Commitment-Driven Sprint Planning

There are two primary ways for planning a sprint: velocity-driven sprint planning and commitment-driven sprint planning. In last week’s post, I described velocity-driven planning; so in this week’s, we turn our attention to commitment-driven sprint planning.

A commitment-driven sprint planning meeting involves the product owner, ScrumMaster and all development team members. The product owner brings the top-priority product backlog items into the meeting and describes them to the team, usually starting with an overview of the set of high-priority items.

Select an Item

Following that, team members select a first item to bring into the sprint. This will almost always be the product owner’s top-priority item, but it is possible that the product owner’s top priority has too many open issues.

Ideally, a team should be able to still bring that item into the sprint and resolve the issues early enough in the sprint to complete the item. But, it’s possible that there are so many issues, that the issues are so significant, or that resolving the issues would take so much time (for example, the need to convene a meeting with 25 user representatives) that the product owner’s top priority is skipped.

Tasks and Hours

Having selected a high-priority item, team members discuss the work involved, and identify the tasks that will be necessary to deliver the product backlog item. Either concurrent with identifying the tasks or immediately after they finish doing so, team members roughly estimate the number of hours each task will take.

Do not ask or expect a team to think of every task that will be done during the sprint. Not only is that impossible, it is also unnecessary.

Teams should think of enough of the tasks that they feel they have thought through the work—but it is important to realize that thinking through the work is the real goal of this meeting. Identifying tasks and hours is secondary.

Asking for Commitment

After they’ve identified tasks and roughly estimated the hours for that one product backlog item, the team members ask themselves, “Can we commit to this?”

I find it very important that the team members ask this collectively of themselves rather than having a ScrumMaster ask, “Can you commit to this?” When team members ask, “Can we commit?” they are committing to each other rather than to the ScrumMaster.

I don’t know about you, but my early, pre-Scrum career is littered with broken “commitments” to bosses who asked if I could deliver something while making it clear my answer better be yes.

The ScrumMaster isn’t a boss and shouldn’t create that type of feeling among team members, but the person is called “master” – and it’s better not to risk being perceived as a boss insisting on a commitment.

Coach a team to ask, “Can we commit?” and it’s clear that they are committing to one another, which will likely be a stronger commitment.

Further, by having the team ask themselves, “Can we commit?” it is clear that the answer should be, “Yes we can” or “No we can’t.” When a ScrumMaster asks, “Can you commit?” some team members will properly answer with “we” but others will answer with “I.”

Scrum demands a full-team commitment: If you’re behind, I’ll help, and I know you’ll do the same for me. It’s not “these are my tasks” and “those are yours.”

Repeat with More Stories

If the team agrees they can commit to a product backlog item, they select another item and repeat the process. And so it goes—tasks, hours and commitment—until someone says they cannot commit to the selected product backlog item.

If someone cannot commit, team members will generally discuss the situation and see if someone else is available to help—perhaps a DBA with rudimentary JavaScript skills can help an overwhelmed JavaScript developer.

If not, perhaps that story can be put back on the product backlog but a smaller item can be brought in, or an item that needs less of the skills possessed by the person who could not commit.

No Role for Points or Velocity?

You may have noticed that in the process so far, there has been no role for story points or velocity. Although I still recommend that product backlog items be given quick, high-level estimates in story points, neither story points nor velocity play a role in commitment-driven sprint planning as described so far.

They do, however, play an important role in the final step of a sprint planning meeting.

Sanity Checking the Commitment

Once team members have filled their available time in the sprint, the ScrumMaster can look at the selected product backlog items, sum the story points assigned to each, and share that sum with the team. Team members can then compare it to the average or recent velocity.

Suppose a team with an average velocity of 20 conducts a commitment-driven sprint planning meeting and selects 19 points of work. They’ve done this without knowing the story point values on any of the selected product backlog items.

When their ScrumMaster tells them they’ve just selected 19 points of work and have an average velocity of 19, that team should feel very confident they’ve selected an appropriate amount of work for the sprint.

Suppose instead, though, that the ScrumMaster for this team announces they’ve selected only 11 points of work. They might in that case ask themselves why they were making the work so hard during sprint planning as compared to when they’d earlier estimated the same items in story points.

For example, this may reveal that during sprint planning they’d identified work they’d earlier not thought about, or perhaps had explicitly assumed would not be part of a given story. Or they may discover that the story really is harder than they’d thought when assigning points to it.

Either way, knowing they’d selected 11 yet averaged 20 will help the team know they’ve selected an appropriate amount of work or perhaps make a change to bring more.

Similarly, if the ScrumMaster announces that the team has selected 30 points, 10 more than their average velocity, the team may wonder what they are forgetting to consider. “Why,” they would discuss, “does this work seem so much easier after sprint planning than it did while estimating story points?”

So: story points and velocity do not play a role during the main portion of a commitment-driven sprint planning meeting. But they play the vital role of acting as a sanity check and confirmation of the plan.

It’s a Commitment, Not a Guarantee

It is important that the team’s commitment not be viewed as a guarantee. As Clint Eastwood said in one of his movies, “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.”

The team’s commitment is to do its best. I’d like to see them make their commitment perhaps 80 percent of the time. It should be something they take seriously and should make most of that time. That’s needed for the business to gain confidence in what a team says it can deliver.

However, finishing everything they say they will 100 percent of the time should not be the goal. A team forced to finish everything every time will do so—but by reducing what they commit to.

I originally named this approach commitment-driven sprint planning in my Agile Estimating and Planning book; others have taken to calling this “capacity-based planning.” I’m beginning to like the latter term better because of how easily a team’s commitment can be forced into being a guarantee.

In the next post, I'll share with you my preference between velocity-driven sprint planning and commitment-driven sprint planning.

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About the Author

Mike Cohn specializes in helping companies adopt and improve their use of agile processes and techniques to build extremely high-performance teams. He is the author of User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development, Agile Estimating and Planning, and Succeeding with Agile as well as the Better User Stories video course. Mike is a founding member of the Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance and can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to succeed with agile, you can also have Mike email you a short tip each week.