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If you make a plan with the full realization that it’s going to change, is it really a plan at all? You bet it is.

Agile planning might sound a little backward because agile focuses on iterative development. In fact, I have heard some people say that agile project management can’t be planned, but these people are misguided (and likely just trying to get out of doing any upfront work)! 

Even though agile is rooted in being open to change and pivoting when we learn new information, the lack of an upfront plan can mean more rework and realignment later. 

If you’re ready to change your mindset about planning and focus on delivering value incrementally (while also following a plan), this article is for you.

What is Agile Planning?

Agile planning is the process of defining a vision, roadmap, and paths to achieve your desired result, as well as tracking progress throughout the development cycle. It takes the ideas of traditional project management planning and adds the concept of continuous improvement to create a planning methodology focused on helping teams deliver value to customers. 

In other words, agile planning is a flexible approach to project planning where we emphasize adaptability and collaboration in an effort to deliver value continuously and incrementally while refining and improving project plans and outcomes. 

Understanding how agile project planning can be possible begins with understanding agile’s core principles and values, namely the focus on iterative approaches and incremental development, tight feedback loops, and self-organizing teams.

The 5 Levels Of Agile Planning

Planning agile projects or agile software development involves five distinct levels of planning, starting with the widest, most abstract level (vision) and working down to planning individual releases and iterations. Each level paves the way for the next one.

the 5 levels of agile planning
At each level of agile planning, consider how you're estimating tasks and breaking up projects and tasks into smaller chunks.

1. Overall Vision

The vision for your product or project is the best place to begin agile planning. You’ll define what the desired future might look like (I say "might" because it could change), and this is where you begin paving the way to the goal. Vision planning may happen annually, plus or minus 6-months, typically. 

The vision keeps people aligned and focused on a common goal while also providing a way to gut-check various options or decisions that might come up along the way. 

The vision is typically created by a product manager, key stakeholder, or project sponsor, and is a clear and compelling statement of what they want to achieve with the project or product. Elements of a vision may include purpose, objectives, and desired outcomes. 

In creating a vision, you should answer questions like: 

  • What is the problem we are solving? 
  • Who are we solving this problem for? 
  • What are the goals we want to achieve? 
  • How will we know if we have achieved the goals? 

Without a clear vision, it can be easy to get sidetracked and lose sight not only of goals, but the reason the team is working together in the first place. 

2. Roadmap Planning

Roadmap planning begins by breaking down your vision into key themes or high-level initiatives, depending on the scope of the vision. These themes might represent areas of capability or key objectives that the project or product needs to fulfill.

Once the high-level themes or initiatives are defined, the next step is to prioritize them based on value or other considerations. Then, you can start creating a product roadmap or timeline to visually represent the opportunities for implementation of these high-level items.

You might think, “How can you possibly put these items on a timeline without estimating how long they will take to build?” 

That’s a great question, but this is an imperfect science—it’s actually more of an art. What I typically do is talk with leaders of delivery teams to get a ballpark idea of how long each item will take end-to-end, and I represent it at that level, leaving a bit of extra time in the roadmap because things change and sometimes we just need extra time.

Pro Tip:

Pro Tip:

There is an age-old project management saying of under-promising and over-delivering which rings true here.

 

As things get closer to completion, you can bring the estimate in, but it’s always much better to deliver early than consistently late.

Socialize the roadmap as you build it to gather feedback from key stakeholders and delivery team members. This will get everyone informed about what you think is most important, help you gather feedback, and update the team on what's coming up next.

3. Release Planning

Release planning is where the rubber hits the roadmap. This is where the team gets into the details for various roadmap items and begins to set estimates. 

A “release” is a “shipped” section of value or software. You could consider these milestones. In release planning, the goal is to create a plan that outlines the elements of each roadmap item that can be included in each release. 

If your group is using the Scrum methodology, this is where you might see epics and some high-level user stories form. As the release is planned, features and functionality are defined in alignment with the product vision. 

A common output of release planning is an ordered backlog of epics, typically defined by a product owner. An epic represents a material piece of functionality and the priority of the epics indicates what is most important and should be delivered first.

From the prioritized product backlog, the team knows what is most important to work on and deliver first. Priorities may change, and things that seemed simple may become more complex, so be adaptable and be open to the plan changing. Remember, your job is to deliver value to the customer, even if it's not as you had originally envisioned it. 

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4. Iteration Planning

In iteration planning, the team takes the vision, roadmap, and release planning into consideration to plan the next iteration or increment of work (typically two to four weeks in duration). 

This is where the delivery team can dig in deeper with the product owner or project manager to plan individual iterations (many varieties of agile project management use iterations, so that’s what we’re using here).

In iteration planning (also known as sprint planning in Scrum), the cross-functional Scrum team will work together with the product owner or Scrum master to define the specific tasks or deliverables that are needed to achieve the previously defined release goals. 

This includes determining which items will be addressed, estimating how much time it will take to build each item, and determining a priority order for execution. 

The output of the iteration planning meeting is an iteration backlog, which details the specific items that will be completed during the iteration. The iteration backlog guides the team and helps them stay focused and on-task.

5. Daily Planning (Standup)

Once you’ve done vision, roadmap, release, and iteration planning, you get to take it day-by-day. 

A common practice in several agile project management methodologies is the daily standup. This meeting is typically about 15 minutes long and is used by the team to share progress and bring forth challenges or blockers they face as they look ahead into their work for the day. 

Often, small questions pop up here, and holding this meeting daily ensures a quick feedback loop so the team can keep moving forward with the answers to these questions. 

The daily standup helps to promote transparency within the team. Everyone knows what everyone else is working on, which fosters collaboration. If someone is stuck, there is someone on the team to help them quickly. 

The daily standup also ensures the team works on the highest-priority tasks and is aligned and focused on the project goals. Sometimes events, incidents, or operational issues can interfere with staying the course toward the iteration and release goal, and the daily standup helps keep these side-quest activities in-check. 

The Agile Planning Process: Step-by-Step

Alright, that was the warmup—time to put your agile planning muscles to work! Here's a process guide for nailing agile planning for your next project.

Step 1. Define the Vision

Objective: Establish a clear future goal for the project or product.

Tasks:

  • Collaborate with stakeholders to collectively articulate the problem and goals.
  • Answer crucial questions:
    • What problem are we solving?
    • Who is it for?
    • What are our goals?
    • How will we measure success?

What Does 'Done' Look Like? A compelling and concise vision statement outlining the project's purpose and objectives.

2. Create a Roadmap

Objective: Break down the vision into actionable initiatives.

Tasks:

  • Identify key initiatives aligned with the vision.
  • Prioritize initiatives based on value or impact.
  • Develop a visual roadmap or timeline for implementation.

What Does 'Done' Look Like? A prioritized list of initiatives and a roadmap indicating the sequence of initiatives.

3. Plan Releases

Objective: Define actionable elements for each roadmap item.

Tasks:

  • Detail features and functionalities for each release aligned with the vision.
  • Create a prioritized backlog of epics (major functionality components).

What Does 'Done' Look Like? An ordered backlog that can guide the team on what to deliver first in alignment with the vision.

4. Iterate Planning

Objective: Plan detailed tasks for short-term iterations.

Tasks:

  • Collaborate with cross-functional teams to plan specific tasks for the next iteration (approximately every 2-4 weeks).
  • Estimate time for each task and establish a priority order.

What Does 'Done' Look Like? Iteration backlog detailing tasks for the upcoming iteration, keeping the team focused and aligned.

5. Conduct Daily Standups

Objective: Maintain alignment and address challenges daily.

Tasks:

  • Conduct brief (15-minute) daily standup meetings.
  • Share progress, challenges, and blockers among team members.

What Does 'Done' Look Like? All team members should feel like they are 'on the same page' with the status and progress of the project and should feel empowered to collectively manage their time and resources according to the requirements of the day's tasks.

What are the Benefits of Agile Planning?

Planning ensures that agile teams move together in alignment toward producing high-quality products that actually meet users' needs. It puts us on the path to building something that is valuable, where the adaptive characteristics of agile allow for flexibility in a changing environment.

Agile planning offers the following four benefits to agile teams. 

You can adapt quickly

When you think agile, you should think iterative and incremental. These values are core to agile and are found within each agile methodology or agile framework (yes, there are many methodologies that are part of agile, as it’s not actually a methodology itself). 

You get frequent feedback

Agile planning requires tight feedback loops with customers and stakeholders. Frequent feedback enables quick course corrections and helps the project stay on-track with the evolving, needs-based plan. 

It sidesteps silos

Agile planning relies on close collaboration between team members on cross-functional teams. The agile principles, as outlined in the Agile Manifesto, emphasize the value in teams working closely together and being made up of people with different specialties, coming together to create one fully capable team to solve problems. 

It keeps the focus on the customer

The real goal of agile planning and development is to deliver value to customers. If this is achieved, then the team will likely be considered successful. 

Tools for Effective Agile Planning

The best tools for agile planning will vary from team to team—it all depends on the specifics of your project, team, and scope. However, these are a few of the most popular tools for agile teams and why.

  • Jira: This extremely popular project management tool is used for issue tracking, software development, and Agile project management.
  • Trello: Trello is a visual collaboration tool that organizes tasks into boards, allowing teams to manage projects in a flexible and rewarding way.
  • Monday.com: This highly-flexible work operating system enables teams to manage projects and workflows efficiently with a highly adaptable and user-friendly UX.
  • Asana: This is a 'fan favorite' web and mobile application designed to help teams organize, track, and manage their work.

Common Pitfalls of Agile Planning

Hey, nobody's perfect—and no agile team is, either. Here are a few common missteps to look out for.

  • Overly rigid plans: Agile is intended to be flexible, but 'flexible' is a subjective term. Make sure that you're always letting feedback and other changes influence the plan rather than forging ahead in spite of it.
  • Lack of stakeholder involvement: When you're working with cross-functional teams, it can be tempting to be laid-back about letting people opt out of standups. A little flexibility is sensible, but too much can cause people to fall out of alignment and lead to chaos.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Ever heard that old chestnut, 'under-promise, over-deliver?' In essence, being too aggressive with your tasks and/or timelines can lead to a domino effect of delays, panic, and disappointment—so cut yourself some slack early on.
  • Missing opportunities for improvement: Feedback is a precious resource! If you think of your roadmap as a literal roadmap, you should think of feedback as the GPS. Feedback offers critical information about the changing circumstances around your project so that you ultimately arrive at the best possible outcome.

Future of Agile Planning

As we've covered extensively, agile is built for constant change—and that goes for the agile approach itself. Here are a few of the trends I foresee for agile teams for the years ahead:

  • AI and Automation: Surprise, surprise, right? I think we can all agree that the integration of AI-driven tools to streamline planning and decision-making will become commonplace in the coming year.
  • Hybrid Methodologies: A lot of teams are already doing this, but it's likely that we'll continue to see a blend of agile with other methodologies to create customized approaches for specific project needs.
  • Remote Collaboration: Since many teams are now either fully remote or operating with the hybrid workplace model, we'll continue to see the evolution of tools and practices for facilitating agile planning with remote and hybrid teams.
  • Focus on Sustainability: Climate action is a growing priority for organizations around the world. We'll likely see more sustainability considerations in agile planning to address environmental and social impact on project outcomes.

Are You Ready to Begin Agile Planning? 

Learn more about project planning in agile, waterfall, and other methodologies by checking out our course offerings in the DPM School. You might also considering taking an agile certification if you're planning to move into a more agile-oriented project management role.

Dr. Liz Lockhart Lance
By Dr. Liz Lockhart Lance

Liz is an agilist and digital project manager with a passion for people, process, and technology and more than 15 years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting, and technology firms. In her day-to-day, Liz works as the Chief of Staff at Performica, an HR software company revolutionizing how people give and receive feedback at work. Liz holds a Doctorate in Organizational Change and Leadership from The University of Southern California and teaches Leadership and Operations courses in the MBA program at the University of Portland. Liz holds numerous project management-related certifications including: PMP, PMI-ACP, CSP-SM, and a SPHR from HRCI to round out the people-focused side of her work.