What is Agile Planning? Why is it Important for Your Business

Agile project management enables businesses to respond to change, develop faster, and create customer-centric products focused on providing value. Around 95% of organizations have started to adopt agile practices and they have managed to achieve a success rate of 64%. Businesses are slowly moving away from traditional methods such as the waterfall approach.

An agile plan gives team members the flexibility to take in customer needs as opposed to the waterfall model which involves a rigid, fixed planning process with a step-by-step guide and strict quality checks.

However, approaching project management with an agile mindset requires a major shift in the organizational culture, which is where most business owners struggle. Agile planning can help your company make this shift. Rather than a fixed plan, an agile plan is flexible and incorporates frequent interaction with customers to encourage continuous improvement.

A well-established agile plan guides the agile project management process and reduces the chance of failure. That’s why proper agile planning is crucial before applying agile methodology to a company.

What is Agile Planning?

Agile planning guides the agile management process and establishes an iterative and incremental approach within values stated in the Agile manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Under agile project management, teams work to achieve objectives and key results (OKRs ) within short time frames and prioritize the product backlog to focus on maximizing value. At the end of each iteration, the goal is to deliver a potentially shippable product increment;  people use it and give the team feedback on the product.

Agile Project Planning vs Traditional Project Planning

Agile project planning is a modern approach to projects. It divides the software development process into short sprints that are iterated and incremented until a project is completed. To succeed, agile planning requires effective collaboration, constant feedback, and flexibility to change.

Traditional project planning is rigid and detailed and clearly defines objectives and fixed requirements. Traditional planning may be more applicable to projects that cannot afford to be changed in the middle of the process such as the construction of buildings or bridges.

Many project managers have started to prefer agile planning over traditional methods as it allows more flexibility, increases transparency, and takes in customer feedback. Through its modern approach to project management companies can plan products that are tailored to customer needs within shorter deadlines.

Why is Agile Planning Important?

Agile planning sets clear goals and expectations for the project. This helps agile teams to collaborate and be on the same page. However, this might seem counter-productive to agile values as the main idea is to embrace change rather than follow a plan.

Companies and team members having an organized plan is what keeps them on the right track. Although agile projects may require less in-depth planning than a waterfall process, it still needs a plan to effectively implement agile principles.

Some organizations may undervalue the purpose of having an agile project plan as it is less detailed than a traditional plan. Essentially, an agile plan helps agile teams make well-informed decisions and better manage risks. Since the plan is subject to change, team members may also incorporate changing circumstances to solve problems before they arise, and make reliable estimations for the future.

Traditional Project Planning Constraints

When the waterfall approach to building software was first developed, many industries were quick to adopt it due to the increased control it offered to project managers over the production process.

But in the modern era, traditional project management methods are slowly becoming obsolete due to the increasing demand of customers and changing consumer trends. Traditional planning methods have a number of constraints.

Constraints are Interconnected and Dependent on Other Factors

In traditional planning, budget, time, and scope constraints are interdependent whereas the quality is fixed – also known as the triple constraint. This makes it difficult for the team to manage changes in the project scope that may inevitably occur as customer requirements change.

If the product scope changes, the budget and time for completion would also have to increase to meet the fixed quality standard of the plan. However, if the budget or time is unable to increase the project scope would remain still.

This means that all the customer data that was collected in the initial planning stage (pre-planning) has to remain constant until the completion of the project. 

This may have worked before, but now customer trends change rapidly. What the customer may have demanded initially may not be what they want as the project is complete months or years after. Due to this, products get outdated and fail to deliver optimal value to customers.

Doesn’t Account for Changing Priorities

The traditional waterfall approach goes through a linear process with a sequential order. With traditional planning, the software development life cycle (SDLC) is divided into different stages usually in the following manner:

  • Requirements
  • Design
  • Implementation
  • Verification
  • Maintenance

The above approach to creating products was inflexible and testing was only carried out at the end. This meant that if customers had any complaints with the product, it would be too expensive and time-consuming to go back and make changes.

Difficult to Make Changes During the Production Process

Making changes to the product after its deployment isn’t the only challenge the team has to go through. To make changes during the production process, such as when the product scope changes, team members would have to make the proposed changes go through a strict control change process and have to be approved before being implemented in the project.

This highly controlled approval process coupled with the long development cycles of the product leaves little to no room for changes in the product development process.

How Agile Project Planning Overcomes These Challenges

Breaks Down the Production Process into Sprints

Agile project planning breaks down large tasks into smaller, actionable sprints. These sprints allow team members to quickly deliver a workable feature within a given time frame. 

Since these sprints are iterated and incremented over a series of sprints, agile teams can incorporate customer feedback and constantly test and verify features before starting development on the next feature.

This kind of test-driven development helps the team make data-driven decisions on what to add to the product to prevent problems in the future, deliver maximum value, and keep maintenance costs low.

Acknowledges Changing Requirements

Compared to the rigid planning of traditional methods such as the waterfall model, agile software development embraces change through flexible planning. Agile plans are kept flexible and are adaptive to change to help the process evolve with the changing business dynamics.

Leads to Continuous Improvement

As discussed above, a traditional plan would assume the quality is fixed and then divide the team into different departments working on different phases of the SDLC. This method doesn’t take sufficient account of customer requirements.

In contrast, agile projects are tested at every stage and have daily meetings to encourage cross-functional collaboration and discuss ideas, challenges, and solutions leading to completing the current sprint goal. This leads teams to develop agile maturity and get a better grasp of customer requirements to deliver high-value products faster.

5 Key Elements of Agile Project Planning

1. Breaking Down Tasks into Sprints

In agile planning, bigger tasks are broken down into smaller, manageable chunks called sprints. The project manager selects the highest priority tasks from the product backlog. Teams work on this backlog using an iterative approach. Each sprint lasts around two weeks and results in a minimum viable product for end-users to test.

2. Working on User Stories

Agile planning relies on user stories as a guideline for creating products. A user story is any feature or component of the end product that adds value for users. These are mapped out from the user’s perspective. User stories help teams to develop customer-centric products.

User stories and features may be used interchangeably but a feature often includes a detailed description of the function or component. It’s not necessarily created from the user’s viewpoint.

3. Frequent Points of Customer Input or Product Feedback

Customer involvement is an essential aspect of agile which helps implement test-driven development. At daily meetings throughout the development process, the team refers to stakeholders to ensure their requirements are met. After the sprint is completed and the product has been delivered, agile teams rely on customer feedback to develop the product further in the next sprint.

In Scrum methodology, team members also come together for demo reviews or a sprint retrospective meeting where stakeholders would discuss what went wrong, what was accomplished, and the lessons learned for future iterations.

4. Iterative and Incremental Approach

A two-week period to develop a complete product is not enough to deliver a high-value product to customers. Instead, after the completion of the first sprint and gathering feedback from key stakeholders, the sprint is iterated and then incremented until a final product emerges.

5. Self-Organizing Teams

In agile planning, team members follow an autonomous work culture. They assume different roles such as product owner, scrum master, or developer and create the best plan of action. During the process, they improvise the strategy as they see fit to achieve product goals. By encouraging cross-functional collaboration and frequent meetings, development teams play a role in planning and estimating project scopes.

During the sprint planning process, agile teams can estimate the complexity of a feature by assigning story points. A story point is a number assigned to tasks on the level of their complexity from a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the easiest to 10 being extremely complex.

For example, designing an email form may be a 2, whereas fixing bugs in the backend may be an 8. This helps self-organizing teams better prioritize which tasks need their attention and provide reliable time estimates.

Using Scrum to Guide the Agile Planning Process

Scrum is a lightweight framework used for implementing agile practices with an incremental, iterative approach to product development. It originated after the creation of The Scrum Guide in 2010 by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland and went on to become one of the most popular frameworks of agile project management.

The Scrum Guide highlights how Scrum works in a way that is aligned with agile principles. Under Scrum, the team goes through the following process:

  • All team members sit down and discuss what to work on in each sprint.
  • Daily meetings are conducted, often around 15 minutes to share their daily progress and problems.
  • A short session called a “demo review” is held where the Scrum Team presents their accomplishments during sprints for stakeholders to review.
  • After each sprint, team members get together to review what worked, what didn’t, and where to improve.

Although agile planning doesn’t necessarily mean Scrum planning, it is the best and most effective way to plan agile operations.

How to Create an Agile Project Plan for Your Business

Creating an agile plan allows you to put agile into practice. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to create an agile project plan for your business.

Pre-planning

Before starting an agile project, organizations have to define project requirements, vision, and scope. Having a well-defined product management roadmap is also important in this step as it will guide product owners on the creation of the product backlog.

In the pre-planning phase, the entire team is encouraged to participate to provide an accurate estimation of the project. Effective pre-planning for agile plans includes identifying business and technical requirements, forming agile teams with clear roles and responsibilities, and estimating the time and cost of completing the project as well as the sprint.

Estimation follows an iterative approach as well. Agile companies acknowledge that production would be subject to change which means time and cost estimations would also change. That’s why agile project planning is kept flexible from the start.

Defining “Done”

Since sprints can be repeated over and over again, it can be difficult to determine when to stop incrementing sprints. Customer requirements for a specific product may keep changing but a product development team can’t keep on working on the same project forever.

At the start of an agile project, the agile team may not have an exact idea of what “done” actually means. As the project evolves, team members develop an understanding of customer requirements and acquire the maturity to get an idea of when they’ll be done.

Referring to this definition of done will help development teams track progress and how much they’re willing to work on a specific feature.

Creating the Product Backlog

The product backlog is where all the requirements for completing the project are collected. Creating the product backlog requires the entire team and the coordination of experts to make accurate time and budget estimations of the features mentioned in the product backlog.

Project managers refer to the product backlog to prioritize which feature areas to work on in the sprint.

Planning Releases

After prioritizing features from the product backlog, the next step is to plan releases. A release plan acts as a guide for an agile team that outlines what features will be delivered and the time estimated for their completion.

Releases can be planned either after the creation of the product backlog or after the first few sprints have taken place. 

Making a release plan for a feature-driven project requires the project manager, product owner, and other stakeholders to break down the product backlog into actionable sprints. This will make up the release backlog.

To calculate the time for items on the release backlog, take the sum of features and divide it by the team velocity. The result of this equation would equal the number of iterations it may take for the product team to complete the specific tasks for that release. After the end of each release, the team delivers a working product increment.

Sprint Planning

Agile project planning involves planning future iterations (sprints). After each sprint, a sprint planning meeting is conducted to plan the next sprint. During the sprint planning meeting, the team will agree on the features in the product backlog and validate prioritizations.

If the team isn’t clear about the specified tasks or feels it won’t be able to complete them in the given time frame, they would have to reprioritize features.

After verifying the product backlog, the team moves ahead to start identifying tasks that need to be done to deliver the working features.

Creating User Stories

With agile planning, the team looks for ways to create customer-centric products and they rely on user stories rather than comprehensive documentation to achieve that. In agile methodology, tasks are called user stories, which help team members deliver high-value products to end-users and look at features from the user’s perspective.

User stories are often an informal description of the product with a general explanation as users themselves don’t use technical language. Understanding products this way helps put customers at the center of every decision the team makes, which is a key element of agile development.

These user stories help the team know why they’re building what they’re building. This stage of the agile planning process is also when the team identifies how they will arrange tasks. They will discuss the key responsibilities and estimate the time it will take to complete tasks.

Creating time estimates of user stories may also lead to revising the product backlog or releases. Some tasks may take more time than expected and are thus removed from the backlog.

Conducting Planning Meetings

Agile work keeps the sprint planning meeting limited to a maximum of four hours. At the same time, team members are expected not to conduct more than two meetings to plan the next sprint.

Agile planning is done in iterations, and by limiting time for planning, the team will get better and faster at estimating the project requirements for future sprints.

After planning a few iterations in this way, the team is able to calculate team velocity, which is the average time taken on a task. Knowing the team’s velocity is essential for making an accurate release plan.

Revising and Refining the Product Backlog

Agile acknowledges that change is inevitable and that the project scope will shift as customer requirements change and as the agile team learns from the mistakes of previous sprints.

If the product backlog changes during the project, user stories and releases may also have to be recalculated. All these changes mean that some items may be included, removed, or rearranged in the product backlog which calls for a revision, known as the “revising and refining” process.

After the new backlog has been verified, the agile team will start working again on future iterations, but with different priorities.

Conclusion

Creating a proper agile plan is directly related to achieving success with the agile methodology and applying its principles effectively. Agile planning is different from traditional planning and requires business owners to embrace change over strict quality control checks. It helps streamline your success with agile project management.