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Planning Work in a Sprint

We’ve been having some discussions at $DAYJOB about process and methodologies. The topic of late is scrum and how it may or may not be helpful for the particular group I work with. I’ve been providing some anecdotal input based my past experience with scrum and other methodologies/frameworks/practices and asking questions about what problems the group is hoping to find new solutions for.

I started to write a big wall o' text™ email about a particular topic and then decided that maybe a blog post would be a better way to work through my idea. So dear reader1 , here are some of my highly opinionated and mostly unsubstantiated thoughts about a process that a group of people could use to plan a scrum sprint (or really any other iterative unit of work).

Pick some work you think you can get done

Step one, pick some work. Sounds easy, but pick it from where? Well that’s a damn good question but one that’s going to depend on your environment. For the sake of this post let’s assume that you have access to an ordered list of features that need to be implemented. Let’s further assume that the team and the stakeholders have talked about these features a little and that the team has reached a general consensus about how big the top few features are relative to features the team has worked on in the past. Scrum calls this a “groomed backlog”, but you can call it whatever you’d like.

Now that you know where the work comes from, pick some. How much? Well, as much as the team thinks it can get done in the iteration. Without knowing your team and the length of the iteration and how tricky the problems are I can’t tell you. Just go with your collective gut and pick some. If you pick too little you can always come back and get more. If you pick too much the team can use that experiential data to adjust when choosing for the next iteration. Just pick some work for now and adjust in the future based on what happens during the iteration2 .

Figure out what ties the work together

Step two, come up with a narrative about why you chose the work. A list of features and bugs you want to implement is a great start, but you can do better. It will be a lot easier for the team to make good choices during the iteration if they have a more noble goal than “cross off all the things on this list.” If the goal is just to get each item done it’s more likely that people will think of each part in isolation rather than thinking about how this work builds on what came before and enables more enhancements in the future.

This step may lead you to switch out some of the things you’ve chosen with other things that are in the backlog to make a more cohesive story. That’s ok as long as you keep the most important thing. After all that’s the MOST important thing; if you get it done plus some other stuff and everything works people should be happy.

This narrative you’ve created and the work that supports it are the forecast for the iteration. The product owner can take this information back to the rest of the stakeholders and tell them what to expect to hear about in the demonstration meeting at the end of the iteration. Be careful not to tell them that all of this work will be completed. The team has said they’ll try to do this but they can’t promise that it will get done any more than the stakeholders can promise how much money will be raised or how many new customers will be acquired.

Figure out how to do the work

The last step before you close the planning meeting and get back to “real work” is to figure out how to actually do the work. We’re talking about agile practices here so nobody should expect a gantt chart chart or a architecture document, but anarchists agile teams need enough of a plan to do today’s work efficiently. The product owner doesn’t need to stick around for this half of the meeting. The team should have enough information from the feature descriptions already given to make the tactical plan.

I’m sure there are other methods that would work as well, but I’ve personally had success with a process that starts with finding dependencies. The team looks at the stories and tries to determine their rough interdependencies. The goal here is to identify communication interfaces that need to be specified and sequential implementation order dependencies. The team also looks for areas of uncertainty that could be resolved with tech spikes and/or further investigation of the requirements.

Once you’ve got the dependencies sorted, start breaking down the most obvious starting point features. Make a list of the smaller tasks that need to be completed to finish the feature. Repeat the process by breaking those tasks down into even smaller tasks. Stop when the leaf tasks are “small enough”. My rule of thumb is that something that feels like it will take 3-5 ideal hours is small enough. Getting smaller than that early on is probably a waste of time, but staying larger leaves more uncertainty and risk in the plan. Scrum calls this step “story decomposition”.

The list of decomposed tasks that the team has created is the start of the iteration backlog. Just like the product backlog this needs to be put in order so that when a team member or pair needs more work to do they can just pull the next most important thing in their area of expertise off of the backlog. You’ll reorder the list as the iteration progresses, but get started by ordering the tasks you just decomposed.

If you only have a few features to break down, continue to do the work as a group. If there are quite a few to get through you can split up into appropriately skilled groups and work in parallel. Depending on your team and the time you have left in the meeting (two hours per week of iteration is a suggested total duration), you may have time to outline all of the features. You need to at least outline enough to keep the whole team occupied for the rest of today and tomorrow.

If you have some high risk things to accomplish in the iteration try to break them down as early as you can so that someone (or some pair) can start on the tech spikes or API design or whatever sooner rather than later. Don’t forget to put a “decompose feature X” task onto the backlog for any stories that you didn’t have time to get to by the end of the time box.

Get to work

Now you’ve got a list of features to implement, a narrative about why these things go together and at least a day or two of granular tasks to start working on. Each team member or pair now needs to select one thing to begin working on. Start by choosing the highest priority task that you have the skill set to accomplish. When you get Done3 with the task you’ve taken come back to the backlog and chose another. Don’t forget to mark the things you are working on as in progress by whatever tracking mechanism the team is using so you and another team member don’t duplicate the work.

Whew. That would have been a nasty email to read. I hope you like it better as a blog post. Don’t forget to use inspection and adaptation to refine this process so that it works well for your team. I think I’ve given a reasonable outline of a process that has worked for me in the past, but never be afraid to look for ways to improve.


  1. Hi Mom!
  2. “Inspect and adapt” is a common refrain in scrum.
  3. “Definition of Done” is a topic for another post.

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