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How to optimize every step of your sprint timeline
Published:Oct 26, 2023

How to optimize every step of your sprint timeline

The sprint timeline can be broken down into planning, execution, and review phases. 

Each of these phases offers a valuable opportunity to learn about your team’s strengths, evaluate pace, and improve your forecasting abilities for future projects.

In this article, you’ll find tips to optimize every step of your sprint timeline. You’ll also discover how a time-tracking app can complement your efforts to deliver on-time milestones.

Phase 1: Planning your sprint

Figuring out what backlog items will be delivered in the upcoming sprint and how to allocate that work among your team members is the primary focus of this phase. 

Define your sprint timeline 

Your sprint timeline will impact your reporting metrics like pace, velocity, and burndown. If your team is just beginning to adopt Agile methodology and Scrum practices, it’s best to start with a standard two-week sprint timeline. Based on how your team feels, you can shorten or extend the timeline by a week.

There’s no right or wrong way to define your sprint timeline. What works for one team may not work for another. Because each sprint project varies in terms of complexity, workloads, and team capacity.

The shorter your sprint timeline, the more intense the execution phase will be. A short timeline might suit early-stage product teams facing changing requirements and market needs.

At the same time, a more mature product team with more complex requirements may need a three- or even a four-week sprint timeline. But longer timelines mean that more effort will go into the product or app before you get feedback from stakeholders and users. So you run the risk of delivering the wrong outcomes based on incomplete information and faulty assumptions.

Refine your product backlog

Refining your product backlogs is an ongoing activity that cuts across the entire sprint timeline. But refining backlogs at the planning phase gives you the most impact.

Before a sprint planning session with the entire team, the Scrum master and product owner should prioritize what stories and work items must be developed in the upcoming sprint.

Backlog grooming or backlog refinement is a process of eliminating unimportant and insufficiently detailed items from the sprint plan.

Scrum master and Agile coach Robbin Schuurman warns against stuffing a product roadmap with bloated features and turning it into a giant product backlog.

To avoid this kind of scenario, make your product backlogs DEEP, says Roman Pichler, a leading product management expert. DEEP stands for “detailed appropriately, estimated, emergent, and prioritized.”

Detailed — Make the high-priority items as detailed and granular as possible.
Estimated — Help your team estimate the effort needed to complete each backlog item.
Emergent — Allow room for new features and requirements to emerge organically.
Prioritized — Backlog items must be prioritized in the order they need to be completed.

DEEP stands for “detailed appropriately, estimated, emergent, and prioritized.”

Understand team capacity

Capacity is the measure of time your team can dedicate to a project in a sprint. It is measured in the number of available hours, and it helps you understand the team’s future ability to take on additional backlog items. 

To determine team capacity, you need to estimate the total number of development hours your team can allocate across a given sprint. In other words, you take an educated guess. It isn’t a scientific or repeatable method.Estimations and results can vary. But it’s a good starting point that prevents you from overbooking your team.

Whenever possible, compare your team capacity against historical data from previous sprints. This will help you base your estimations on reality.

Phase 2: Executing your sprint

This is when your team performs the work needed to achieve a predefined sprint goal. Use sprint executions as opportunities to facilitate uninterrupted and self-organizing workflows. Also, find ways to create quick feedback cycles that eliminate redundant and incorrect work.

Host daily Scrum meetings

A Scrum meeting lasts 15 minutes or less. Ideally, all the Scrum team members meet every day at the same time and place to discuss progress towards the sprint goal.

Treat Scrum meetings as an opportunity to make sprint deliverables more visible to all team members. You can also use Scrum meetings to adapt to changing requirements or circumstances. It’s common for a Scrum master to use this meeting to discuss tradeoffs and readjust priorities based on new feedback or information.

The goal of a daily Scrum meeting isn’t micromanagement. The goal is to promote self-organization around what needs doing.

Typically, the daily Scrum meeting is centered around each team member answering a variation of the following three questions:

  1. What did I achieve yesterday?
  2. What do I plan to achieve today?
  3. Are there any blockers or dependencies to achieving today’s plan?

Track sprint burndown and velocity

Burndown and velocity are two types of Agile project management charts that help you visualize the rate at which work items are getting completed.

A burndown chart begins with the total amount of work planned for each sprint. As sprint backlog items get completed, the graph shows a decreasing amount of work items left. Ideally, at the end of each sprint, you want your burndown chart to reach zero.

Burndown chart to reach zero

A velocity chart compares the work a team completes during a sprint with how much work was estimated to be completed. This helps you understand how accurately you’ve forecasted a sprint. You can create a velocity chart based on either (a) the number of work items completed or (b) total effort across all backlog items and user stories for a sprint.

Velocity chart

Both charts help you communicate overall sprint progress and planning efficacy in a few minutes, with minimal explanation required.

Focus on user outcomes

In the middle of a sprint execution, it’s easy to get weighed down by unfinished backlog items and schedule overruns. But don’t lose sight of end-user outcomes.

You won’t always have all the information you need. So some parts of your sprint planning and execution will have to be based on assumptions. Start with what you know. Then, with future iterations, gradually refine your understanding of user outcomes. Also, where applicable, leave the unknowns as questions to which you need answers.

Similar to the way you define the sprint goal with respect to a user outcome, consider defining each product backlog item with respect to an end-user outcome. Tie all the issues and items that have a shared user outcome into a single user story. An effective user story point reveals what the user is trying to achieve and gives us some idea of why achieving it is important.

Phase 3: Reviewing your sprint

Sprint reviews give you the chance to build internal development culture, celebrate team wins, and align team members after every sprint cycle. 

The entire review must not take more than 60 minutes. Issues that are more complex or systemic than this should not be brought up in the review. Save them for your next retrospective session.

Report to stakeholders

Reporting enables you to align stakeholder expectations with reality. It also allows stakeholders to weigh in their thoughts on how the progress of each sprint contributes to organization-level goals.

The asynchronous nature of reporting enables you to engage stakeholders despite time zone differences and scheduling conflicts.

Apps like 7pace and Whiteboards that integrate with your development environment help you remove the manual effort needed to collect valuable sprint data. They help you automate some aspects of reporting.

Note which report sections inspire the most discussion, questions, and clarifications. Use this feedback to refine the structure of your report and, over time, create a more effective reporting template.

Revisit forecasts

Follow up your reports by evaluating data from previous sprints. This keeps you rooted in the realities and challenges of the current sprint. But more importantly, it helps you more accurately forecast the effort needed for upcoming backlogs, user stories, and epics.

A time-tracking app that integrates with your development environment provides the granular data you need on each team member’s effort breakdown. This level of detail will help you identify resource constraints, resource overloads, and optimize development workflows.

Steps to use historical data for sprint forecast

Revisiting your forecast budgets and comparing them against actual effort is a great way to improve your budgeting and forecasting skills.

Hold periodic triage meetings

Every sprint release is bound to create new bugs in the production environment. Use periodic triage meetings to prioritize which bugs need fixing first.

Start each triage meeting by determining how important it is to fix each bug. You’ll need to ensure that bug fixes don’t lead to budget or schedule overruns.

Establish a checklist or triage criteria that helps your team evaluate and prioritize bugs based on their severity and significance. Periodically update this triage criteria to maintain continuity, even when key people leave the team.

Triage criteria to prioritize which bugs get fixed will contain fields like state, priority, severity, dependencies, and fix date. If bug fixes are taking a considerable amount of time, consider re-evaluating your triage criteria to reduce the number of high-priority bugs that need to be fixed in each sprint cycle.

Phase 4: Retrospecting an Agile sprint

A retrospective meeting is a recurring event held at the end of each sprint to review the entire team’s performance. Sprint retrospectives are an opportunity to identify what worked well, what didn’t, and potential improvement areas for the next sprint.

Retrospectives are an integral part of the iterative improvement ethos central to Scrum product management. For best results, the entire development team (along with the product owner and Scrum master) should participate in retrospectives. You can also invite other stakeholders to retrospectives on an as-needed basis.

Each retrospective session should take about 45 minutes for a week-long sprint. Longer sprint timelines will require slightly longer retrospectives.

Set the right expectations by sending an agenda and discussion points in advance to all participants. For instance, you might want to use retrospectives to review the team’s pace, velocity, and burndown data. This in turn may lead to a healthy discussion around project blockers and resource dependencies that isn’t obvious to all team members.

Also, budget time for some icebreakers or informal discussions before and after the main discussion points to facilitate team bonding and build rapport.

Plan your next sprint based on data from previous sprints

DevOps teams need the right tools to track sprint progress and use historical data to improve the forecasting of future sprints.

A customizable time-tracking solution that integrates with your Azure DevOps environment provides the ideal foundation to collect valuable sprint data.

7pace provides accurate data to improve sprint planning meetings with the least amount of manual effort. It offers an integrated reporting experience for all your sprint metrics like original estimate, time spent, burndown, velocity, and pace calculations.

Try 7pace today.

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