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Sprint Planning Session: How to make it effective

Best practices for a Sprint Planning Session - why do we need it?

Recently, I was discussing with an ex-colleague about the importance of an effective sprint planning session. He works for a telecom company and was expressing his disappointment regarding a sprint planning session he attended last month. It was an 8-hour session for a month-long sprint. Since the team was not prepared for the session, a significant part of the 8 hours was spent on debating and conflict resolution and the team was not able to meet the main objective of the sprint planning session. Many of you would agree that a sprint planning is one of the most important sprint ceremonies and it carves the way for the rest of the sprint. It not only makes releases and subsequent iteration planning easier, but also creates a transparency regarding the work the team is working on.

What is a Sprint Planning ceremony?

The Scrum Guide describes it as a scrum event where the planning for the work to be performed in the Sprint is done. This is a collaborative event and it time-boxed by the Scrum Master. For a month- long sprint, we normally do not exceed 8 hours for the Sprint Planning session.

Who attends the Sprint Planning ceremony?

The Product Owner, Scrum Master and, Scrum Team. I normally do not invite other external stakeholders unless specifically requested by the Product Owner or the Scrum Team

What happens during the Sprint Planning ceremony?

There are 2 core focus areas for the Sprint Planning session:

  1. Review, analyze, refine and prioritize the user stories and translate them into a Product Backlog Item. The team clarifies their doubts regarding the Product Backlog Items(PBI) with the Product Owner. The Product Owner helps the team to prioritize the Product Backlog items. The Scrum Team together with the Product Owner arrives at an overall goal for the sprint. The Sprint backlog items are then identified and tied to this specific sprint goal. The Product Backlog should be continuously groomed. The scrum team should revisit and groom the backlog at the beginning of each sprint

  2. Assigning tasks to the Scrum Team based on available capacity and(or) velocity of previous sprints - Discussion on how will this work be accomplished. The Product Backlog items will be broken down into granular tasks and hours are assigned to these tasks. I like including Product Owners for this part of the sprint planning sessions, but some Product Owners might choose to opt out of this second part. Also, some teams just review the resource capacity and discuss the tasks and their effort estimation, the actual task allocation is done outside of this meeting. Again, I personally prefer getting the task allocation done during the sprint planning session itself so that the team is aligned and transparent about the tasks they will be working on.

Is there any checklist for a Sprint Planning ceremony?

I would say it depends on the individual Scrum Master, as to how he/she would like to drive a Sprint Planning session/ceremony. There is no hard and fast checklist as such. However, I could give some guidance based on the scrum based projects I have executed so far.

a) Do some homework before the Sprint Planning Session

Before the actual sprint planning session, have a team huddle and spend some time reviewing the user stories, analyzing it and if possible estimating it. If you look at the user stories for the first time during the Sprint Planning session, I can assure you that you will exceed the time box for the Sprint Planning session. So here are some groundwork that you could do:

  • Spend time with the Scrum Team to go through each User Story, analyze it and break it into smaller actionable backlog item

  • Each of the user story should map to a testable item and this helps in arriving at the acceptance criteria or defining the “done” during the Sprint Planning Session

  • The Scrum Master should guide the Scrum Team to come prepared with a relative estimation of the user stories for the Sprint Planning Meeting

  • The Scrum Master should have the resource capacity sheet during the Sprint Planning session to understand the availability of resources for the sprint

b) Try to focus on the following points during the Sprint Planning Session

  • Align with the Product Owner (PO) on the overall goal of the project goal

  • Review, analyze and refine all User stories with the PO

  • Each User Story needs to be added as an actionable Product Backlog item(PBI)

  • Discuss any new information that may impact the plan

  • Prioritize the Backlog items on discussion with PO

  • Align on the definition of “done” for each PBI

  • Discuss risks that might impact the execution of PBI

  • Confirm team capacity

  • Review team velocity if applicable and based on resource capacity, assign the tasks to resources

c) Drive and outcome for the Sprint Planning Session

  • Prioritized Product Backlog – I normally get this signed off by the PO in order to prevent addition of new stories to the Sprint.

  • Assigned resources to tasks based on resource capacity and(or) sprint velocity

Practice makes a person perfect – this thought was ingrained into me from childhood and I still believe this strongly. So, for us, Scrum Masters, the type of projects we handle and with gradual experience we could continuously try to improve our processes to make our Sprint Planning sessions perfect.

Note: If you want to understand the scrum terminology better, refer to the Scrum Glossary.

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