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The Ultimate Agile Sprint Planning Guide [2021]

04, Aug 2021
Sean Blake
Written by Sean Blake, Head of Marketing

“Planning” — does that word get your organizational energies buzzing, or does it send you running in the other direction? No matter your relationship with planning, it’s a major part of the agile process that takes time and practice to get just right. Agile sprint planning is a crucial agile event. It aligns team members around common goals and sets everyone on the path to success for the upcoming sprint.

We combined our team knowledge to put together an ultimate guide to agile sprint planning with everything you need to run efficient and effective planning meetings.

What is agile sprint planning?

Every sprint begins with sprint planning. Sprint planning is designed to align the team around a goal for the next sprint and the specific set of backlog items that will make that sprint goal a reality. An effective sprint planning session involves prioritizing backlog items and determining your team capacity. How many backlog items can you effectively work through during the upcoming sprint?

The event signifies the start of a sprint and prepares the whole team for what’s to come. Without this essential planning session, the team members would fail to align on what’s most important and what they should focus on.

Let’s get on the same page: How sprint planning fits within the Scrum process

agile sprint planning: Confused Schitts Creek GIF By CBC

We’re big fans of the Scrum process, and it’s hugely popular with many software development teams. While agile sprint planning can take many forms within the various different agile methodologies, for the purposes of this guide, we’ll focus on agile sprint planning within the Scrum framework.

If your team doesn’t follow Scrum (Kanban, lean agile, etc.,) don’t worry — you’ll still find value in our preparation tips, meeting process, mistakes to avoid, and sprint planning resources.

Learn more ➡️ What's the Difference Between Kanban vs. Scrum?

Scrum roles: The people

There are three main roles within a Scrum team.

  1. Product owner
  2. Scrum Master
  3. Development team

The product owner puts in the work upfront. They help prioritize the product backlog items and decide which should move to the sprint backlog. These important decisions guide the goals of the sprint and determine the tasks the team will tackle over the next two-week sprint.

The Scrum Master acts as a guide, helping to ensure the Scrum framework is followed throughout the current sprint. You might say they’re the team’s spirit guide, leading meetings and keeping the team on track. The Scrum Master helps the team get the most out of the entire Scrum process and each individual Scrum ceremony.

Lastly, you have the development team, which is made of the various people who will complete the work agreed upon during sprint planning. The other people you might hear talked about are stakeholders and customers. While these people don’t technically have Scrum roles, they play a critical role in product development. Stakeholders should be brought into the process early and often, and customers should always be top-of-mind when making any development decisions.

Artifacts: What gets done

Artifacts are the things to get done — different breakdowns of what the team hopes to accomplish:

  1. Product backlog
  2. Sprint backlog
  3. Increments

Product backlog items are the tasks the team believes they need to accomplish in order to complete a product or specific improvement of a product. It’s the big master list of everything that needs to get done. The key here is that product backlog items represent what the team thinks they need to accomplish. The product backlog is flexible and iterative, and it will evolve as the team learns more about the product, stakeholder feedback, and customer needs.

The sprint backlog is more focused than the product backlog. The product owner moves the most important backlog items from the product backlog to the sprint backlog at the beginning of each sprint based on current issues, priorities, and customer needs. The team aims to complete all of the sprint backlog items over the course of the two-week sprint.

An increment is a concrete stepping stone toward reaching the Product Goal. An increment must be verified as usable in order to provide value. That means any work completed cannot be considered part of an increment unless it meets the Definition of Done. This is a formal description of the state of the increment when it meets the quality standards required of a product.

It’s all a rather confusing way of saying that the team needs to formally agree on what “done” means. What needs to happen to an item in the sprint backlog in order to define it as done? Once you reach the agreed-upon Definition of Done, you gain an increment.

Scrum ceremonies: Recurring events

The next piece to Scrum are the ceremonies, also known as Scrum events, which occur during each sprint. This is where sprint planning fits within the Scrum process. 🎉

  1. Sprint planning
  2. Daily Scrum (or standup)
  3. Sprint review
  4. Sprint retrospective

💡 We examine the differences between these four meetings in more detail in our article: Agile Ceremonies: Your Guide to the Four Stages.

Sprint planning is the first ceremony — it prepares the team for the sprint. The planning session sets everything into motion, aligning the team on what’s most important for the next two weeks. This is when decisions are made and key backlog items are moved from the product backlog to the sprint backlog.

The second ceremony repeats every day of the sprint. Daily standups bring the team together to report on progress and agree upon what will be tackled over the next 24 hours. This is also the chance for the team to address issues or possible bottlenecks that could slow progress. By getting the concerns out in the open early, the team can prevent delays and ensure work continues to be completed.

The final two ceremonies happen at the end of the sprint. For the sprint review, the team comes together to determine the success of the sprint based on the “Done” work completed. It’s also a chance to bring in stakeholders to gather feedback on what's been accomplished so far. The sprint review ensures customer insights are always top-of-mind, stakeholders continually see progress, and guarantees the product never strays too far from what the stakeholders are looking for.

The last meeting is the retrospective, which gathers critical insight from team members about how the sprint went. What went well, what didn’t go so well, and what could be improved upon for next time? These valuable insights are what make Scrum agile — the team is always thinking critically about the process and looking for ways to improve.

We’ll talk about these ceremonies in more detail below when we discuss what happens after the sprint planning meeting.

The benefits of agile sprint planning

Agile sprint planning sets everything into motion for each upcoming sprint. It’s a critical meeting that should never be overlooked or underappreciated.

The benefits of sprint planning:

  • Align the entire team around common goals
  • Set priorities for the next sprint
  • Identify potential roadblocks before they occur
  • Bring stakeholder feedback into the planning process
  • Incorporate sprint review and retrospective insights into the backlog
  • Adjust according to team capacity
  • Account for dependencies

Sprint planning sessions are much more effective when you utilize your user stories and user story map. Easy Agile User Story Maps enable you to update your story map with backlog items as you go. Each change you make is reflected in Jira, so your team can get going on the sprint immediately.

How to prepare for a sprint planning meeting

We know we said that a sprint begins with sprint planning, but there are actually a few important steps you must take in order to prepare for the planning session. Yes: You need to plan for the planning meeting. 😅

Complete backlog refinement

Backlog grooming or refinement keeps your backlog healthy, up-to-date, and ready for sprint planning. A refined backlog will help ensure your team’s planning time is used efficiently and effectively since you won't have to waste time adding details to the backlog that could have been completed in advance before everyone came together.

The product manager should groom the backlog a few days before the sprint planning meeting to make sure it’s ready.

To maintain a healthy backlog:

  • Ensure stories are in order of priority
  • Prioritize items that bring the customer the most value
  • Add detail to the highest priority backlog items
  • Split any user stories that are too big
  • Delete any user stories that aren’t relevant anymore
  • Create new user stories based on new or clearer needs
  • Add items based on new stakeholder feedback
  • Make adjustments based on bug fixes
  • Assign more accurate estimates

Essential Checklist for Effective Backlog Refinement (and What To Avoid)

Easy Agile User Story Maps make it easy to maintain your backlog. Rather than a flat backlog, story maps provide the team and your product manager with important contextual information.

Reserve a consistent time in advance

A consistent meeting time that’s scheduled well in advance will ensure that the entire Scrum team keeps the time slot open. Book your sprint planning meeting on the same day and at the same time every two weeks so that no one forgets or double books.

Sprint planning is not a meeting to be shuffled around, delayed, or ignored — sprint planning meetings are essential to the success of every sprint. Ask your team about a specific, recurring time to meet every two weeks, and ensure it works for everyone.

How to run a sprint planning meeting

agile sprint planning: Homer Simpson GIF

While the agile method is flexible and collaborative, it’s not an undisciplined free-for-all. Everything needs to begin with a plan.

1. Stick to a set sprint planning meeting duration

As with any kind of meeting, things can go off the rails if there’s not a firm time limit. After all, talking about the work that needs to be completed is sometimes more invigorating than actually going about completing it.

It’s imperative that you set a time limit for the sprint planning meeting. Otherwise, you’ll spend all of your time planning instead of working. Go in well prepared. Entering the meeting with an already refined backlog and clear agenda means your team can get straight to planning.

The sprint planning meeting is a timebox, which means the event takes place over a predetermined, fixed time period. Don’t schedule more than 2-4 hours for a sprint planning meeting. It’s the Scrum Master’s job to keep the team on track and make sure the time limit isn’t exceeded.

2. Use estimates to make realistic decisions

You want your team to be as productive as possible, but overloading them can actually hinder productivity and focus. Burnt out team members are more likely to make mistakes, and motivation will decline if you continually set unreasonable expectations.

You need to understand the effort and time it will take to complete the goals you set out to accomplish for each sprint. Agile estimation techniques and story points provide a better understanding of team capacity, individual capacity, and what a reasonable workload looks like. Reasonable and realistic goals will help your team stay on track and prevent team burnout.

3. Define clear goals and outcomes

What does the team aim to accomplish between now and the next sprint planning session? Set clearly defined goals and outcomes that everyone understands. Do your goals align with everything you learned from the past sprint? Do they align with customer needs? Does everyone agree on what the next two weeks will (roughly) look like?

Don’t assume that everyone is on the same page. Ask questions and encourage your team to speak up if anything is unclear. It’s better to clear up discrepancies or misunderstandings now rather than once the work begins.

4. Decide what it means to be ‘done’

What does “done” mean for any given backlog item, increment, product issue, or product as a whole? The team and your stakeholders need to agree on what done looks like in order to set realistic goals that meet the expectations of everyone involved.

As you set goals and choose which backlog items to complete for the next sprint, be clear about what it means to meet and complete the goals you want to accomplish.

5. Align sprint goals with product goals

Don’t get so carried away with your sprint goals that you forget about your overall product goals. Your sprint may take a specific direction depending on current product issues, bug fixes, or customer concerns, but it’s important to remind the team of the big picture.

You don’t want to end up with a random selection of to-do lists that don’t connect back to customer needs, relate to product goals, or help you reach important increments. Choose backlog items with care — make sure they relate to the larger product goal and that each works in sync to move development forward. Disconnected backlog items will disengage the team and stakeholders, and they may provide unexpected outcomes. (Not in a good way!) 😓

What happens next?

Well, now you actually complete the work you planned during the sprint planning session. This happens over a two-week sprint, with daily standups to report on how the work is going. Each day, the team will discuss what was completed in the past 24 hours, any roadblocks they might have hit, and what the team hopes to accomplish over the next 24 hours.

This critical check-in helps the team stay on the same page, helps ensure progress is continually made, and keeps the team on track to meet their sprint goals before time runs out.

Sprint review

A sprint review meeting takes place at the conclusion of a sprint. It's a chance for the team to review all of the “Done” issues for that period. The sprint review determines whether or not the goal for the sprint was achieved.

It’s also a chance to demonstrate shippable working product increments to the team and bring in stakeholders for feedback. It allows stakeholders to be immersed in your process and gives you valuable insight into whether or not you’re on the right track and what changes you need to make for the next sprint. It puts the gears into motion for the next backlog grooming and sprint planning session.

➡️ Learn more in our detailed Introduction to Sprint Reviews.

Sprint retrospective

While the sprint review looks at what was accomplished and how to move forward, the retrospective examines your processes, the Scrum framework, and how the team is working together.

What did you learn during the previous sprint? Retrospectives often ask the same three questions in various forms: What went well, what didn't go so well, and what could be improved upon next time? Your team will use the insights gathered in the retrospective to improve how you work together and deliver value to customers in the future.

Pro tip: Use your user story map to give your team a visual point of reference during the retrospectives to help them stay focused on the user.

💡 5 Steps to Holding Effective Sprint Retrospectives

Agile sprint planning mistake to avoid

Britney Spears awkward GIF

It’s easy to fall into bad habits, especially as deadlines and product launch dates approach. Avoid these common agile planning mistakes to ensure your team is always making the most of the agile methodology and the Scrum process.

❌ Not setting realistic expectations

Choosing unattainable goals sets your whole team up for failure. Failing to meet your sprint goals sprint after sprint limits your team motivation and morale.

Use estimates to set reasonable goals as best you can. Consider team capacity, factoring in all of your past knowledge surrounding how long items take, how the team works, and potential roadblocks that could arise along the way.

❌ Not having enough context in your product maps

Using bland, flat product maps doesn't give your team the contextual details they need to plan with clarity. Plus, they’re boring! 😴

The more items you have, the more difficult and overwhelming it will be to organize and prioritize a flat product map. Instead, use tools that allow you to add context, depth, and customer insights with a clean functionality to adapt your map to the needs of your team and stakeholders.

We recommend Easy Agile User Story Maps, which transform flat product backlogs into an impactful visual tool.

❌ Not refining your backlog in advance

We mentioned this point when we talked about what you need to do to prepare for sprint planning. It’s worth mentioning again because it’s a common mistake.

We get it: Everyone is busy. But when you go into a sprint planning meeting without a thoroughly refined backlog, you just waste everyone else's time. The work still needs to be completed. Getting the whole team together for a meeting should be treated with care since it uses up a lot of work time.

Ensure the backlog is DEEP — Detailed appropriately, Estimated, Emergent, and Prioritized — before going into a sprint planning session.

Is your backlog DEEP? Learn about the 4 Characteristics of a Good Product Backlog.

❌ Not allowing the plan to adapt as you acquire new information

When you plan your sprint, you’ll do everything you can to prioritize the most important tasks for the next two weeks. It’s important to try to stick to the plan as best you can, but you also need to adapt as you acquire new information.

Be ready to make changes on the fly should you hit roadblocks or acquire new information about customer needs, concerns, or product issues.

❌ Not being on the same page as stakeholders

You need to be on the same page as your stakeholders, or you’ll never truly achieve success. Just because you’re happy with what you’ve accomplished doesn't mean your stakeholders will be.

Ensure your stakeholders are brought into your process early and often and help them understand how you work to provide them value. Gather feedback from stakeholders regularly to ensure your goals are aligned. A good time for this is during the sprint review. Just make sure those insights are transferred over to your next planning meeting.

❌ Not choosing tools with a customer-centric approach

Product development is all about delivering what the customer needs and wants. To do so, you need to consider the customer at all times during the development process. Ensure you choose tools that always keep the customer top-of-mind.

With Easy Agile Personas for Jira, you can create and store Personas directly within Jira. This allows you to make plans based on customer needs in real-time. The tool will help you empathize with customers and make customer-focused decisions that provide the most value to users.

❌ Not incorporating retrospective insights in the next sprint planning

Retrospectives matter. During that time, you're asking your team to be open and honest about how things went over the course of the sprint.

If you don’t incorporate retrospective insights into your next planning session, the retrospective was a waste of time, and it disrespects your team. Your next sprint will be all the better if you listen closely to your team’s insights and try to improve your processes the next time around.

Virtual vs. physical agile sprint planning

More and more teams are running agile meetings virtually, and even though virtual tools have made running agile sprint planning online easier, it still comes with its fair share of challenges. No matter the way your team chooses to meet, whether virtually, in person, or a combination of both, it’s important that you choose tools that meet the needs of your team.

Challenges of virtual sprint planning:

  • Remote teams may have conflicting time zones, which can be tough to keep track of when setting a convenient time for planning.
  • Virtual planning sessions require even more advanced planning to ensure no one’s time is wasted. Breakout sessions are essential, and they don’t happen online as naturally as they would when meeting in person. Make sure you go in with a clear plan of who is needed where and in which breakout session.
  • The right tools are essential for virtual sprint planning. These include video conferencing tools that allow for breakouts and interactive mapping tools that allow everyone to see what’s going on.
  • Tech issues arise no matter how much advanced planning and testing you do. Always expect the unexpected.

Challenges of physical sprint planning:

  • It can be difficult to find and book a physical space to share as a team.
  • If you have some remote team members, it’s difficult to involve them in the same way. They won’t be able to read Post-Its as easily, and it will be harder for them to contribute in general.
  • Post-It notes are tedious to use and tend to lose their stickiness, which means they will fall to the floor no matter how expert your peeling technique has become.
  • After the user story mapping session, a lucky (or unlucky depending on your perspective 😬) team member will still need to enter all of the data accumulated into Jira — so it’s often better to complete user story mapping digitally from the beginning.

Additional agile resources

Beauty And The Beast Book GIF

We’re continually adding to our content library, which is filled with resources, how-to guides, product updates, and more.

📚 Add these to your reading list:

Using Easy Agile to improve sprint planning

If your sprint planning isn’t effective, the sprint that follows won’t be either. It’s key for Scrum teams to take the necessary time to prepare for each upcoming sprint. Each sprint planning meeting must be entered with clear objectives and goals, a refined backlog, and stakeholder feedback.

Make your sprint planning smooth and effective with Easy Agile User Story Maps for Jira. Transform your flat product maps into dynamic, flexible, and visual representations of the customer journey. Story points will help your team make decisions and account for capacity while always keeping the customer top-of-mind. Watch a demo video to see our story maps in action and start your free 30 day trial.

Here’s what our users have to say about the app:

“We’ve found that Easy Agile User Story Maps brings the team together in one room. As a result, we find ourselves mapping more as a group, which creates a common understanding. Since using the add-on, we’ve been able to speed up planning and more efficiently conduct large story mapping exercises.” — Mike Doolittle, Product Director @Priceline

“Since using Easy Agile User Story Maps, we’ve improved our communication and team alignment, which has helped give us faster results.” — Casey Flynn, Distribution Forecast Analyst @adidas

You don’t have to take our word for it. Easy Agile User Story Maps is the fastest-growing and highest-rated story mapping app for Jira, and it’s trusted by over 120,000 users. It’s used by businesses large and small, including Amazon, Twitter, Adobe, Dell, Oracle, AT&T, Cisco, JP Morgan, Starbucks, Rolex and Daimler.

Thanks for reading our ultimate agile sprint planning guide! 👏 If you have any questions about this guide, our other content, or our products, reach out to our team at any time. We love hearing from you. We’ll continue to update this guide as we gain more agile planning insights, techniques, tools, and best practices.

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