostering transparency and accountability.

  • The team unveils completed work, providing stakeholders with a platform for feedback, collaboration, and aligning expectations for future sprints.
  • You can use developer experience surveys to evaluate your developers' efficiency and team capacity and to get feedback on the sprint performed. Some crucial themes you can access with DevDynamics are HeatMaps, Process and Tooling, and satisfaction surveys.  To conduct an anonymous survey ask questions like:

      —“Did our recent sprint deliver value to our customers?”

      —“Did the last sprint alter the level of technical debt?”

      —“Are you satisfied with your role in this sprint planning?”

This will help plan the future sprints as realistic as possible.

  • Stakeholder feedback is pivotal in refining the product and enhancing its value, contributing to continuous and future improvement.
“With DevDynamics' Feedback module, we're able to identify blindspots and areas of improvement within our team, ensuring seamless collaboration between team members and leaders.”Sandeep, Associate Director of Engineering, BigBasket.

Sprint retrospective

The reflective meeting, where the team evaluates performance, and the sprint retrospective are essential for continuous improvement. DevDynamics’ Sprint Performance Reports have simple questions like “How are my sprints performing?” making it easier to fill out the surveys. Additionally, it enables you to track the committed vs completed tasks, story points, and the scope of sprint changes.

  • The phase allows collective reflection on triumphs and tribulations, identifying areas for improvement and planning actions for subsequent sprints.
  • It empowers teams to leverage lessons learned, use successes as building blocks, and devise strategies for overcoming challenges, ensuring a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

How does agile sprint planning help the scrum team?

Planning an agile sprint event is a chance to:

  • Define the sprint's priorities at the start to set context.
  • Bring the entire scrum team together and focus on unified goals.
  • Consider and schedule for dependencies that could affect how the task is done.
  • Learn from past sprints by considering sprint reviews and retrospective observations.
  • Identify potential challenges and incorporate stakeholder input into the sprint planning sessions.
  • Make adjustments based on the team's development velocity for the next sprint planning meeting and ensure attainable objectives.
Source: Adobe Stock

The Sprint planning agenda

Sprint Planning is the process that kicks off each Sprint, setting the stage for the team's collective effort. Its primary goal is to establish a shared understanding among team members about what needs to be accomplished in the upcoming Sprint.

1. Setting the stage

The sprint planning session commences with a brief overview of the project vision, goals, and deliverables. This shared understanding serves as the foundation for subsequent discussions.

2. Prioritizing the backlog

Scrum teams meticulously review the product backlog, assessing and prioritizing user stories based on their value, dependencies, and feasibility. This exercise ensures that the most critical and impactful items receive immediate attention.

3. Estimating the workload

Each user story is meticulously dissected, and the team collaboratively estimates the effort required to complete it. This estimation process leverages various techniques, including story points, ideal days, or task hours, fostering a shared understanding of the work involved.

4. Allocating tasks

With a clear understanding of the workload, the scrum master assigns tasks to individual scrum team members. This allocation considers unique skills, expertise, and capacity, ensuring a balanced distribution of responsibilities.

5. Crafting the sprint goal

Drawing inspiration from the prioritized backlog and estimated workload, the agile team crafts a concise, measurable sprint goal. This goal is a guiding light, keeping the team focused and aligned throughout the sprint.

6. Refining the sprint backlog

The final step involves refining the sprint backlog, ensuring each task is well-defined, actionable, and measurable. This refinement process paves the way for seamless execution during the sprint.

Four Agile Sprint Planning Best Practices

Scrum experts recommend spending 1hr/week on sprint planning. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s sprint length model depends on the team's maturity and the stages of group development.

Here are four best practices to follow while planning an Agile sprint:

  1. Strive for balanced workloads to promote team cohesion and prevent burnout.
  2. Conduct thorough self-assessments to determine the team's collective capacity.
  3. Allocate a portion of the sprint capacity for handling unforeseen challenges or changes.
  4. After each sprint, conduct a retrospective to evaluate the team's performance and identify areas for improvement.

How should scrum teams plan work to be performed within sprints

The Scrum team should plan a meeting to align the sprint goal with the product vision involving these three key players:

1. The product owner—assists in deciding which items from the product backlog should go to the sprint backlog and in order of priority. They define the sprint's objectives and the assignments the team will work on during the following sprint.

2. The scrum master—facilitates meetings to ensure the team stays on course by adhering to the Scrum framework during the sprint. They assist the team in making the most of every Scrum ceremony and the overall Scrum process.

3. The Development team—individuals who will finish the tasks decided upon during sprint planning.

Additionally, when you engage all team members—developers, testers, designers, and stakeholders—in the sprint planning meeting, their unique skills and perspectives

  • Foster a shared understanding, promote open communication, and ensure active commitment to execution.
  • Helps make informed decisions about sprint goals, task selection, and investment distribution.
Source: Freepik

To guarantee a successful meeting and clearly defined sprint objectives, the Scrum team should follow these steps:

Embracing a collaborative mindset

One of the fundamental principles of successful Sprint Planning is fostering collaboration. The Scrum Team should engage in open discussions, leveraging the diverse skills and perspectives within the group. While each team member may have a specific role, there should be a collective ownership of the Sprint Goal.

Prioritizing the product backlog

A well-prioritized Product Backlog is the foundation of effective Sprint Planning. The Product Owner is prominent in ensuring backlog items are precise, feasible, and aligned with business priorities. Regular backlog refinement sessions contribute to maintaining a dynamic and manageable backlog.

User story selection

The team selects user stories to work on during a Sprint Planning event. It's crucial to strike a balance between addressing high-priority items and considering realistic team capacity. The goal is not just to complete tasks but to deliver meaningful value to the end-users.

Breaking down tasks

Task breakdown is an art that requires careful consideration. Instead of creating overly detailed tasks, the scrum team should aim for a balance that allows for a clear plan without unnecessary micromanagement. The focus is on breaking down user stories into tasks that can be accomplished within a day or two.

Relative sizing over precise estimation

Effort estimation often becomes a stumbling block during any Sprint Planning session. The team should focus on relative sizing rather than fixating on precise time estimates. Techniques like story points or ideal hours help the team gauge the required effort without falling into false precision.

Capacity planning realism

A common pitfall in any Sprint Planning event is overcommitting due to unrealistic capacity planning. Capterra’s study states that product owners driven by unrealistic capacity planning succumb to accommodating every stakeholder request. The result? Overcommitting and sprint planning blunder. Thus, before planning the upcoming Sprint, the team must consider factors like

  • Team capacity
  • Developer velocity
  • Customer delivery expectations
  • Vacations, meetings, and unexpected issues

It's better to under-commit and deliver consistently than to overcommit and struggle to meet expectations.

Crafting a clear definition of done and ready

The Definition of done (DoD)  is the entire team's agreement on what it means for a task or user story to be considered complete. It’s usually applied at the end of the sprint review phase. A well-defined DoD eliminates ambiguity and ensures a shared understanding of expected quality standards. Regularly revisiting and refining the Definition of Done is crucial for continuous improvement.

Whereas the Definition of ready (DoR), implemented during the story refinement stage, serves as a prelude to DoD. It outlines the criteria that a user story or task must meet before it can be accepted into the sprint. A well-crafted DoR prevents premature planning and execution by specifying the necessary information, conditions, and preparations required for a task to enter the active work queue. This agreement among team members minimizes uncertainties, enhances collaboration, and sets a baseline for initiating work on a particular item.

However, it’s essential to remember that the definitions of "done" and "ready" vary according to organizations.

What’s the right sprint length?

The length of a sprint is typically between one and four weeks, with two weeks being the most common. When choosing how long a sprint should be, keep these two things in mind:

  1. For complex or uncertain projects and those needing frequent updates, have a shorter sprint length.

    - It facilitates prompt feedback, allowing teams to modify their plans well in advance.

    - It enables learning and modifying strategies on the fly, especially for new hires and teams collaborating for the first time
  2. Longer sprints are an excellent approach for longer release cycles and seasoned teams familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses.

Ultimately, it's up to Scrum teams to decide what works best for them.

Pro tip:

A sprint should be lengthy enough to enable the team to create a potentially shippable product increment, but it should also be brief enough to allow for adjustments and feedback.

Sprint planning the right way

Sprint planning is an exhaustive process with mid-sprint changes and unexpected and unplanned work. However, it should be carefully simplified so there are no mid-sprint changes once the scope of work is defined. By incorporating effective planning techniques, agile teams can create realistic sprint plans that guide them toward achieving their project goals and delivering value to customers.