Agile elease planning: 7 Steps for New teams

by Shawn Belling

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

agile release planning release plan product vision product backlog product backlog release goal agile approach key milestones project team project management institute agile team product roadmap release planning process release planning software development release plan agile release planning agile release planning agile release planning agile release plan agile release plan agile release plan release date product vision create an agile release incremental releases project managers development team software development development process product roadmap product owner agile release planning important agile project management agile team release plans product backlog scrum release planning meeting software development projects scrum release planning release planning meeting acceptance criteria agile teams traditional software planning story points release goal minimal market features release management agile release user story regular sprint planning meetings planning process previous iterations release sprint release dates product releases how much effort major releases agile releases how much functionality agile development careful planning multiple releases improved customer experience minimum viable product product increment scrum master sprint planning stakeholders involved performance testing product manager development teams product managers user feedback new features best practices target date assign story points planning meeting assign story points agile methodology teams decide purpose of release planning product roadmaps how many sprints other stakeholders clear expectations team member desired outcomes given release remaining flexible release goals collect data future sprints release work release products scrum framework product features product team significant impact new feature effort required planning sprints multiple sprints several sprints overall product vision excellent tools scrum release effort needed excellent tools average velocity previous set important features most businesses backlog items product backlogs right tasks single sprint right direction sprint goal buy in sprints needed team members smallest group product backlog items short sprints shorter sprints improve user experience less important features overall goal planning meetings how much work four steps new product increment new product shorter term new information agile project product development release plan release plan  future releases
  • 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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