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The Ultimate Agile Sprint Planning Guide [2023]

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

How do you feel when someone mentions “planning”? Do you look forward to the opportunity or does the thought of making a plan send you running for the hills?

Sprint planning is a crucial part of the agile sprint cycle. It helps you and your team align around common goals, and sets you up for a successful sprint. Even if planning isn’t one of your strengths, the good news is that you can practice and get better over time with the help of some good advice.

We’ve combined our best sprint planning tips into an ultimate guide to agile sprint planning, with everything you need to run efficient and effective planning meetings.

What is agile sprint planning?

Agile sprint planning is a key ceremony in the agile sprint cycle. It signifies and prepares the team for the start of the sprint. Without this planning, there is a very real risk that the team would lack focus and fail to align on what is most important.

Effective agile sprint planning has three key parts; a sprint goal, an understanding of team capacity, and a prioritized set of backlog items. Each element depends on the other for success.

The idea is to align your team around a goal for the next sprint by agreeing on a set of backlog items that are achievable within the sprint and contribute to reaching the sprint goal. Gaining focus and clarity on what you plan to achieve will help your team to work better together and to deliver on objectives.

It is best to start with an agreed sprint goal. You can then prioritize work on the specific set of backlog items that your team has the capacity to complete, and that will contribute to making your sprint goal a reality.

How sprint planning fits within the Scrum process

Illustration of an agile sprint planning guide

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 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 don’t worry — you’ll still find value in our preparation tips, meeting guide, 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 sprint.

The Scrum Master acts as a guide, they lead meetings that help ensure that the Scrum framework is followed throughout the sprint to keep the team on track. The Scrum Master helps the team get the most out of the entire Scrum process and each individual Scrum ceremony.

The development team is made up of the various people who will complete the work agreed upon during sprint planning.

There are others that you might refer to during sprint planning, such as stakeholders, users, and customers. While these aren’t technically 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. Some teams find User Personas to be a valuable way of keeping user value in focus.

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 is the big master list of everything that 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 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, which means that any work completed cannot be considered part of an increment unless it meets the Definition of Done (an agreement among the team of what “done” means). This is a formal description of the state of the increment when it meets the quality standards required of a product. Once the work completed satisfies the agreed Definition of Done, you gain an increment.

Scrum ceremonies: Where Sprint Planning fits

There are a number of ceremonies in Scrum that occur 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

💡 Learn more: Agile Ceremonies: Your Guide to the Four Stages

Sprint planning is the first Scrum ceremony — it prepares the team for the sprint. The planning session sets everything into motion, aligning the team on what’s most important for this sprint. 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 discuss progress and blockers that might be getting in the way. By getting the concerns out in the open early, the team can avoid the frustration of delays and ensure work continues to flow.

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 sprint retrospective gathers critical insights 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 makes Scrum agile — the team is always thinking critically about the process and looking for ways to improve the work and how they work together.

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 is a powerful meeting that should not be overlooked or underestimated. It is an opportunity to:

  • Bring the whole team together and align around common goals
  • Set context by starting the sprint with clear priorities
  • Identify potential roadblocks before they occur
  • Bring stakeholder feedback into the planning process
  • Learn from previous sprints by considering sprint review and retrospective insights
  • Consider team capacity and adjust accordingly to ensure that goals are achievable and that the team isn’t overcommitted in the upcoming sprint
  • Account and plan for dependencies that may impact the flow of work.

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. Unfortunately, you do need to do a little planning for the planning meeting.

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.

Tips for maintaining 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

💡 Learn more: Essential Checklist for Effective Backlog Refinement (and What To Avoid)

Be consistent

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 sprint 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, and ensure it works for everyone.

How to run a sprint planning meeting

While the agile method is flexible and collaborative, it isn’t chaotic; everything needs to begin with a plan.

1. Stick to a set sprint planning meeting duration

As with any kind of meeting, the team can be easily sidetracked without a timebox. After all, talking about the work that needs to be completed is often easier than actually completing it. It’s the Scrum Master’s job to keep the team on track and make sure the time limit isn’t exceeded.

Go into the sprint planning meeting well-prepared; a clear agenda and a well-refined backlog mean your team can get straight to planning.

Set a realistic timebox for the meeting and stick to it. We recommend that you avoid scheduling more than 2-3 hours for a sprint planning meeting, but as you become more skilled in sprint planning, you’ll better understand the length of time that works for you and your team.

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. Unreasonable expectations are demotivating and overcommitted team members are more likely to make mistakes.

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 motivated and support a consistent flow of work.

3. Define clear goals and outcomes

What does the team aim to accomplish between now and the end of the sprint? Set clearly defined goals and outcomes that everyone understands. Do your goals align with what you learned from past sprints? Do they align with customer needs? Does everyone agree on what the next sprint 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.

Post your sprint goal somewhere that is easily accessible so that the team can refer back to it throughout the sprint.

💡 Learn more: How to Make the Most of Your Sprint Goals

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

Sprint goals should always align with your broader product goals. Your sprint may take a specific direction depending on current product issues, bug fixes, or customer concerns, but it’s important to keep an eye on the big picture.

Choose backlog items with care — make sure they relate to the larger product goal and that each works in sync to move development forward. Overlooking product goals in sprint planning could mean that each sprint looks more like 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. The result will feel like a lack of progress, which risks disengaging the team and other important stakeholders, like your users.

What happens next?

Now that the planning is done, you’re ready to implement your plan and complete the work. But that doesn’t mean that team members go off and work in isolation.

Daily scrum (or stand-up)

The daily scrum or stand-up is an opportunity for a collaborative agile team to maintain progress. It should be a quick check-in at the start of each day.

The team will discuss what has been done in the past 24 hours, any roadblocks they might have hit, and what the team hopes to accomplish the next day.

This critical check-in helps the team stay on the same page, helps to ensure the continued flow of work, and keeps the team on track to achieve sprint goals.

Sprint review

A sprint review meeting takes place at the end 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 a chance to demonstrate shippable working product increments to the team, and also an opportunity to bring in stakeholder feedback. This feedback gives you valuable insights to assess if you’re on the right track, or need to make changes in the next sprint. The sprint review is also excellent preparation for the next backlog grooming and sprint planning session.

💡 Learn more: 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 and how the team is working together.

What did you learn during the previous sprint? While retrospectives can take many forms, the goal is to discover what worked 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.

💡 Learn more: 5 Steps to Holding Effective Sprint Retrospectives

Agile sprint planning mistakes

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.

Unrealistic expectations

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

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

Lack of context

Your team will benefit from an understanding of how the issues they’re working on fit into the bigger picture.

Depending on the tool you’re using to plan and manage your work, it can be difficult to see the contextual detail needed to plan and work with clarity. The more items you have, the more difficult and overwhelming it will be to organize and prioritize. Use tools that allow you to add context, depth, and customer insights with clean functionality to adapt your plan to the needs of your team and stakeholders.

Neglecting your backlog

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.

When you go into a sprint planning meeting without a well-managed backlog, you lack the clarity you need to plan effectively. Your time is valuable, and so is the time of your team, so it should be treated with care and used effectively.

A well-managed backlog is DEEP:

  • Detailed appropriately
  • Estimated
  • Emergent
  • Prioritized

💡 Learn more: The 4 Characteristics of a Good Product Backlog

Not allowing the plan to adapt

When you plan your sprint, you’ll do everything you can to prioritize the most important tasks for the length of the sprint. 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.

Failing to understand stakeholders

You need to understand the goals and priorities of stakeholders to be successful. Just because you’re happy with what you’ve accomplished doesn't mean your stakeholders will too.

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

Successful product development delivers what the customer needs and wants. To build for your customers, it helps to use tools for planning and work management that makes it easy to keep them top-of-mind. Incorporating user story maps and customer personas into your planning helps you and your team prioritize the work that will deliver the most value first.

💡 Learn more: 10 tips for more effective user personas

Failing to incorporate retrospective insights into planning

Retrospectives are the best thing you can do to help your team work better together. During a retrospective, you're asking your team to be open and honest about how things went over the course of the sprint so that you can learn from each other.

Failing to learn from those insights means that the collective time spent in the retrospective has been wasted, and the feedback that your team has shared is devalued.

Incorporating the learnings you gain from a retrospective into your next planning session and into the next sprint, will support your team to improve every time, helping them gain work satisfaction and deliver better outcomes.

Virtual vs. in-person sprint planning

The advantages of remote work also bring challenges for collaborative planning. 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.

Tips for virtual sprint planning:

  • Be really prepared - communicate plans clearly ahead of time, so that everyone has clear expectations.
  • Use a video conferencing tool that allows for breakout sessions
  • Set up the interactive online resources you plan to use and include links in the meeting request.
  • Online discussions don’t start as naturally as they would in person, so share discussion topics ahead of time, and consider preparing some ice-breakers.
  • Ensure that you’ve accounted for time differences for teams that span time zones.
  • Tech issues arise no matter how much advanced planning and testing you do. Always expect the unexpected.

Tips for in-person sprint planning:

  • Book a meeting room with plenty of space for your team, and consider separate spaces for breakout sessions.
  • Ensure that your meeting room will accommodate a shared view of your sprint plan - do you need a wall for sticky notes, or a screen to share a digital tool?
  • If some of your team members work remotely, it’s difficult to involve them in the same way, so consider how this might work for your team. They won’t be able to read a whiteboard or sticky notes as easily, so a digital solution may be best.
  • If you choose to plan your sprint ‘on the wall’, be sure to nominate someone to transcribe your plan into your work management tool at the end of the planning meeting.

No matter where your planning takes place, always remember to prepare your backlog ahead of time so that you can have focused and informed discussions during sprint planning.

Additional agile resources

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

📚 Add these to your list:

Using Easy Agile to improve sprint planning

Make your sprint planning smooth and effective with Easy Agile TeamRhythm. Transform your flat product backlog into a dynamic, flexible, and visual representation of the work to be done. Seamlessly integrated with Jira, with TeamRhythm you can:

  • View your Jira stories, tasks, and bugs in context, aligned beneath their epics on the story map
  • Drag and drop Jira issues from the backlog into a sprint
  • Create new issues right on the story map
  • Estimate issues on the story map, and gauge capacity with story point totals in each sprint swimlane
  • Publish the sprint goal on each sprint swimlane, so it’s always top of mind
  • Use filters to focus on the stories and issues that are most important now
  • Group epics by a third level of hierarchy, to easily see how the work in focus contributes to the bigger picture

Easy Agile TeamRhythm also supports team retrospectives, with flexible and intuitive retrospectives boards created for every sprint. You can add retrospective items right from the sprint swimlane, so you don’t forget any important points. And you can turn retrospective action items into Jira issues that can be scheduled for future sprints, so you’re always getting better at what you do, and delivering for your customers.

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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