Iteration planning

Iteration planning for project teams

Reading time: about 8 min

Effective project teamwork involves thoughtful planning. Through iteration planning, project managers can help their teams prepare with insightful analysis and preparation. Agile projects require an appropriate framework to manage each cadence, showing your team what to expect and clarifying roles so each individual contributor can work more effectively. 

By providing structure, iteration planning makes larger projects more manageable. Teams and individual contributors can commit to completing part of the backlog within the next iteration–providing momentum for the overall project. 

What is iteration planning?

Iteration planning imagines the overall project as a broader story with chapters–called iterations–that fit into the Agile framework and help your team visualize the project timeline. This allows your team to determine at the beginning of the project what resources and work is necessary in order to achieve the right results. 

With an initial team meeting, stakeholders and project contributors can determine high-level goals and set expectations for each iteration from the beginning of the project to the end. 

Iteration vs sprint planning

Generally speaking, Scrum uses sprint planning, while iterative planning is common with Agile–both terms represent types of defined time blocks within which teams can work together. Sprints are usually very short, while iterations can be longer. How long a sprint or iteration lasts is usually dependent on the customer stories involved. Completing work on a story is usually the goal so that the team can pivot over to a new project. 

Development and testing should close the loop on the story involved in a particular project. In software development, this process may revolve around feature releases. 

What’s an iteration meeting? 

The iteration meeting kicks off the new iteration and provides clarity and greater definition around it so the team is prepared. Product owners may start by reviewing the team’s existing progress. 

  • Goal setting: From there, product owners can establish high-priority goals to discuss with the team during the iteration meeting. 
  • Capacity planning: Using project management tools or some other means of providing visibility, such as a chart, the team reviews available resources for completing stories. 
  • Story discussion: Discussing the stories in the backlog, the team considers any applicable technical issues, risks, and challenges associated with different stories. They can prioritize certain stories for inclusion in the current iteration or leave others in backlog, as needed. 
  • Assigning tasks: At this point, your team may break down stories into tasks. You can assign responsibilities and consider how you might use any capacity that’s left. 
  • Goal commitments: Agreeing on what will be accomplished during the iteration, your team can move forward on a specific scope with confidence. 

Project management

Using the plans discussed during your iteration meeting, you can check in with your team throughout the iteration and work from your goals and commitments created during the iteration plan. Iteration planning creates accountability and provides clarity for teams, making the project manager’s job easier. 

Benefits/ use cases of iteration planning

Iteration planning has a variety of different benefits for teams. To benefit the most from iteration planning, organizations need to have the right stakeholders involved and use the right planning approach. When done correctly, iteration planning is beneficial for a wide range of different use cases in different industries. 

Iteration planning benefits

In helping teams stay organized, iteration planning helps with: 

  • Creating a single source of truth in planning: Although partly true about project planning in general, iterative planning allows teams to communicate a single source of truth in the initial meeting and in subsequent check-ins throughout the iteration. 
  • Defining prioritization criteria: With an iterative approach, the team can determine criteria for story prioritization. From there, they can revisit the criteria or make modifications–but having criteria provides a way to focus your team’s efforts and keep stories moving out of the backlog. 
  • Establishing priorities among the backlog: Applying your criteria, you can choose stories to include in your iteration. This gives you an opportunity to take a realistic look at your capacity and resources. What you have available during your iteration should be enough for the stories you choose–which helps with prioritization. 
  • Specifying team commitments: Choosing specific commitments during an iteration meeting allows you to create accountability. 
  • Building your team’s schedule: Using Agile principles, you can craft your schedule with iterations. This breaks down your backlog into manageable chunks. 
  • Preparing for uncertainty: Although traditional project management may assume or expect certainty in planning and execution, iteration planning recognizes that nuance and differences may, in fact, be part of typical project work. Your team may have to pivot to new strategies and be open to trying new approaches. 
  • Incorporating feedback: Bringing in feedback from customers and other stakeholders, iterative planning moves the project forward with nearly real-time information to refine it. Based on how prior changes and updates were received, you can plan your upcoming iteration with information that is relevant and current. 

Throughout the planning and project management process, you will want to compare stories and tasks to improve your own understanding of how your team moves through each project. Where you are in your resource use may starkly influence your team’s ability to effectively complete your stories during the current iteration. 

Iteration planning use cases 

Iteration planning makes sense for project management if you’re using Agile methodologies. A non-iterative approach to project planning might look more like a traditional project management methodology–such as the waterfall method. Fast-changing industries and use cases such as software development are often a much better fit for iterative planning and Agile, since waterfall planning requires a great degree of certainty. 

How to implement iteration planning on your team

How to benefit the most from iteration planning 

As a team-based approach, iteration planning should not happen in isolation. The project manager and team leadership–in deciding to implement an iteration planning approach–should take the opportunity to onboard the team in iteration planning and Agile methodology. Everyone on your team should understand how iterative planning works, why you’re using iterative planning, and what you expect to get from it for your team. 

Once everyone is on board with iteration planning, it is time to get started. 

How to get started with iteration planning

Getting started with iterative planning can be an exciting process for your team. With purposeful flexibility and generosity, you can start implementing your new planning strategy and using what you learn to build the iterative planning process that works best for your team. 

Take these steps to launch into iterative planning: 

  1. Determine what you know: First, you should take your team’s knowledge and see what is useful or helpful. Many iterative teams use story points to break-down capacity and evaluate stories. Your team’s past experiences can help you develop a baseline and start assigning points. 

For example, a story that needs four hours to develop and four hours to test and validate might be worth one point. By comparing larger stories to a small story, you can assign point values. What you know about your team’s past experiences in this instance can help you make more effective decisions about how you’ll use iterative planning. 

  1. Craft your expectations: You will initially decide what you want iterative planning to help you accomplish within your team. This should, ideally, be part of a broader conversation you have with your team and stakeholders. If iterative planning represents a significant change for your team (in terms of approach or methodology), then you may also want to keep the potential team culture change impacts in mind, too. Your team might need time and flexibility as you adapt to new processes and ideas. 

When you research iterative planning, build your initial expectations around experiences–your own, others’ experiences in your team, or cases you learn about from other organizations. Real-world information can help you round out your understanding of Agile and iterative planning. In time, your in-the-field experience within your team can help you choose the adjustments and strategies your use case needs. 

  1. Hold your first iteration planning meeting: In your first meeting, deep-dive into your backlog priorities and find stories you believe fit your team's capabilities. Your initial meeting doesn’t have to be too long, but it should be long enough to assign stories until your team’s capacity reaches zero points. Make sure everyone knows what they are accountable for and how your leaders will hold the team accountable–through particular project management platforms, for example. 

As you ask team members to commit to particular stories, keep in mind that your team may overcommit initially to too much responsibility. It’s normal to find your balance over time and with experimentation. 

  1. Choose a continuous improvement approach: Finally, as you start with iterative planning, be aware of the importance of flexibility. A big part of iterative planning’s advantage for teams rests in the ability to change approaches during the project and apply new information and feedback. For these reasons, you should expect change to be a part of your ongoing work. 

Use iterative planning for your projects 

Through the iterative process, you can plan your projects and communicate to your team where and how they can contribute. Over time, your iterative planning sessions can evolve to reflect more accurately how you work together and what you know about moving stories out of your backlog.

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