Starting use of agile methods to deliver projects will pose challenges to any organization new to agile. Organizations that start by providing a common basis for training their teams, their subject matter experts, and senior leaders are building a foundation for success.

Even with that solid foundation of training, it can be challenging for new agile teams to develop their first release plan. The newly-trained agile project manager or scrum master may ask “where do I start”? It is important for the new team to extend their solid foundation by using the agile framework and their newly-learned practices to build their first release plan.

Application of their training in agile methods and processes will help the team extend that foundation as they build their first release plan. The help of an experienced coach will pay dividends in helping this new team get their first agile project launched successfully.

The foundation metaphor extends further. In order to perform their first release planning session, essential elements must be in place. The new agile project manager or scrum master will provide servant leadership to their team and organization by ensuring the following key preparatory steps are complete prior to the first release planning session:

Foundations of agile release planning

  • A vision – what needs to be built, and how it will provide value to customers and the organization.
  • A product owner – someone with the knowledge and passion to own the vision and to provide information and direction to ensure the team builds with that vision and value in mind.
  • A team – a dedicated cross-functional team to deliver this project.
  • A backlog – work with the product owner to create a wish list of the capabilities needed to provide the desired value.
  • Refine the backlog into user stories – the team and subject matter experts use their training to turn the wish list into user stories.
  • Prioritization – the team works with the product owner to prioritize the backlog and user stories.
  • A decision on sprint length – the team determines the length of their sprints – ideally, no longer than four weeks.
  • A rough idea of how many sprints – the team and the organization develop a rough idea (subject to ongoing refinement) of how many sprints might be necessary or that they are willing to invest in the release to achieve the desired outcome and value.

All of this sounds like a lot of work just to get ready to plan a release – especially coming on the heels of a multi-day investment in agile training. It is a lot of work, but it is a critical investment that is necessary to ensure the first project or release to be delivered using agile provides value to the organization. This first sprint will set the team up for success, and the first release will set the tone for successful agile transformation and the use of agile on future projects.

Once the foundational work is complete, there are seven steps the team can perform together to create their first release plan. Guidance from an experienced scrum master or agile coach can help the team work through this first attempt at release planning and ensure the team is ready with a solid plan.

Step 1 – Prioritize the backlog of user stories using the MoSCoW rules (Must Have, Should Have,  Could Have, Wish/Won’t Have).

Step 2 – Use t-shirt sizing to size the user stories – keep it simple – use XS-XL.

Step 3 – Organize the user stories into sprints based on the team’s gut feel and initial understanding of the project.

Step 4 – Apply a numeric scale to t-shirt scale (1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 15, 21, or similar), then update the user story sizing, replacing the t-shirt scale with the numeric scale.

Step 5 – Estimate initial velocity. How many points of work does the team think they can complete in their first sprint? This is a total guess for new teams and will fluctuate in the early sprints.

Step 6 – For Sprint 1, identify the tasks required for each user story and estimate these in hours.

Step 7 – Develop a solid plan for Sprint 1, a soft plan for Sprint 2 – it will be revised based on the team’s experience in their first sprint.

Completing these seven steps in concert with an experienced agile coach or scrum master enables the team to exit their first release and sprint planning session with an initial release plan as well as a solid plan for their first sprint. This, in turn, positions the team for a successful opening sprint, which will deliver value to the organization and earn credibility for the team and the initial use of agile practices.


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