Tips for organizing sprints for Agile projects

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Agile projects are all about working in flexibility, but that doesn’t mean things just happen on their own. Successful sprints, two- to four-week periods of work, take careful forethought and planning. Yes, the plan may change, but if done correctly, you should be able to shift course and pick up the slack quickly while continuing to move forward. 

Setting up a plan is when you get your team on the same page and narrow their focus. You set up goals and answer any questions before sending people out to do the actual work. In this case, we’re talking specifically about the Scrum framework, which means figuring out deliverables and how they will be accomplished is a team sport. If you do it right, everyone should walk away motivated, challenged, and with a high chance of success. 

There are three key (or groups of) players in a scrum: the product owner, the Scrum master, and the team. At smaller companies, the first two may be the same person. The product owner focuses on the business side of things and prioritizes the backlog while the scrum master plays more of a coaching role, leading meetings and implementing Scrum framework throughout the process. 

Here are our tips for planning your next sprint:

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Hold a pre-meeting

If the product owner and Scrum master are two different people, it’s worth connecting before the sprint planning meeting to go over backlog priorities, check resource availability, and decide on the workload. Ask team members to confirm any vacation days, time restraints, or other project responsibilities in advance, and adjust the workload accordingly. If you do all the hard work upfront, the meeting with your team will be more focussed and efficient. The Scrum master should set the planning meeting and give everyone involved a clear agenda in advance.

Keep it brief

Try to keep this as short as possible while accomplishing what needs to be done. Ever wonder why TED Talks are 18 minutes or less? According to studies, that’s about the maximum amount of time people are capable of paying attention. The average is between 10 and 18 minutes. Sprint planning will definitely take longer than 18 minutes, but it’s something to keep in mind. Prioritize important things for the beginning or take occasional breaks, if necessary, but don’t exceed the time you’ve allotted for the meeting.

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Start with the big picture

If you’ve just finished another sprint, talk about your progress and remind everyone of the vision. This is your chance to be a hype man and get people excited for the work yet to come and express any specific goals for the next sprint. The latter will guide the team when they’re working out the details. Focus on outcomes. Give your team the “why,” and they’ll come up with the “how.” And don’t forget to align sprint goals with product goals.

Set reasonable goals and tasks

Don’t overload your team. If you set unrealistic goals, they’ll become unmotivated and less effective. Burnout is real. Help your team avoid it. Tasks should be a challenge but not an unreasonable amount of work for the time allotted, and you should walk through dependencies that could affect workflow.

Team members should be very clear on what their responsibilities are and how they relate to the sprint goals. Clarify any vague tasks and discuss potential roadblocks. Also make sure the backlog is organized in a way that team members can pick up work if they hit the sprint goal early. It might not be a common occurrence, but having a plan in place will keep the progress going.

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Know how you’ll measure success

Make sure everyone is aware of what metrics will be used to determine success. This should be their north star. Without it, they’ll be less effective, because they won’t know where they’re going. Questions about what this will look like should be cleared up before anyone walks out of the meeting.

Consider in-person planning vs. virtual

If your team is in-house, make sure you have a large space to work where you can separate into breakout groups, if needed. How will you display plans you come up with? Do you need a digital tool? If you use a whiteboard or sticky notes, who will input the information into the project management software? For mixed teams, some in-person and others remote, using a digital tool everyone can access immediately can be helpful to better engage virtual employees.

Fully remote teams should use a video conferencing tool with breakout rooms. Send out links to anything people will need in advance. As obvious as it sounds, make sure to account for everyone’s time zone, and be prepared to handle any tech issues that arise. No one should be surprised that those occasionally happen.

At the end of each sprint, it should be easy to look at the metrics of success to determine how well you did. On the other hand, if tasks weren’t finished, the end-users or stakeholders are unhappy, or if deliverables didn’t meet expectations, the sprint was unsuccessful. Regardless of how things went, take a moment to discuss what you can learn from at your next sprint planning meeting, and incorporate feedback. Agile sprints are fast and ever-changing. You won’t always be successful, but learn from the experience and keep moving forward, and you’ll end up with a product you can be proud of.

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