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Agile Planning: Process & Tools

Instructor: Stephen Meyer

Stephen has worked as a Project Manager and is PMP certified, as well as certified by the Scrum Alliance.

Project management involves planning. Even Agile, which seeks to differ from traditional project management approaches, involves planning. Learn the process of Agile planning and the tools involved.

Defining Agile

Keith is a new Agile trainer. He is working with the management team of a company which is considering transitioning the organization to Agile and wants to learn more. One of their primary concerns is that Agile does not involve much planning. As the group that sponsors and funds projects, they do not want to endorse an approach that did not plan properly.

Keith begins by helping define Agile and its goals for the group and assures them that planning is part of the process. Agile is an approach to project management, specifically for software development, that breaks project work and the project timeline down to be smaller and more manageable. It seeks to be an alternative to traditional project management where project phases are linear, each completed in its entirety in sequences. It is not a project management methodology, but can be implemented using one of several different methodologies. Regardless of the methodology, planning the work taken on and the time frame in which it will be completed is crucial. Keith discusses this process with the management team.

Planning Process

Keith focuses on two primary planning areas necessary for a project to progress. The first is defining requirements for the work to be completed, which is relatively consistent among different Agile methodologies. The second is determining when and how the work is taken on, which varies between, and is one of the differentiating factors for, the different methodologies.

Defining Requirements

Keith starts with defining requirements for the work to be completed. No further planning can be done unless there is an understanding of the work to be done. In the various Agile methodologies, requirements take the form of user stories, which capture desired functionality for a specific user. An example Keith typically trains with involves creating a website for a recruiting agency. For functionality related to accessing the site, a user story might be, 'As a job seeker, I want to be able to create a user login so I can securely access the website.'

While requirements eventually take the form of user stories, they can be captured at a higher level as epics or features to be refined into user stories later. Epics or features are aspects of functionality that are high-level and need more definition and/or are too large and can be broken into multiple user stories. For the fictional recruiting website, Keith uses an example of 'Employer Notifications'. This is both high-level and large, needing to be broken down further and better defined, but can be captured at this level at first.

The requirements for a project, including user stories, epics, and features, are kept in a product backlog. In terms of planning, the process of backlog grooming or management organizes the work in the backlog based on priority and includes the process of defining requirements so that the high priority items are well-defined and in user story form. This is the first step of Agile planning, which ensures that work is ready to be taken on.

When/How Work is Taken On

Once work is ready, Keith discusses with the group the second aspect of Agile planning, which is determining when and how to take on the work. Each user story is developed, tested, and delivered, but the time frame in which this occurs varies between different Agile methodologies, specifically between the methodologies that use an iterative approach (which involves repeated cycles) or an approach of continuous flow (which is ongoing).

For iterative Agile methodologies, planning is accomplished through a recurring meeting prior to the start of each iteration. In this meeting, the development team discusses the user stories at the top of the product backlog to get an understanding of what the requirements entail. Then, they assign a numeric story point estimate based on the complexity and effort involved. Finally, they commit to a set of user stories they can fully develop and test within the next iteration, based on priority and their story point estimates.

For Agile methodologies that use a continuous flow, there is no formal planning meeting that occurs. This is because the process does not have starting or ending points. As the team is progressing and completing user stories, they move on to the next user stories at the top of the backlog. This places an even greater emphasis on planning through backlog grooming. This process should be ongoing to match the continuous workflow.

Planning Tools

Once Keith has reviewed the planning process for Agile with the management team, he ends the discussion by discussing the tools that can be used. The fact that there are tools available to enhance the planning process shows its importance in Agile. Keith discusses two types of tools available for the planning process, the first being metrics and the second being software.

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