An Actionable Guide to Agile Planning Process

• Agile

Agile planning is simply the conventions employed for outlining projects from start until they’re finished—when working in an agile environment.

It places an emphasis on designing blueprints for short spurts of work that add incrementally to the bigger picture project. While planning may seem out of place, given that agile espouses a go-go approach for getting work done faster, planning actually makes it easy to get an outlined project executed faster, since everyone knows the next step to take.

Overall, agile planning is used to:

  • Clarify how smaller picture targets fit into bigger picture goals
  • Determine what a project really requires for success from the get-go
  • Align the entire team around key results from the starting point

97 percent of organizations use agile to manage projects; and if you’re one of those, it’ll be beneficial to learn the what, why, and how to better plan your agile projects for success.

This article dives into what you need to outline projects while still on the drawing board so you can accurately estimate what you need to deliver targets, as well as execute in a timely and orderly manner.

Key concepts in agile planning

There are several key concepts that shape agile planning since for the product to be successful, it must be designed around the needs of the users and executed based on agile principles.

Some of these key concepts in agile planning include:

1. Theme

The theme is simply a target that’s designed to create change in the organization. It’s the main reason projects are carried out for and must be kept at the center of focus throughout the planning process. Agile teams can achieve success faster by staying aligned on their objectives.

2. User stories

User stories are the project requirements derived from the needs of product users. They’re essentially what users look forward to in a product. In Agile, plans are built based on how the team can take user stories and execute on them to deliver functional improvements to the end product.

3. Backlog

The product backlog is the collection of numerous user stories from where they’re pulled for planning and execution. The backlog serves as the body of all the product could and might become in the future.

4. Epics

An epic is a collection of user stories, grouped into one body of work, and designed for execution.

The agile planning onion and how it helps in project planning

The agile planning onion is a graphic expression that’s used to demonstrate the several layers of work involved in planning an agile project from start to finish.

5 levels of Agile Planning Process

The agile planning onion mirrors what’s required to take a project from to-do to done. Here’s how the agile planning onion helps in successful agile planning.

Layer 1: Vision planning

The vision layer of the agile planning onion is where the entire agile team and stakeholders get together to visualize the desired outcomes of the project.

So, for your agile team to nail the vision planning phase, you have to ask the following questions:

  • What exactly is our target?
  • How do we express this target in terms of actionable work items?
  • How long and how much resources will it take to achieve this target?
  • Most importantly, how does this target fit into our bigger picture?

Facilitator: The product owner is responsible for bringing the team to create a feasible product vision. She provides a platform for everyone to voice their opinions and concerns.

Frequency: Yearly.

Layer 2: Roadmap planning

A roadmap answers the question, ‘how do we get there?

While the project vision provides an outlook on what’s going to be delivered, the project roadmap serves as a plan within the bigger picture plan. It defines the steps that are going to be taken in the process of moving the project toward completion.

Facilitator: Likewise, the product vision, the responsibility for charting a high-level course of progress for the project at hand depends on the product owner, as well as keeping it updated over time.

Frequency: Bi-annually.

Layer 3: Release planning:

This stage of the agile planning onion is where all the plans that have been outlined for achieving the targets identified earlier on, are put to work to see how it plays out. The entire team executes on the design to see what works and what doesn’t, so they can either move ahead successfully, or step back to analyze and see what worked and what didn’t.

The release layer is when the entire collection of plans, blueprints, and outlines are tested to see if they work as intended and if they can deliver the desired results.

Facilitator: The product owner is responsible for overseeing the release planning phase to ensure everything is in line with the needs of the end-users; the team lead, on the other hand, ensures the team gets its opinions out fairly and clearly.

Frequency: Quarterly.

Layer 4: Iteration planning

The iteration layer is the stage where the team members get together and commit to delivering a specific volume of work during the next iteration.

Team members can safely project how much work they can guarantee to deliver by factoring in the following factors:

  • their individual capacity
  • the time window available for the next iteration
  • the team’s overall velocity

Facilitator: Team lead, with wider participation by the entire team.

Frequency: Bi-weekly.

Duration: Less than four hours.

Layer 5: Daily commitment planning

The daily meeting is a significant concept in agile planning and this is the point where the stage is set for achieving the blocks of work that the bigger project has been broken into.

Team members point out project blockers and the team lead takes note of them so she can address them. She also shares general observations and the team sets out to do the work scheduled for that day.

Facilitator: Team lead

Frequency: Daily

Duration: 15 minutes

Best practices for planning for an agile project

  • At every stage of the planning onion, focus on concrete goals, benefits, and measurable results.
  • Allot enough time for planning meetings so that relevant issues can be brought up and addressed completely.
  • Avoid setting targets that stretch beyond what the team has historically achieved.
  • Keep everything simple so the plan can actually serve as a blueprint; complicating information or burying it under layers of data will only get in the way of doing your best work.

Conclusion

Planning helps streamline project management since it’s easier to iterate faster and launch increments when everything is planned out ahead. The agile planning onion serves as a comprehensive framework for agile planning, from the start to the finish, and as a result, should serve as a handy guide, both for implementing and perfecting planning on an agile team.