sprint planning

Is Your Team Struggling With Sprint Planning?

I began helping out a team recently.  This team had been together for some time, but they still had a number of struggles.  One of those struggles was sprint planning.  They realized they could be getting more out of it, but they weren’t sure how.  My first thought was to educate and then step in, facilitate the plannings, and nudge the conversation to a place where they’d gain more valuable.  However, I’m glad I didn’t.

Instead, I remained silent for a while longer, and as I observed their planning for a second time, a thought came to me.  After attending hundreds of plannings, I’ve internalized what makes for a richer conversation.  Is there a way I can share my thoughts in real time so they can decide where and how to adjust for themselves?

I used to a two-pronged approach.  First, I asked the team if we could focus our conversation around planning at the next retro.  They agreed.  On a white board behind me, I had written this about sprint planning:

  • Purpose: Set goals, expectations, and create team alignment for the next two weeks.
  • Why: It’s best to plan what’s right in front of us since that’s when we know the most.
  • Constraints:
    1. Jira captures the spirit of the next two weeks.
    2. Team alone decides what’s realistic to accomplish.
    3. The product owner provides the why, scope, and priorities.

With this in mind, team, what should we do to improve how we plan?

However, the more interesting part was the second prong of this approach.  I wanted to give them real-time feedback.  But how?  How can I give them information in the moment without disrupting the flow of planning? The solution was a white board.

sprint planning conversations

Here’s what we did:

  1. At the start of planning, the team see the above on a white board in a visible location in the room.
  2. I explain that as some point most–if not all–of these topics will come up at today’s planning.  It’s stack ranked with the best conversations at the top, and items in green are where I hope we spend most of our time.  However, what we talk about today is entirely up to all of you.  I’m simply here to tell you what I see.
  3. As sprint planning continues, I move the arrow around.  Whatever conversation we’re currently having is where we’ll find our arrow.

So why didn’t I simply jump in and facilitate planning?  A few reasons:

  • The team already struggled with self-organization. A number of members already had far too much gravity surrounding them.  We’ve been working to distribute this gravity, and I didn’t want to become another nexus.  
  • Resistance is futile.  It would be easy for me to step in as a facilitator, but I’m certain I would have faced resistance quickly, and I wanted to avoid this.  The team had been conducting planning in much the same way for a while.  I expect that the team would have been found reason to be disagreeable, even subconsciously.  I like how Jerry Weinberg put it:

Resistance is the consultant’s label.  To the client, it is safety.

  • The Hawthorne Effect can be a useful tool.  It says that the act of observation alone can modify behavior, and in this case, it has.  We’ve been using this technique for two sprint plannings, and we already see a marked improvement.  

The first time the team did this, they were a bit self-conscious.  They asked, “Does this mean we can’t talk about anything that’s in red.”  My response: “We can talk about whatever we want, and sometimes we’ll venture into the red.  That’s okay.  I just hope though we spend most of our time in the green.”

Feel free to borrow this technique but remember.  Your mileage may vary.  What we wrote on our white board may be different than what you write on yours.  Customize it to fit your context but do stay true to the intent of sprint planning.

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4 thoughts on “Is Your Team Struggling With Sprint Planning?”

  1. Tanner, I really like this story and your approach. It is so easy to prescribe when you have had success in other places getting teams to do sprint planning effectively. There are many ways and each team has some smaller set of approaches that will work for them. I wonder If I would had the courage on a new gig when you want to show you can help quickly to take what make be longer road than alternatives ones for early success. That perhaps slightly longer path, when the team thinks through the questions and discovers what works for them, turns into true success that sticks like gorrilla glue.

    1. Thanks, Vic. For me, this was a new team but not a new gig. It does make it easier to try more creative solutions in such circumstances. And it’s taken me a long time to realize that prescribing practices, while easier, will usually only yield results in the short term.

  2. Hi Tanner,

    thank you very much for your style of writing posts: sharing good content AND your coaching approach. This helps me to tame my “Tell-It” monster and to grow as a Scrum Master :o)

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