Overwhelmingly, the world is going agile – a whopping 71% of organizations have adopted agile methodologies, and 90% of agile projects have faster time to market than the average for traditional project management.
In this article, we’re going to dive into some high-level components of the iterative approach so you can apply it to your own workflows. We even have a template for you!
What is agile planning?
Agile planning is a project planning method that estimates work using self-contained work units called iterations or sprints. Sprints are periods of 1-3 weeks in which a team focuses on a small set of work items as well as OKRs, and aims to complete them.
Agile planning also creates a repeatable process that helps teams learn how much they can achieve. This is made easier and more organized with working software that can allow you to easily update and share iterations and move tasks to and from your product backlog. More on this later.
Try our agile planning template!
4 essential characterisitcs
Before using any project planning method, from Kanban boards to Gantt charts, it’s important to understand the basics. Here are four essential characteristics of Agile.
1. An agile project plan is divided into releases and sprints
Agile planners define a release as creating a new product or substantially updating an existing product. Each release is broken down into several iterations, also called sprints. Each sprint has a fixed length, typically 1-2 weeks, and the team has a predefined list of work items to work through in each sprint. The work items are called user stories.
The release plan is broken down into several iterations (sprints) that include user stories (items).
2. Planning is based on user stories
A user story briefly describes a need experienced by your users. For example:
- “As a team member, I need to know which tasks are currently assigned to me”.
- “As a team leader, I need to receive an email notification when a task is stuck or behind schedule”.
Unlike in traditional project management methodologies like waterfall, in which teams would create detailed technical specifications of exactly what they would build, in agile planning, the team only documents what the user needs. Throughout the sprint, the team figures out together how to address that specific need in the best way possible.
3. Planning is iterative and incremental
All sprints are of equal length, and an agile team repeats the same process over and over again in every sprint. Each sprint should result in working features that can be rolled out to end-users.
An iterative process allows the team to learn what they are capable of, estimate how many stories they can complete in a given timeframe (the team’s velocity), and learn about problems that impede their progress. These problems can be taken care of in subsequent sprints.
4. Estimation is done by team members themselves
A core ethic of agile planning is that development teams should participate in planning and estimation, and not have the work scope “dictated” to them by management.
In this spirit, agile planning allows teams to assign story points to user stories in the release plan.
What is a story point?
In agile methodology, a story point is a number that reflects the complexity or amount of work involved in developing a user story. For example, a team can assign 1 point to a simple user story, 2-3 points for moderately complex, and 4-5 points for a big story – based on their understanding of the work involved.
An alternative estimation unit for agile stories is ideal time: how long a user story should take to develop, assuming zero interruptions.
Agile planning poker is an estimation game used by some agile teams. Several team members are asked to estimate a user story by drawing a playing card with a number of story points, and placing it face down on the table. Then cards are then turned face up, and if there are discrepancies – for example, one team member estimated 1 point and others estimated 4 or 5, they can discuss and reach a consensus.
The agile planning process: step by step
Release Plan Process
First, your product owner must lay out the goals for the release: what problem do we want to solve or how will we improve the user experience? Based on these goals, follow these steps to plan the release:
- Discuss the needed features to address the goals.
- Discuss the details involved in each feature, and factors that can influence delivery. This would include the infrastructure required, risk, and external dependencies. Features with highest risk and highest value should be planned early in the release.
- Decide how much work you can commit to as a team in each sprint. This is usually based on the team’s velocity in previous sprints. You should take into account existing work on infrastructure or tools, and known interruptions such as support work.
- List the stories and epics for the release in priority order with their size. An epic is a larger dev task broken down into several user stories.
- Add an iteration to the plan.
- Add stories to the iteration until it reaches the maximum capacity.
- Add more iterations until all user stories are covered, or remove lower priority user stories to adapt to the required time frame for the release.
- Share the plan using your agile management software of choice and ask for feedback to get commitment from all team members, product owners, and other stakeholders.
Sprint Planning Process
Here is how an agile team plans at the beginning of a new sprint, as part of an existing release plan:
- Do a retrospective meeting to discuss the previous sprints and lessons learned.
- Run a sprint planning meeting to analyze the release plan and update it according to velocity in recent sprints, changes to priorities, new features, or idle time that wasn’t planned for in the release.
- Make sure user stories are detailed enough to work on. Elaborate on tasks that are not well defined, to avoid surprises.
- Break down user stories into specific tasks. For example, the user story “view tasks assigned to me” can be broken up into UX design of a “my tasks screen”, back-end implementation, and front-end development of the interface. Keep the size of tasks small, no more than one workday.
- Assign tasks to team members and confirm that they are committed to performing them. In the agile/scrum framework this is done by the Scrum Master.
- Write the tasks on (physical) sticky cards and hang them up on a large board visible to the entire team. All the user stories in the current sprint should be up on the board.
- Track the progress of all the tasks on a grid, by recording who is responsible for completing each task, estimated time to complete it, remaining hours, and actual hours used. This time tracking should be updated by all team members and visible to everyone.
- Track velocity using a burndown chart. During the sprint, use the team’s time tracking to calculate a chart showing the number of tasks or hours remaining, vs. the plan. The slope of the burndown chart shows if we are on schedule, ahead, or behind schedule.
Daily Standup Meeting
Daily meetings are crucial to communicating progress, identifying and solving issues during a sprint. Every day, gather the entire team and have every team member report on their status:
- Daily agile planning meetings are typically standup meetings, to encourage brevity.
- Maximum duration of 15 minutes.
- No more than one minute for each member to report: “what I did yesterday”, “what I’ll do today”, “what’s in my way” – things preventing someone from finishing a task on time.
- Status can only be “done” or “not done”, and if not done, how many hours remaining.
- Obstacles encountered by team members should be briefly stated and discussed later in the relevant forum.
- The Scrum Master or release manager is responsible for coordinating and helping team members overcome obstacles.
Agile Planning Template
If you’re looking for a ready-to-use template for agile planning purposes, try this intuitive two-month iteration template that will help you see the full picture:
Using a team management tool for agile planning
A team management tool optimizes agile planning because it can help you define the user stories in the release, organize them into sprints, assign them to team members, and track progress in real-time, from anywhere.
- Get a clear understanding of priorities and estimates with Numbers columns for tracking and easy transformation into reports and dashboards
- Plan sprints realistically
- Know at a glance if something’s stuck or behind schedule with colorful and customizable statuses
- Sync entire teams on timelines and milestones
- Visualize ownership of bugs and features
Agile planning for modern teams
Agile planning’s structure and iterative approach to work makes it the perfect complement to product teams and various industries alike.
Once you have an understanding of how to use and maintain this methodology, it only gets better with the addition of tools made to match it, like monday.com’s Work OS.