Sprint: plan just enough, do it, reflect

“Sprint” – what does it mean?

Note: my definition of sprint is not by the book. It’s perfectly fine by me as I love adjusting theory to practice; I hope it is okay with you as well. Basically, a sprint is just a time window that you plan to achieve something at. Just imagine a box with your interesting “todo” notes. For example, in the next 2 weeks you may want to plan to perform some proof of concept for your initiative; plan to create 3 landing pages to check which one covert users better to registered users; plan to write a tutorial or even plan to upgrade your team’s computers.  

Why do I need to define a specific time window then?

The idea of a sprint, in essence, is simply to (1) ease psychological acceptance of changes and (2) allow shorter, just-in-time planning.

Specific time window, made constant (sprint after sprint), allows you to understand that things might change and you now made mental and physical “room” to adjust when needed. It’s a bit of sugarcoating, of course, but it’s making the transition smoother.

The just-in-time planning part is more “acceptable” when you’re embracing the fact that it’s too damn expensive trying to break all effort into small pieces. You’re customers are “allowed” to change their mind, so – what’s the point of understanding that something being requested for next year, will take 121 hours to develop? In 2 weeks, hell, in 2 days, this effort might cancelled. Breaking future effort to small pieces is great, but only if it’s extremely cheap to achieve or extremely relevant now. Until then, you might be okay with high level estimation.

The perfect size: big enough, small enough

Sprint should be big enough to (1) achieve meaningful progress and (2) avoid unacceptable overhead of planning + reflection. That means that if your smallest effort is always at least 1.5 weeks, don’t use 1 week sprint. If you need a full day to plan a sprint and another to reflect on how it went, don’t use 1 week sprint. Otherwise, your people might feel “we’re doing nothing but planning and reflecting”.

Sprint should also be small enough to allow to reflect and adjust often. Just like “release often” attitude, adjust often will make the organization work better, faster. Don’t dismiss it lightly.

How many sprints should I plan in details?

Good question if I may compliment myself for asking so. I would aim for detailed plan at least 1-1.5 months in advanced, unless you’re in a really volatile market and 1 month is “too far”. If your sprint size is 2 weeks, then I would say around 2-3 sprints. By saying “in details” I mean very detailed understanding of effort, real breakdown or very solid understanding, based on similar effort in the past or one-of-a-kind magic ball. The idea is to have good image of near future; this will obviously be expensive to create, but will give you confidence on how to achieve the most important goals on your table.

I would try to understand what’s coming later on (3-6 months), but invest much less time and stay with high level estimation. I don’t want to waste time on planning potentially irrelevant effort.

Natural dependencies planning

When sprint size picked wisely, there is much “smoother” feeling of dependencies planning. There is no real need for Gantt or something of that sort, thank God. Everyone will be aware of the effort being made in the sprint and will align dependencies accordingly. The feeling will be more natural, more just-in-time rather the stating “we need infrastructure team to finish in 6 months something so we could use it 9 months from now!”. It doesn’t mean that dependencies planning is gone out the window, you’ll still need to do so for big infrastructure effort, but you’ll see that it happens less than you were used to. This is a good thing.

Reflect and adjust

At the end of the sprint, it’s a great time to sit down and consider what went well, what wasn’t (take Action Items) and what can be done to have better sprint next time. You’ll adjust to external changes better when you’ll adjust to internal pains better.

I thought that Agile == no planning

Now, that is just sick. Seriously, no one is expecting you to work badly. Great planning is the only way to produce great products to your customers, deliver it on time and with high quality.

Not all planning are born equal

Accept it, plan accordingly :)


Oren Ellenbogen