Forget the five-year plan. Focus on the next three weeks

Focusing on long-range goals can paralyze your team if they don’t know where to start. try planning sprints instead

 
Businesswoman in starting blocks for a race
(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

At a typical sprint-planning meeting at Vancouver fashion search engine Wantering, the office’s giant white walls end up covered in a mess of scribbles. The drawings reflect new ideas and how to make them happen.

“Sprint-planning day is always a ton of fun,” says CEO Matt Friesen. “Everyone has a chance to contribute their ideas, which includes selling them to the rest of the team. I’m always impressed with how prepared and thoughtful the team is.”

Wantering has been using sprint planning for all of its projects since the company was founded in 2011. The idea of drafting a five-year plan at a technology startup where the business landscape changes month to month just doesn’t make sense. Instead, they hold regular meetings to plan out what they are going to do in the next three-week period. It works for tech firms, but it may also help others: By putting a team’s focus on short bursts of productive activity—rather than on long-term corporate goals—it’s possible to move faster and make crucial course corrections along the way.

Mike Cohn, founder of Mountain Goat Software, says sprint planning is about breaking complex problems down into manageable parts and distributing the work among staff. Cohn, who has more than 20 years of experience coaching and consulting for Fortune 500 companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, says any major project can be planned using this method, whether it’s building a new piece of software or organizing a wedding. “Typically, teams get stuck on big projects or get paralyzed by not breaking them down into little pieces,” says Cohn. “Sprint planning shifts the question from what we need to build to what we need to build next.”

So how does a sprint-planning session work? In Wantering’s case, everybody in the company calls in from their respective offices in Canada or the U.S., and each person gets to pitch his or her concept for what would make a great new feature on wantering.com, a search engine that allows shoppers to discover and buy clothes from fashion retailers. The team then votes on the ideas to determine which one to pursue for a sprint.

Once an idea is selected, they discuss what’s been presented to ensure everyone understands the project. Then it’s broken down into the components required to bring it to life. Team members further simplify the component they’re responsible for into individual tasks and come up with a time estimate for each one. Finally, all the tasks are scheduled to minimizes conflict and a deliverable time is set for the sprint. At Wantering, the team holds daily meetings over lunch to share what they’ve worked on the previous day. This way, the firm’s front- and back-end teams get to meet and collaborate.

Friesen says sprint planning allows him to get ideas from more than just the product team. “Everyone buys into the project a bit more, since they get to contribute and, in turn, become more motivated.”

From Cohn’s coaching experience, he says the process has led to happier customers because the products end up being a better fit for what the market wants. In a traditional product-development model, a team receives a request from customer to build something, goes and builds it, and then comes back to discover the market has moved, and it’s no longer what the customer wants. “With this method, you get to tweak the product, because the development team doesn’t go away for six to nine months building their product—they go away for a few weeks,” says Cohn.

“We’re seeing companies save money by not being as wrong about their product, and happier development teams because they are working on things that get used.”

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