Seventeen Tips for Iteration Planning

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Agile Work requires a team to take work items from a prioritized list, break those items into small tasks and then execute those tasks inside of the timebox of an iteration. When first trying agile, many teams have trouble with the task breakdown done in the iteration planning meeting. Here are some hints and tips for making this critical part of the agile process more effective.

1. Work items are, among their other qualities, valuable to the customer or stakeholders. Think of these work items as being built out of many smaller pieces. You can imagine a toy model made out of Lego bricks. Each brick, by itself, is of no value. It is only when they are put together that they become useful. The tasks you create for each work item are often small enough that they do not have any value on their own.

2. The word “task” implies activity… but the tasks you create for your work items do not need to be activity based. Tasks can be effective if they are written as components or pieces of the work item you are building. Here is an article about creating good tasks.

3. Sometimes if the work item is not well understood, you might find that a “research” or “experiment” task is a good starting place. Try to be as specific as possible. When writing the task description, spell out what exactly is the goal of your research, and possibly list what options you are going to research.

4. When first starting out with Agile Work, many teams find it difficult to do a good job of iteration planning in the fixed amount of time allocated to it. Consider shortening your iteration length so you can practice this skill more frequently. (Remember to make the planning meeting shorter too!)

5. Make sure that everyone has index cards and a pen to write with! Team members shouldn’t have to wait for a “scribe” to write down a task. In many ways this is a brainstorming session. The Process Facilitator can collect all the cards after the meeting is finished if they need to be recorded more formally.

6. Do a first pass by creating “big” tasks… then break them up into smaller tasks if you have time. Since this meeting is timeboxed, it is better to get all the work broken down into big chunks than to break down only a small part of the work into very fine chunks.

7. If the same task keeps showing up for all your work items, it probably shouldn’t be a task… instead it should probably be a process step or constraint or condition of satisfaction for the work you are doing. For example, if you always have to write a document that follows a template to record what you have done for each work item, then writing that document can be shown as part of your task board.

8. It’s okay for tasks to be _very_ small.

9. Share your tasks! If you write a task down without telling the rest of your team, they can’t use your idea to generate more tasks, nor can they improve on your idea.

10. Generating tasks in the iteration planning meeting is a problem solving and creative process. This is where you do a lot of your analysis and design work. This is where you struggle through options and choose _how_ to build/do your work.

11. Consider creativity technique such as light-weight brainstorming for generating lots of ideas quickly. Any technique you use should be streamlined for quick results.

12. Don’t worry about administrative stuff while you are generating tasks. For example, if you normally put task cards up on a wall, wait until after the meeting is over to do this. Likewise, if you normally enter them into an electronic tools, wait until the meeting is over to do this.

13. Make sure you have scrap paper or a good whiteboard convenient for notes and drawings so that you can quickly model your solution for the work item. (Check out Agile Modelling for a discussion of this in the software realm.)

14. Remember that it’s okay if you end the meeting with an imperfect list of tasks. You will make corrections throughout the iteration. It is more important to maintain the discipline of the timeboxed meeting length, than to get the tasks right up front.

15. The whole team must participate: everyone’s experience, skill, expertise and insight are needed to do the best job of generating tasks. Just because it won’t be a perfect list doesn’t mean you can do a shoddy job of it!

16. You need quick access to information about the work items you are planning. You also need quick access to other relevent information. A computer with a web browser open to Google is a great tool to have at hand.

17. If you don’t have anyone on your team who has lots of diverse experience and expertise, then consider inviting someone like this as a guest to help you out. It is much more difficult to do the necessary problem solving if you new to the medium in which you are doing the solving. Such a guest would need some time before the meeting to be prepared.

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