For Agile teams, sprint planning meetings are critical to achieving short-term wins and sustaining long-term success.
As we’ve recently discussed on Helpjuice’s blog, there are a number of sprint planning tools available to help you plan and facilitate sprint planning meetings effectively. As you’ve likely discovered for yourself, planning sprints without these tools can be inefficient at best — and a logistical nightmare at worst.
But, simply adopting these tools isn’t all that’s needed to facilitate effective sprint planning meetings. As helpful as they can be, a strategic overall approach to facilitating these meetings is essential.
(We’d even argue that these tools are useless without a solid approach to sprint planning.)
In this article, we’ll review everything you need to know about facilitating effective sprint planning meetings.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
What are Sprint Planning Meetings, and What is Their Purpose?
A sprint planning meeting takes place at the beginning of an upcoming sprint, in which a scrum team discusses and decides the goals for the sprint and begins forming a plan of attack.
The overarching purpose of a sprint planning meeting is to define the sprint goal and to define the parameters of the upcoming sprint.
This includes defining:
- What is to accomplished (i.e., the sprint goal)
- How the team will accomplish it (i.e., sprint tasks)
- Who’s involved in the process — and how
- Inputs (i.e., required resources and materials) and outputs (i.e., deliverables) for the sprint
To define all this for a given sprint, the team must comb through the project’s existing backlog to identify which task to prioritize next. As we’ll discuss, the Product Owner will often begin this process before the meeting takes place — but will then bring the rest of the team together to continue brainstorming throughout the session.
Once the team has settled on a core task (i.e., a user story) to focus on, they’ll then discuss the key subtasks involved in making it all happen.
For example, a team may decide to improve the user-friendliness of their online ordering process as the main goal for the sprint. From there, they might determine the key ways to do so would be to:
- Add a preferred payment method
- Reduce the touchpoints between adding to cart and finalizing orders
- Provide automated order confirmations on multiple channels
The team would then create an estimated timeline and amount of effort needed to complete each subtask. In Agile teams, this is typically done by assigning story points to define the intensity of each subtask.
Incidentally, this all takes into consideration the team’s capacity and velocity.
- Capacity: A measure of how much work the team can complete throughout a typical sprint. Capacity is calculated by determining the true number of manpower hours the team can dedicate to the task at hand over the course of the sprint.
- Velocity: A measure of the amount of story points the team can complete throughout the sprint. Velocity is determined by taking the average of past performance data — that is, the amount of story points the team typically completes under normal circumstances.
Note, again, that the Product Owner and Scrum Master will likely come to the sprint planning meeting with a general idea of all of this information in-hand. During the actual meeting, the team as a whole will discuss the practicality of the plan and make the appropriate adjustments along the way.
Once all stakeholders agree on the user story (or stories) and subtasks to complete during the sprint, the tasks will be assigned to members of the development team accordingly. It’s at this stage that dev team members will learn:
- What’s expected of them, and when
- What resources they’ll need to accomplish their assigned tasks
- Who they are dependent on, and who depends on them throughout the sprint
With all of this information on the table, the team will either agree to the plan as is — or will bring up any concerns they have with the group. Those with concerns should come prepared with alternative solutions or potential plans that would lead to better outcomes for the team.
Finally, the Agile team will review everything they’ve discussed throughout the sprint planning meeting. In short, everyone should be aligned regarding:
- The core goal of the sprint
- Each team member’s individual responsibilities
- The timeline for completion of each subtask and the overall goal
Once this final review takes place, the sprint planning meeting can be closed out — allowing the team to get to work.
Who Attends Sprint Planning Meetings?
Though we’ve already mentioned many of the key players involved in sprint planning meetings, let’s go over this in a bit more detail.
The Product Owner acts as the planner and administrator of all sprint planning meetings — and is also the liaison between the scrum team and company executives.
The Product Owner is responsible for determining the goal(s) of the upcoming sprint, and for identifying which product backlog items to prioritize as the team works toward the sprint goal. They’ll also create the “definition of done” for the sprint, along with more granular acceptance criteria for the sprint goal and subtasks.
The Scrum Master ensures the sprint planning meeting is productive and efficient — and that it ends with all team members in complete alignment with regard to the upcoming sprint.
Throughout the meeting, the Scrum Master will:
- Manage the agenda and keep discussion on time and on track.
- Ensure Agile methodology is understood and followed
- Check for comprehension and alignment at critical moments in time
The Scrum Master should also facilitate engagement and participation from all stakeholders throughout the meeting. This not only ensures all of the above goes smoothly, but also gives dev team members the opportunity to have their voices heard at all times.
Development team members will come to the sprint planning meeting with two key goals in mind:
- To internalize the goal and action plan created by the Product Owner
- To provide feedback on the given instructions to fine-tune the overall plan
Internalizing the goal and action plan involves understanding not just what’s expected of them throughout the sprint, but also the role they play as members of a larger whole. They must understand how their efforts will impact their colleagues’ performance abilities — and, potentially, how to work together in order to complete common tasks.
As we’ve said, the Dev Team will have numerous opportunities throughout the sprint planning meeting to offer feedback regarding the sprint goal and initial plan. While the Product Owner’s plan will ideally be flawless from the start, there will likely be a few areas of concern for the Dev Team. At the very least, they’ll want to probe for more information and to clarify their responsibilities before the meeting wraps up and the sprint commences.
Once the Dev Team is onboard with the sprint’s overarching goals and tasks, they’ll take the lead in determining who will be doing what throughout the sprint. This more granular task is best left to the Dev Team, as they have firsthand knowledge of each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and dependencies.
Though executives might not be directly involved in sprint planning meetings, they will be kept in the loop in terms of:
- How the current sprint serves to further the Product Owner’s overall goals, and
- How these overarching goals tie into the company’s performance and business goals
It’s the Product Owner’s responsibility to engage with the Executive team as needed. In some cases, they may simply need to validate their plan to the Exec board; in others, they may seek out clarification on performance/business goals in order to better adhere to them on a ground level.
That said, the Executive team’s role in the practical aspects of sprint planning meetings should be minimal.
Key Benefits of Effective Sprint Planning Meetings
To state the obvious, a sprint just isn’t going to go well without a well-planned and executed meeting to start it off.
But it’s worth taking a closer look at the specific reasons you should take extra time when designing your sprint planning meetings.
1. Improves Task Prioritization
The entire point of a sprint planning meeting is to narrow down a comprehensive list of project goals and tasks to those which should be tackled by the team next.
In conducting these strategic meetings before starting a sprint, you’ll take a more contextual and realistic approach to your backlog.
(This, as opposed to simply knocking off goals and tasks in an arbitrary order based on initial assumptions.)
This task prioritization occurs both before and during the sprint training meeting. In both cases, you’ll be considering any and all factors that may impact your team’s immediate performance and long-term success.
Again, it’s all situational. In any given instance, you might have:
- Simple goals and tasks that can be taken care of quickly and with minimal effort
- Tasks that may need to be completed in a specific order or sequence
- Intensive goals that must be worked toward in parts over time
Or, you may have certain resources on-hand at certain times that will allow you to take care of a given task more easily — even if it’s not exactly a pressing issue at the moment.
At any rate, hammering out these details before you dive into a sprint will ensure you’re focused on the right task for the current circumstances your team faces.
2. Increases Transparency and Alignment
Starting a sprint with a comprehensive planning meeting ensures all members of the Scrum team start and end the initiative on the same page.
The Development Team — as a whole and individually — will be crystal clear on what’s required of them, how they’ll be proceeding, and what success will “look like” as they near the end of the sprint. They’ll also know what each other is working on throughout the sprint — and where they might be able to lend a hand when possible.
Both Project Owners and Scrum Masters will be clear on everything that should be happening during the meeting and throughout the sprint, as well. This allows them to keep close tabs on team progress — and to maintain alignment amongst the team as they work toward their sprint goals.
Finally, sprint planning meetings give all team members the opportunity to become more aligned with how their immediate efforts fit into the “big picture”. This is especially important for the Dev Team, as it can remind them of the long-term impact their day-to-day efforts have on the company.
(More on this in a moment.)
3. More Efficient Resource Usage
With better planning and task prioritization will come more efficient and effective resource usage.
Firstly, your team will have a better idea of what tools, equipment, and other resources they’ll need from the get-go. This will allow them to more properly allocate said resources throughout the sprint — avoiding both overconsumption and excessive waste in the process.
Better strategic planning will also minimize bottlenecks, redundancies, and other sources of waste. This leads to fewer resources being used on superfluous tasks — and, again, more resources being put to practical use at all times.
4. Enhances Team Collaboration
Collaboration between Dev Team members can — and should — occur at various times throughout a sprint.
In some cases, this collaboration can be built into the team’s workflows during planning. Depending on the situation, teammates may be required to work together on certain tasks or processes. Standardized handoffs and wrap-ups will facilitate cooperative efforts — and keep your team members from becoming isolated.
And, as mentioned above, proper planning will ensure all team members know what each other is working on throughout the sprint. In turn, they’ll be equipped to provide on-the-fly guidance and assistance to each other whenever necessary — even if it’s not baked into the blueprint.
(This goes along with efficient use of resources: In cases where one team member is waiting on a dependent task, they can use this free time to help others as needed.)
5. Instills Ownership and Motivation
Effective sprint planning meetings can foster a sense of ownership amongst the Dev Team, and the Scrum team in general.
Though goals and tasks will be handed down by the Product Owner, the Dev Team will be able to offer their own feedback and otherwise come to a consensus in this regard. The Dev Team will never simply be doing what they’re told without having any say in the matter.
What’s more, the Dev Team will always be free to tackle their assigned tasks in the way they know will be best. While this is the nature of Agile methodology overall, the Product Owner and Scrum Master can reinforce this sense of autonomy throughout their sprint planning meetings — again empowering the Dev Team to take full control and put their full range of skills to proper use.
6. Improves Outcomes and Fosters Continuous Growth
It probably goes without saying that effective sprint planning meetings put Scrum teams on a clear path to success, every time.
(In contrast, a haphazard approach to said meetings will likely confuse the team — and potentially derail the sprint before it even gets started.)
But it’s not just that these meetings have a positive impact on their respective sprints, individually. Rather, these intentional meetings can allow Product Owners to connect related sprints together — creating a continuum for the team to follow and evolve with over time.
On just the surface, your team’s velocity is calculated using their past performance metrics. This information is then used in future sprint planning meetings to determine capacity and set realistic goals for the upcoming initiative.
Looking a bit deeper, each subsequent sprint planning meeting can look to past sprints to determine what went well, what didn’t, and how the team can improve moving forward. Your team might even decide to pivot completely based on the outcome of the previous sprint (rather than staying the course and eventually hitting a wall).
Finally, a standardized approach to your sprint planning meetings will allow you to assess the effectiveness of these meetings over time — and make laser-focused improvements to them in turn. Though your sprint meetings will always follow the same general template (as discussed earlier), there will always be some way to make them run more smoothly, increase team participation, and otherwise improve their effectiveness.
Sprint Planning Meetings Best Practices
On that note, let’s now dig into the key things you can do to ensure your sprint planning meetings are as effective as possible — and always set your Scrum team up for success with every sprint they tackle.
1. Involve and Include All Stakeholders
Every member of your Scrum team should be actively involved throughout your sprint planning meetings.
As shown above, certain members of the team will take the lead at different times during the meeting. Still, all others should remain engaged at each stage, providing insight and constructive feedback to help further the initiative however they can.
Even if all are in agreement with the plan as presented, each Scrum team member should be prompted to reiterate their responsibilities, the sprint goals, and any other crucial information before the meeting disperses. As a Product Owner, you never want to assume everyone understands the assignment without hearing it straight from the source.
Finally, be sure to keep your executive team informed of any major changes or pivots made during a sprint planning meeting. This may only be necessary if your funding or resource requirements change, but it’s still good practice to keep the C-Suite in mind at the beginning of a sprint.
2. Conduct Pre-Meeting “Housekeeping”
All Scrum team members will need to do some prep work before attending a sprint planning meeting.
- Product Owners should come to the table having defined clear goals for the sprint — and with a general idea of the tasks involved in reaching said goals. They should also have rough time estimations for these tasks in place based on the team’s performance history and current capacity.
- Scrum Masters are responsible for planning all aspects of the sprint planning meeting. This involves creating the meeting agenda, scheduling the meeting, and ensuring all stakeholders know when and where the meeting is taking place. Scrum Masters should also deliver agendas to all stakeholders ahead of time to prepare and orient them before the meeting commences.
- Development Team members need to know what their capacity is before coming to the meeting, as this can help head off any bottlenecks or other problems from the start. It’s also their responsibility to ensure they can attend and participate in the meeting to their highest capacity, without distraction.
3. Be Consistent and Time-Conscious with Scheduling
As critical as sprint planning meetings are, they aren’t the only thing the members of your Scrum team have on their plate.
That said, you’ll need to do whatever you can to ensure all stakeholders can attend these meetings in full — and can do so without being pulled away from their many other responsibilities.
Your first order of business should be to schedule your meetings consistently over time. With your team, work to determine the best time of day and week for sprint planning meetings to be called — even if meetings aren’t necessarily set in stone. Ideally, this will be when most team members regularly have some downtime or leeway in their schedule to step away from their other tasks.
As for meeting length, standard practice dictates that sprint planning meetings last roughly two hours for every week the sprint will last. So, for a two-week sprint, a four-hour meeting should be planned to hash everything out effectively. This, again, is why you want to schedule your meetings around your team’s other responsibilities.
Lastly, it’s crucial that you’re able to make the most out of the time your team has together before the sprint commences. As discussed earlier, your agenda should be set well ahead of schedule — and should be communicated clearly to all stakeholders accordingly. During the meeting, your Scrum Master will need to stay diligent in keeping things on-task and ensuring all information is communicated in the appropriate time frame.
Meeting agendas are a necessary part of all meetings, no matter the purpose.
4. Focus on Outcomes Over Processes
One of the most important things to keep in mind during a sprint planning meeting is this:
It’s not about what the Scrum Team will do throughout the sprint; it’s what they’ll accomplish and achieve upon successful completion of it.
There are a number of reasons to take this approach.
For one, you want your team to stay focused on the core goals of the sprint, and of the overall project. Conversely, you don’t want to get caught up in micromanaging your team’s every move, as this will inevitably lead everyone to lose sight of the big picture while focused on inconsequential details.
Focusing on the minor details of your team’s workflows is also simply a waste of time that could be better spent hammering out the major issues involved in the sprint. The last thing you want is to have to omit essential parts of the meeting agenda because you spent too much time on basic info your team could have figured out on their own.
Lastly, a goal-oriented approach reinforces the trust you have in your team to get things done without explicitly being told what to do. Again, rather than feeling micromanaged, your Dev Team will be free to operate as they know best — and to remain flexible throughout the sprint in order to reach their intended goals.
5. Develop SMART Goals — But Go Bigger
The goals you set for your sprints should typically follow SMART guidelines.
- Specific and clearly-defined, so all parties understand exactly what they’re expected to achieve.
- Measurable, either quantitatively or definitively, leaving no question as to whether or not the initiative was successful.
- Attainable, using your team’s capacity and velocity as reference points as to what they can accomplish in the time frame given.
- Relevant to the product backlog, and to the company’s goals as an organization and a business.
- Time-Based, which, in this case, will be equal to the length of the sprint.
Now, there’s one caveat here when it comes to setting sprint goals:
While you do want your goals to be attainable, they shouldn’t be easily attainable.
(After all, if your team can accomplish more within the length of the sprint, you’d want them to do so…right?)
Again, refer to your team’s capacity and velocity to determine what they’re capable of. From there, you can set a goal that can be achieved through diligent work — but that doesn’t leave your team scrambling.
In the spirit of Agile operations, your Scrum team’s plate should never be completely empty. It’s essential, then, that your goals take your team through the length of the sprint, then open the door for the next initiative to begin.
6. Leverage Your Knowledge Management Capabilities
Your team’s knowledge management capabilities will come in handy at all stages of your sprint planning meetings.
During the pre-meeting prep phase, Product Owners and other stakeholders should be able to:
- Determine where the current project stands, and what’s recently been accomplished
- Assess the team’s capacity and velocity
- Collect any information, resources, or materials that may be needed for the next sprint
During the meeting, team members can refer to best practices in different areas, log communications and meeting notes, and update project documentation as necessary. Knowledge management is especially necessary to managing remote teams and ensuring they are on the same page during meetings — both literally and figuratively.
After individual sprint planning meetings (and after sprints as a whole), Product Owners will want to update all related documents and resources as needed. This again keeps everyone on the same page, and also ensures the team can pick up where they left off as the next initiative gets up and running.
It’s also worth revisiting your sprint planning meeting agendas and templates over time, as well. With each sprint, you can analyze the impact of the initial meetings — and make continuous improvements to your approach in turn.
How Helpjuice Can Supercharge Your Sprint Planning Meetings
Helpjuice’s knowledge base software allows Scrum Teams to store, manage, and communicate information with ease — before, during, and after their sprint planning meetings take place.
With Helpjuice, teams can work together on meeting notes and other Sprint documentation in real-time or asynchronously. Product Owners can also provide or restrict access to these documents as needed — and can maintain multiple versions of important documentation for safekeeping.
As our users can attest to, where Helpjuice really comes in handy for meetings is its scalability. Our software helps teams bridge the gap between real-time communications and long-term knowledge management, so they can identify and distribute information quickly and efficiently.
Want to learn more about where Helpjuice fits into your sprint planning meetings (and elsewhere)? Book a demo with our team today!