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Agile planning: a detailed primer for beginners

By: Emily Finlay

Agile planning is a business concept that has gained traction over the past few years. In the 14th Annual State of Agile Reporting, released last year, 90% of respondents said they used some form of agile processes within their companies.

Though agile planning is most often connected with software development, it can be applied to all types of projects. Benefits include quick adaptability to unexpected changes, higher customer satisfaction, faster delivery, better team morale, and improved project visibility.

In our ever-changing world, your agility can help you overcome challenges that your competitors can’t. This guide will introduce you to agile planning and how it can work for your organization, improving your processes one agile project at a time.


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What is the agile planning definition?

Agile planning changes typical business processes by focusing on the work in smaller units rather than as a whole. This method uses estimates rather than assumptions to add flexibility and customer-led improvements throughout the project.

To make the agile planning definition a bit clearer, let’s use an analogy.

Traditional project planning can be thought of as a marathon. You spend a lot of time beforehand determining the route you’re taking, the resources you need, and your end goal before even approaching that starting line.

Once you start, you follow your game plan to complete all of the components involved. From milestone to milestone, you have every step planned out. At the finish line, your deadline, you present the result in total. Only then do you go back to evaluate your performance and use feedback to adjustments and improvements.

Agile planning, on the other hand, is more like a race comprised of numerous sprints. You complete the project in small segments, evaluating and adjusting your plan as you go. Rather than scheduling hard milestones, your plan is built on estimates. This allows you to maintain constant tweaks as you go, using data and feedback to get the best outcome.

Key agile planning principles

Planning agility involves more than just working in small increments. As you’ll learn in the section below, agile planning is flexible but deliberate. You might not be rigidly planning your project to the exact minute, but you are developing intentional processes that define your work.

1. Make plans iterative

One of the most important characteristics of agile planning is iteration. If the traditional method is seen as a set of steps you move down, the agile process is a cycle you follow indefinitely. Each one should “end” with a portion of the project completed and delivered to the client before you move on to the next iteration.

Every project sprint should be the same fixed length and follow the same process. That said, you should also be working to improve these processes as you go, so every sprint can look a little different. As your team learns the potential and limits of their abilities, your iterations will sharpen. No project is exactly the same, giving your team something to improve with each new cycle.

2. Estimate, don’t detail

Applying a structured approach to a new project often leads to problems. Since you don’t really know what to expect, the project’s needs might not fit into a rigid structure.

An agile method avoids this problem by keeping things as vague as possible. You do commit to providing the results the client wants within an estimated range of time. When it comes to the specifics of the work and deliverables, however, lack of detail is key. This gives your team the freedom to work as the project demands, rather than trying to meet the steps outlined beforehand.

3. Let your team drive

The project plan isn’t the only thing that should lack structure. Your team also needs the freedom to work together to figure out the best ways to achieve top results. This means allowing the team, not management, to estimate the project plan.

It also means letting the workflow take priority over employee utilization. Each sprint might fall more heavily on some shoulders than others, perhaps even leaving some workers without much to do. And that’s okay. As you focus on the work you’re doing, rather than ensuring everyone is working all the time, you’ll increase the integrity and quality of the results.

4. Rely on feedback

Being flexible does not mean being uninformed. As we mentioned earlier, every iteration of your project should use feedback to improve the next sprint. Your team should discuss the obstacles and delays you encountered. Solving these challenges helps your team understand and strengthen their weaknesses, as well as improving the next deliverable.

More importantly, every sprint should end with detailed feedback from the client. Remember, the point of these iterations is to produce a small part of the total project on a regular basis. Once you’ve sent the deliverable to the client, wait to start the next cycle until you’ve heard back from them.

This will revolutionize your projects in two major ways.

Clear project direction

Have you ever worked on a project where you only sent the end product, only to learn that there are numerous problems with the result? You then have to go back and make the requested changes. These differences often affect other parts of the project, creating more work as you go. The project drags on, your team is frustrated, and you can’t help but think, “Why didn’t you tell us this before?”

With an agile project plan, the client can tell you before. This as-you-go feedback catches issues before they bleed into the rest of the work. If something doesn’t look or work right, you can make immediate improvements. You’ll save time, energy, and money, while securing your client’s satisfaction from the beginning.

Increased value for the client

Bringing value to the client is the goal of every successful project. All too often, however, the client doesn’t really know what that value looks like ?—they only have an idea of what they need. Working in multiple iterations allows clients to understand what they really want from their project and how you’re able to deliver it.

Plus, it limits the scope of the final round of feedback. The client has already approved most of the project, so any changes will be minor and manageable. You can finish within your estimated date range and move on to the next project.

The benefits of agile planning and estimating for project management

When used correctly, the agile method improves your team’s cohesiveness, increases customer satisfaction, and helps you do more in less time. The benefits are invaluable, no matter the type, size, or scope of your project.

1. Data-driven decision making

One of the benefits of using the same process is the data you gain from it. As you move through your iterations, track and measure each step. Since your agile plan uses estimations, it’s important to use your metrics to make realistic assumptions. Some of the information you can track includes:

  • The length of each cycle
  • How long it takes your team to complete a project
  • Time needed for and success in overcoming challenges
  • How much your team can accomplish in a certain amount of time

The more you understand about your past performance, the more accurate your processes and estimates will be. You can track common issues and make note of the solutions you find. If someone struggles with an element of the work, you can assign the task to someone else. Learning about your team members also shows how you can best support them, giving you the opportunity to help them grow. The more data-driven your decisions and processes are, the more effective your team can be.

2. Improved collaboration

The agile planning and estimating process heavily features your team. The success of each sprint depends on their ability to work together to complete their work, but in the best way. Creating an environment with flexibility gives employees the freedom to work as they do best. Without the pressure of uninvolved management, everything they do is driven by the processes you create together. Everyone will have the chance and resources to use their strengths. As their results and collaboration improve, morale will rise too.

3. Lower risks

As we mentioned before, adaptability is one of the best things about agile planning. If the client changes their requirements, the cost and effort to make those changes is far lower than with a typical project process. Building quality into every step of the process also ensures you will have fewer adjustments to make at the end of the project. This then increases your chances of staying within your deadline. And, since you’ve given a range of time rather than an actual date, you won’t need to rush your final rounds of work.

Agile planning means preparing for the unexpected, not assuming it won’t happen. With the space to deal with every challenge that arises, you can resolve the issue without cutting corners. You can keep clients happy with excellent, on-time work, never risking a failed project. Your excellent reputation will grow, your team will stay happy, and you’ll improve your ability to deliver top results.

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