How to Maximize the Value of Your Planning Session

See the source imageBy now it is commonly accepted that the old way of developing software, in silos, with a big up front plan and design, with only a single true delivery to customers at the end of the project, also knows as the infamous Waterfall approach is not the best way of doing things. Many development teams have fully embraced the agile approach, while others have not (yet) fully done so.

Partial, or early agile transformation attempts can often be characterized by embracing some (but not all) ideas, or certain practices commonly associated with agile development frameworks, such as Scrum, but without fully embracing its principles and philosophies; these teams often get the “what” part of it right, but have not yet embraced the “why” or the “how”.

In this blog post, I will focus on how to improve the agile planning session, also known in the Scrum framework as the Sprint planning session.

A Quick Overview of Sprint Planning

planA sprint is a time-box of one month or less (commonly 2-4 weeks) during which the delivery team will develop, test, and build a potentially releasable product increment.

Sprint Planning, quite simply, is the act of figuring out the work that needs to be done in order achieve the sprint’s goal, I.e. create the releasable product increment, adding what the Scrum team has decided is the next most valuable functionality to deliver.

Sprint Planning, like all other Scrum practices, is a collaborative effort, which is to say, that while the product owner is responsible for maximizing the value created by the delivery team, they, the team are responsible to figure out how to deliver the work. Both are expected to work together to define each sprint goal, rather than having the product owner tell the team what to do.

Change is Difficult

time-for-a-change-897441_1280For many teams, especially those transitioning from a command and control style of organization to an agile, self managing style, embracing the change in management style is much more difficult than embracing a different cadence and/or set of practices. This often manifests in planning sessions where the product owner describes what needs to be done, and the team just listen. It really should be more of a discussion.

The delivery team needs to collaborate, discuss the goal and the plan with the product owner to ensure that they understand what they are asked to deliver.

The SPIDR Technique

spider-technik-user-storiesWriting user stories, while not strictly required in Scrum, is one of the most commonly known Scrum practices. The idea is to describe increments of value from the perspective of one or more users of the product, thus ensuring that the product increment is, in fact, valuable to the users.

In order to ensure that user stories are well enough understood, and that they are small enough to fit in a single sprint, the SPIDR technique provides a way to decompose stories into multiple parts, each delivering some observable incremental value to the users.

SPIDR is an acronym defining the most commonly used methods of decomposing a story: Spikes, Paths, Interfaces, Data, Rules. The SPIDR technique was created by Mike Cohn, and fully described in his blog.

New Practice: SPIDR Planning

collab-spidrIn my work with delivery teams transiting from a waterfall-based world to a more agile, Scrum-based paradigm, I have found that encouraging a rote, a checklist of questions inspired by the SPIDR decomposition technique, helps teams get into the right mindset for discussing a plan, rather expecting a plan to be given from up high.

These are (some of) the questions a team may ask, to ensure their understanding of the value they are asked to deliver in the sprint:

Spikes

A spike describes a short burst of activity, often necessary to experiment with potential solutions for a complex problem. This will often be the last set of questions that the team will ask, after the requirement itself is understood.

Ask your team mates: Do we know know how to do this? Are there any APIs or components that we have to use that have never been used before? Is there anything missing in our skillset, toolset, or our definition of done, that needs to be in place in order to deliver this user story?

Paths

A path describes a specific flow, or a scenario of using the product. Ask and discuss with your product owner, stakeholders, or subject matter experts: What are the conditions under which the users will be interacting with the system? Are there other ways that this functionality may be used? What if something goes wrong? What do we show our users – any and all users? What can go wrong? Each if statement, switch/case, loop, or other control block marks a different path to be considered.

Interfaces

There are often many different ways to interact with a product. Gone are the days where users would only have one option – their desktop or terminal. What are all the various interfaces we need to consider? Web? Desktop? Tablets? Smartphones? Wearables? Command line tools for administrators and automation tools? How should the experience differ from one interface to another? Which interfaces are most valuable, and should thus be considered first?

Data

Different inputs beget different outcomes. What data will be provided? What are the data sources? Have we interacted with that data before (do we need a spike to figure out how to get that data?) Consider environmental data – does location affect the outcome? the time or date? Random elements? What data is required vs. optional? What if data is missing? What defaults to use in place of missing data?

Rules

A rule, either business or a technical standard, describes certain operational constraints. What are the business rules? Special cases? Are there any standards? Quotas? Compliance rules? Security standards?

Summary

Asking these questions during sprint planning is a great way to start a conversation that will both achieve the principles of collaboration and engagement, and ensure a greater understanding of the value that the product is expected to deliver to its users.

This list of questions is by no means an exhaustive list, and is intended to demonstrate the ways in which a delivery team might engage with the product owner, to negotiate with her or him.

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p align=”justify”>What do you think? Are there any important questions that I have missed? Please let me know in the comments

About Assaf Stone

My name is Assaf Stone. I'm a senior ALM consultant in Microsoft's Premier Support for Developers Team. When not being kept busy by work, my wife, or my four kids, I like to practice archery, read books, and listen to 70's and 80's rock music. I would also like to just relax, if I had any more spare time!
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