You have completed product discovery and figured out what your customers want. Now what?
You need a plan to build the product—which starts with iteration planning (also called release planning or iterative planning) to map out how the software development cycle will go down.
What does iteration planning involve, and how can software teams handle it successfully? Let’s find out.
What Is Iteration Planning, and Why Is It Important?
Iteration planning is a crucial component of the agile methodology. During the meeting, a software team maps out the technical and non-technical tasks involved in the next iteration of the development process.
The team will review and analyze input from the discovery phase or a previous cycle to inform future planning. These include the source code, release notes, list of bugs, product backlog items, and software testing results.
Armed with the insights, the team will plan the development tasks based on user stories in the sprint backlog, assign team members, allocate technical resources, and set a timeline. The project manager will create an iteration plan to summarize the goal of the iteration and the outcome of the meeting.
An iteration planning process can range from a few hours to several days, depending on the complexity and requirements of the project and the size of each story.
The Benefits of Iteration Planning
The purpose of iteration planning is to get everyone involved on the same page, define a realistic scope for a development cycle, and help the team organize work.
An iteration planning meeting gives everyone a bird’s-eye view of the upcoming development cycle. The input helps the project manager allocate team members accurately and set realistic expectations, such as timeline and deliverables, for the iteration.
Team members have the opportunity to agree on the user stories and assumptions for the iteration so they can focus on the right tasks. Meanwhile, the resulting iteration plan can give the product owner (PO) an accurate estimation of what they can expect at the end of the sprint.
An iteration plan also allows you to compare what the team expects to happen with what actually happened at the sprint retrospective. The insights can help team members improve their planning and story point estimating process for future cycles.
5 Steps For Effective Iteration Planning
An iteration planning session can get chaotic if you have too many cooks in the kitchen but not enough structure. Here are some key planning steps to help you get the most out of the meeting:
1. Set Iteration Goals
Focus on product goals or business value instead of individual user stories to determine what to achieve in the upcoming development cycle. The goals should align with the outcomes of the discovery phase, high-priority product backlog items, or user requests. Then, walk through each user story to check that you have all the pieces addressed.
2. Create Estimations From User Stories
Create a sprint estimate for the effort and resources required to accomplish the user stories you selected for achieving the iteration goals. You can make the estimations with story points, and use the team’s velocity, or pace, to convert story points into hours to verify that you can fit all the tasks into the sprint’s timeframe.
3. Confirm Capacity
Validate that your delivery team has the capacity to meet deadlines based on the sprint estimation. Check each team member’s availability—accounting for time off and other maintenance work—and make adjustments to the scope, team size, etc., to ensure that the team’s availability aligns with the amount of work required.
4. Review Assumptions and Distribute Tasks
Arrange the user stories to ensure that you’re tackling them in the correct order. Review all the risks and assumptions (e.g., dependence on third-party integrations) and assign tasks to each team member. If some developers are overcommitted while others have availability, revisit the assignments and redistribute the work.
5. Finalize the Iteration Plan
After you have identified the tasks, assigned the owners, and have the team’s capacity filled, stop pulling stories from the iteration backlog. The PO and development team will agree on what should be accomplished at the end of the iteration, confirm the iteration goals, and fix the scope of work for the development cycle.
How To Run a Successful Iterative Planning Session
Everyone must do their part during the agile sprint planning session. Here are some tips to follow:
The PO should be clear about the goals and user stories for the iteration to help the team prioritize its tasks.
The scrum master, who serves as the facilitator, should create a safe environment where everyone feels comfortable participating in the discussion.
Developers should be prepared to discuss potential blockers, dependencies, current capacity, technical debts, and team backlog items.
The team should agree on when an item is ready to be picked up from the backlog: It should contain all the relevant information to explain what it entails, the UX design, and a list of acceptance criteria.
Developers should incorporate what they have learned from sprint reviews for previous iterations to improve the process.
Team members must be equipped with the right tools and information to size their work correctly and create accurate estimations (more on that later.)
Navigating the Challenges Of Iteration Planning
Successful iterative planning relies on team dynamics and participants’ experiences and attitudes. Issues are more likely to arise if the PO doesn’t understand the development process, the team lacks maturity, or participants don’t have sufficient data and visibility to make the right decisions. Here’s how to mitigate potential issues:
Align All the Stakeholders
The PO should understand the team’s pace to gain a realistic view of what it can accomplish. The project manager should establish the agenda for the planning session to keep everyone focused. Meanwhile, the team should have a healthy dynamic to support constructive discussions. Also, be explicit about roles and responsibilities—don’t assume anything!
Agile teams can address uncertainties with a “spike”—a timeboxed period (e.g.. 4 hours) where the team researches and assesses an uncertainty to gain insights into what a work item may require. You can schedule a spike into an iteration as you would with other requirements and break down the tasks accordingly.
Make Time For Bug Fixes
Teams may ignore or overlook bugs, refactoring work, and technical debts when they focus on new stories and functionalities. Yet, they can delay the launch or fester into costly issues down the road. Set aside some capacity during each iteration for bug fixing, particularly right before a release, to ensure that issues don’t get overlooked because of the time crunch.
Leverage Historical Data
Establishing capacity and ensuring you can fit all the tasks into the sprint period sounds great… but you can only do so if you know your team’s pace. Since each team has its own velocity, the only way to create accurate estimates is to collect and generate insights from historical metrics to help right-size your work commitments.
It starts with tracking time and having the ability to associate the hours with each work item.
To achieve a high level of accuracy and granularity, you need a time recording tool where developers can track time where they work (e.g., on Azure DevOps or GitHub) and associate the hours with each work item without jumping through the hoops.
7pace Timetracker is designed to help developers track their time and collect data to inform future estimations. You can leverage insights in your iterative planning session to ensure that the team commits to the right amount of work for each sprint.
Download 7pace and see how it can help you improve iterative planning.