6 Years in the Making: Our Sprint Plan Agenda

6 Years in the Making: Our Sprint Plan Agenda

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Let’s face it: too many meetings suck.

When meetings aren’t productive, the wind gets sucked out of your team’s sails. Efficiency comes to a grinding halt. Products and customers suffer.

Chances are, you’ve felt this before. In fact, half of business meetings are considered a waste of time, and unproductive meetings cost US businesses up to $37 billion every year (and bet that estimate is way low!).

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At 6kites, meetings are central to our highly collaborative and distributed teams, so we decided to change that.

Following our all-in commitment to Agile for every aspect of our business, we constantly take a long, hard look at our meeting structure, and review our standing agendas. This process has been going on for years. We are always learning and tweaking, and our sprint plan agenda has become the single most impactful tool in our business, and we use it every day.

Today, we’re excited to show you what’s under the hood of the sprint plan agenda so you can reap the benefits, too. You don’t have to practice Agile methods to adopt an agenda similar to ours.

Why Does a Solid Agenda Matter?

How many meetings have you been to that could have been condensed into an email? Or worse, have you ever attended a conference call that looked like this?

Whether we’re talking about agile sprint planning meetings, or traditional approaches, team meetings shouldn’t hinder you from getting things done. Quite the opposite – meetings should be the springboard for productivity. But for that to happen, your agendas need some basic characteristics:

  • Clear Action Items
  • Commitment and Buy-In
  • Follow-Through

Those things sound nice, but how can your team actually achieve this? How do you get everyone in every meeting to engage, unify, and commit to making (and sticking to) a plan? If you’re an Agile team, how does this all come together in your sprint plan meetings?

Let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts of our fine-tuned planning agenda and break down what makes this method so powerful.

Unboxing the 6kites Sprint Planning Agenda

After we became a top-to-bottom Agile company, all planning meetings became scrums, whether it’s customer delivery, business operations, marketing, or product development. Our typical sprint lasts 2-weeks.

Let’s just say that added up to a ton of meetings (often multiple sprint plan meeting on a single day).

With that kind of volume, waste-of-time meetings were no longer an option. Every meeting had to be a success, every commitment had to be fulfilled, and we had to get buy-in from everyone.

So, we overhauled our sprint plan agenda to provide a framework that led to consistent results, especially for our remote workers and distributed teams. We maintain that focus today with our latest standing agenda:

1. Pre-meeting Prep

Make a checklist. If you don’t know exactly what needs to happen before the meeting to ensure its success, chances are, you’re wasting your time – and everybody else’s, too. For us, the number one issue is having a staged sprint (i.e. a rough plan for the next two weeks). The project manager is responsible for making sure all the items on the checklist are complete before the meeting begins. If pre-meeting items aren’t complete (hopefully that’s not the case), the meeting should start with taking care of those issues so you don’t end up wasting time later.

2. Welcome

Genuinely and wholeheartedly welcome meeting participants. This may not seem important, but we assure you it is! Show people that you value their time, and keep it light. The idea is to loosen everyone up – over time, when everyone offers their “it’s great to be here” intro (that’s our standard and semi-tongue-in-cheek response), they’ll actually mean it! A good, light hearted welcome is especially important when you know you’re heading into a tough meeting.

3. Acceptance of Previously-Planned Work

Now it’s time to establish a common baseline. What’s already been done and how does that relate to the commitments made at the start of the sprint? Instead of thinking about the standard agile process of “demoing”, we take a slightly different approach and give people the opportunity to show off their work. Try asking the team: “is there anything you’ve in particular you have accomplished that are proud of and would like to share?” In other words, get people excited to share with everyone their piece of the plan.

4. Scorecard & Retro

By now, your team should all be on the same page regarding what got done vs. what was planned. Here, you can shift gears to team accountability, and use retros to fuel continuous process improvement. Be specific and show that commitments matter.

Ask: “did we get everything done as planned? If not, why?” “What should we do more of in the next sprint? What should we do less of?” At 6kites, we’ve rolled this into a simple metric of a pass/fail for every sprint, and we track our performance so the teams have visibility into how they are doing over time.

Very important point here! Accountability should be at the team level. There’s no need to single people out. When you started that sprint everyone agreed it could be completed and thus everyone is accountable for the result. Even if there was a weak link, the team should have stepped up to help before the end of the sprint.

5. Plan the Sprint

Notice how this is the fifth item on our agenda – not the first. If you dove right into planning without establishing any baseline and created an environment of team accountability, then participants would not have directed focus (or much reason to care). At the start of the planning process we set a “theme” for the sprint. An example might be, “Deal with all loose ends before start of Beta testing.” This focus sets a solid foundation and aligned perspective for prioritizing what will be included in the sprint. From here, you can really dig into defining the tasks to complete during the sprint itself. Be as accurate as possible – don’t make commitments you can’t keep, and adopt a “no excuses” attitude. Pay particular attention to documenting the definition of “done” at the end of the next sprint. Avoid working on tasks outside of the scope of the theme. Discipline here almost always uncovers issues that would bite you in the end if you lack clarity going in.

6. Commit

You’ve got your list of work items for the next sprint. Now, commit to it. Besides simply verbally agreeing to finish something, do some thorough contingency planning. Go over the risks of your commitments with the team – are there any concerns about timeline? Take these head on right now, address them, and document them.

The commit is a team activity. We use the “fist of five” method for committing. Each team member weighs in:

1 finger: Not a snowball’s chance in hell!

2 fingers: I don’t think it’s possible . . .

3 fingers: There’s a 50/50 chance that we’ll make it.

4 fingers: We have a reasonable chance of making it (80 percent).

5 fingers: It’s a sure thing!

If anyone on the team says “2”, we don’t proceed. Each person also has to provide a rationale for their vote. Hearing people’s perspectives can lead to some great discussions prior to the start of the sprint. Again, always remember that the whole team commits, so the whole team is accountable at the end of the sprint.

7. After the Sprint is Committed and Started

One reason we love Agile process throughout our company is its iterative and rhythmic nature. After the sprint, the cycle will start again, but a quick word of advice: Always schedule meetings well ahead of time so there will be no, “Hey, aren’t we supposed to be having a sprint planning meeting today?” No one likes having a meeting pop up at the last minute. Also, consider setting up a “mid-sprint review.” This can be done with a quick meeting or via group chat. The point is to not let things slide to the end of the sprint without proactively dealing with them (especially items that are blocked for one reason or another).

In Conclusion

Throughout your planning meetings, it’s essential to focus on tempo. Don’t let the energy die, and keep things moving. The moment participants’ eyes start to glaze over, that’s a red flag that you’re not making each moment valuable to the team and the company.

It takes a lot to run a meeting that doesn’t suck. But at 6kites, we’ve found that it’s well worth the investment of time and energy to craft a consistent, scalable, killer meeting model that the entire company buys into since we use it every day.

Overall, make sure that you’re engaging both individuals and the team as a whole by creating an environment of accountability – and hold the team to their commitments. Not only will this keep the group engaged, but it will steer everyone (yourself included) away from making commitments they, or you, can’t keep.

Stay tuned for an in-depth breakdown of each point of our sprint planning agenda and we’ll share the brass tacks of our methods so you can discover how to harness and apply this structure to your own development process!

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