Sprint Planning Sucks. Can It Be Fixed?

Warning: This article contains strong opinions that might not be suitable for all audiences. Reader discretion is advised.

It’s Monday morning. After an all-too-short weekend and rush hour traffic, you finally arrive at the office. You throw your bag down at your desk, run to the break room, and queue up for coffee. As the next pot is brewing, you check your phone. It’s 8:44am… now 8:45am, and DING! A meeting reminder appears:

Sprint Planning – 9am to 3pm.

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What’s your visceral reaction?

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I can’t tell you mine, because I won’t put profanity on my blog.

Real Talk

In the capital-A Agile Scrum process, sprint planning is the kick-off meeting for the next iteration. The whole team comes together to talk about features, size work items with points, and commit to deliverables for the next “sprint” (typically 2 weeks long). Idealistically, team members collaborate freely as they learn about product needs and give valued input.

Let’s have some real talk, though: sprint planning sucks. Maybe that’s a harsh word, but, if you’re reading this article, then it caught your attention. Personally, my sprint planning experiences have been lousy. Why? Am I just bellyaching, or are there some serious underlying problems?

Sprint planning is a huge time commitment. 9am to 3pm is not an exaggeration. Sprint planning meetings are typically half-day to full-day affairs. Most people can’t stay focused on one thing for that long. Plus, when a sprint is only two weeks long, one hour is a big chunk of time, let alone 3, or 6, or a whole day. The longer the meeting, the higher the opportunity cost, and the deeper the boredom.

Collaboration is a farce. Planning meetings typically devolve into one “leader” (like a scrum master, product owner, or manager) pulling teeth to get info for a pre-determined list of stories. Only two people, the leader and the story-owner, end up talking, while everyone else just stares at their laptops until it’s their turn. Discussions typically don’t follow any routine beyond, “What’s the acceptance criteria?” and, “Does this look right?” with an interloper occasionally chiming in. Each team member typically gets only a few minutes of value out of an hours-long ordeal. That’s an inefficient use of everyone’s time.

No real planning actually happens. These meetings ought to be called “guessing” meetings, instead. Story point sizes are literally made up. Do they measure time or complexity? No, they really just measure groupthink. Teams even play a game called planning poker that subliminally encourages bluffing. Then, point totals are used to guess how much work can be done during the sprint. When the guess turns out to be wrong at the end of the sprint (and it always does), the team berates itself in retro for letting points slip. Every. Time.

Does It Spark Joy?

I’ve long wondered to myself if sprint planning is a good concept just implemented poorly, or if it’s conceptually flawed at its root. I’m pretty sure it’s just flawed. The meetings don’t facilitate efficient collaboration relative to their time commitments, and estimates are based on poor models. Retros can’t fix that. And gut reactions don’t lie.

So, what should we do? Should we Konmari our planning meetings to see if they spark joy? Should we get rid of our ceremonies and start over? Is this an indictment of the whole Agile Scrum process? But then, how will we know what to do, and when things can get done?

I think we can evolve our Agile process with more effective practices than sprint planning. And I don’t think that evolution would be terribly drastic.

Behavior-Driven Planning

What we really want out of a planning meeting is planning, not pulling and not predicting. Planning is the time to figure out what will be done and how it will be done. The size of the work should be based on the size of the blueprint. Enter Example Mapping.

Example Mapping is a Behavior-Driven Development practice for clarifying and confirming stories. The process is straightforward:

  1. Write the story on a yellow card.
  2. Write each rule that the story must satisfy on a blue card.
  3. Illustrate each rule with examples written on green cards.
  4. Got stuck on a question? Write it on a red card and move on.

One story should take about 20-30 minutes to map. The whole team can participate, or the team can split up into small groups to divide-and-conquer. Rules become acceptance criteria, examples become test cases, and questions become spikes.

Here’s a good walkthrough of Example Mapping.

What about story size? That’s easy – count the cards. How many cards does a story have? That’s a rough size for the work to be done based on the blueprint, not bluffing. More cards = more complexity. It’s objective. No games. Frankly, it can’t be any worse that made-up point values.

This is real planning: a blueprint with a course of action.

So, rather than doing traditional sprint planning meetings, try doing Example Mapping sessions. Actually plan the stories, and use card counts for point sizes. Decisions about priority and commitments can happen between rounds of story mapping, too. The Scrum process can otherwise remain the same.

If you want to evolve further, you could eliminate the time boxes of sprints in favor of Kanban. Two-week work item boundaries can arbitrarily fall in the middle of progress, which is not only disruptive to workflow but can also encourage bad responses (like cramming to get things done or shaming for not being complete.) Kanban treats work items as a continuous flow of prioritized work fed to a team in bite-sized pieces. When a new story comes up, it can have its own Example Mapping “planning” meeting. Now, Kanban is not for everyone, but it is popular among post-Agile practitioners. What’s important is to find what works for your team.

Rant Over

I know I expressed strong, controversial opinions in this article. And I also recognize that I’m arguing against bad examples of Agile Scrum. Nevertheless, I believe my points are fair: planning itself is not a waste of time, but the way many teams plan their sprints uses time inefficiently and sets poor expectations. There are better ways to do planning – let’s give them a try!

4 comments

  1. We too feel your pain and recently brought in Seb Rose from the Cucumber team who is teaching us the art of example mapping.

    Although it’s not a magic bullet, I’ve found it a much better defined process than the traditional planning session that you’ve described perfectly.

    Thanks for sharing your opinion in your post!

    Like

  2. I totally agree with what you said, and how you said it.
    Whenever I read a Scrum Guide about sprint planning, it seems like a good idea, but when I actually sit in a sprint planning, it feels like back at school: Some person is pointing at text at the wall, sometimes reading it aloud for better understanding, asking from time to time if everyone understood everything – and everyone answers “yes”, because they feel that saying “no” actually makes things worse…and hey, after all, if you later find out that understanding it is really important, you can still ask how it was meant.

    So my idea was to print out the storys, have the team read them, and without further assistance have a team member sit in front of a computer, navigate to the relevant section of the UI and describe the change that is asked for.
    But I like your idea a lot more, because my idea seems like a way to force the author to meet the “definition of ready”, but your idea encourages developping a common understanding rather than meeting an abstract definition of “understandable”.

    So once again thanks for sharing your ideas,
    Florian

    Like

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