Agile Myths: If we are doing agile, we don’t need a plan.

17 Mar 2023

Planning in Agile

Agility means the ability to adapt and respond based in what is happening, what we are learning, and what we encounter. We may have the best intentions, but if the feedback we receive indicates that we need to pivot to something more valuable, it is in our best interests to do so.

So, we know that no plan is going to be perfect from point A to point Z, it is going to change. We are going to need to adapt what we are doing based on the data and the evidence we receive, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to plan.

It just means that we accept, in advance, that our plan will change and it doesn’t serve us to plod along with that plan if we have the data and evidence we need to prove that we must adapt.

For some people, this has become the justification for not planning.

Continuous planning.

In any agile framework, such as scrum or Less (Large Scale Scrum), planning is an integral part of the framework and is addressed at multiple stages of development, in multiple ways, to ensure that we are always focused on planning the next most valuable action we can take.

Planning through a product backlog.

In scrum, for example, the primary planning tool is the product backlog.

A product backlog is a list of work items that we need to complete to deliver value to our customers. The backlog is ordered and prioritized in alignment with customer and organizational objectives.

For example, if customer satisfaction is our primary business objective, we would prioritize and order work items relative to how effectively they are going to increase customer satisfaction. If we prioritize time to market, we will organize around rapid value delivery.

Planning through a product owner.

Now, because we have the product backlog, it doesn’t mean that we don’t embrace other forms of strategic planning too. Using the scrum example, we would also have a product owner who keeps a finger on the pulse of customer requirements, competitor activity, and disruption in the market.

Someone whose sole focus is to plan and align the team’s efforts with specific, measurable, and valuable objectives. Someone whose job is to set an inspiring product vision and define a product goal, for both the long-term and for the short-term sprint.

A product owner will also develop a product roadmap to help forecast what needs doing, why it matters, and what the plan for the long-term product evolution will be.

The product owner makes the product vision, the product goal, and the product roadmap to the entire team and makes sure that it is always visible and transparent. It is a long-term plan that is broad and not too granular because we know that the primary focus is the objective rather than the nitty gritty elements that are bound to change given the degree of complexity we face.

Planning through backlog refinement.

Sometimes, through something called backlog refinement, the scrum team and customer will change the priority of certain items based on current capabilities, current needs, and in response to any disruption in the environment that requires us to adapt and respond.

That’s another layer of planning built into an agile environment and aligned with the agile principle ‘we welcome changes to the plan, even late in development’, which means that we are always willing and able to readjust our plan based on what is required or in response to what is needed.

Planning through daily scrums

Every 24 hours the developers will meet for 15 minutes to discuss what has happened in the past 24 hours, what is planned for the upcoming 24 hours, and what impediments or roadblocks may prevent us from executing against that plan for the day.

If we need the impediment to be resolved, someone is recruited to tackle that for the team, and they carry on with the plan once the problem has been resolved. If it means that the team needs to adapt the plan in response to the impediment, they agree on the best way to do that, and actively plan the new way forward.

It’s a lot like the guiding star that navigators use. Currents may shift us off course, storms may cause us to seek temporary refuge, and any one of a thousand things could happen that impact our journey, but we always adapt and respond in alignment with that guiding star.

Empirical Process Control

The whole purpose of agile is to set an intention or hypothesis, and amend our plan based on what we learn. The very nature of complexity means that our work is impacted by variables that we couldn’t anticipate, and that we adapt and respond as we inspect what we are doing and how that is performing.

Empiricism is a framework for making work and plans transparent, frequently inspecting our work relative to the plan, and adjusting as necessary to achieve the outcomes our plan is committed to delivering.

So, it isn’t that we don’t plan in Agile, it’s completely the opposite.

We constantly plan.

Sprint Planning.

At the beginning of each sprint, which is typically 2 to 4 weeks, we host an event called sprint planning which deals exclusively with what we plan to do in that short, sharp burst of productivity.

If we fail to achieve the sprint goal or plan in the sprint, we host an event called a sprint retrospective at the end of the sprint to identify why we didn’t achieve our short-term plan, what is necessary to avoid that outcome in future, and how we can improve as a team over the upcoming sprint.

So, there’s a plan for the work, a plan for the product, and a plan for the team.

A plan that constantly evolves and improves with each iteration. As we acquire new skills, solve complex problems, and achieve goals and objectives we amend the plan to ensure that we are always working on the most valuable problems and building the most valuable solutions.

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