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Why sprint planning fails: A leader's guide to get more from your sprints
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Why sprint planning fails: A leader's guide to get more from your sprints

Discover why sprint planning fails and get tips to avoid these common mistakes—so you can increase productivity and morale.

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In Agile project management, sprint planning meetings are crucial for setting the pace and direction of a project. But scrum teams can often find these sessions more frustrating than fruitful—especially since people waste up to 32 hours in unproductive meetings per month.* 

Whether it's due to poor attendance, sessions that drag on without clear outcomes, or a lack of engagement, understanding why sprint planning fails is the first step toward creating a more productive and collaborative process.

In this article, you'll learn the common reasons why sprint planning fails and ways to overcome them, so you can get everyone aligned and working together, quickly. We'll also show you how Switchboard helps teams get more out of their sprints by being your single source of truth for project work. 

Plan and host sprints all from one place. 
Switchboard rooms unify people, files, and apps—and make sprint planning more productive. 
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7 common sprint planning mistakes

Think of a product development team ready to kick off their sprint planning meeting, only to realize key stakeholders aren't giving the right input. Without sufficient input from the product owner, the team might prioritize the wrong features or tasks. This can lead to a sprint that doesn't align with the product's goals or user needs—and make it almost impossible to avoid unproductive meetings going forward. 

This is just one example of what can go wrong during the sprint planning process, potentially affecting the sprint's success and the product's overall development. Below, we dive into some common issues that can arise, and what you can do to prepare—and get more done in sprints.  

1. Not setting a clear sprint goal 

It's crucial to invest time in defining achievable goals that inspire and align the team for the duration of the sprint. In Agile project management, goal setting should be a collaborative effort between the:

  • Scrum master
  • Product owner
  • Product team

This can help make sure the goal is realistic, achievable, and supported by everyone involved—and aligned with the overall product vision and roadmap. Plus, the collective knowledge and perspectives of the team can lead to a more comprehensive and attainable goal. 

Remember: The sprint goal should emphasize the delivery of value to the customer or stakeholder. Ask questions like, "What is the most important problem we need to solve?" or "What feature will deliver the most value this sprint?" Focusing on value helps to prioritize work and ensure that the team is working on tasks that genuinely matter.

2. Failing to prepare your product backlog

Without prepared product backlog items, sprint planning can quickly spiral into last-minute decisions and uncertainties. For example, selecting work for an upcoming sprint that isn't ready or the most valuable to the project. 

Here's what you can do to come prepared: 

  • Review and update the product backlog. Begin by reviewing the entire product backlog for completeness and relevance. Update any outdated items and remove those that are no longer aligned with the product vision or goals. You can also use sprint planning tools like Linear or Jira for backlog refinement like prioritizing backlog items based on specific criteria or your team's capacity. 
  • Prioritize backlog items. Arrange the items in the backlog according to their priority, ensuring that the most important items are at the top.
  • Refine high-priority items. Make sure high-priority items are well-defined and ready for development. This involves breaking down larger items into smaller, manageable tasks, defining acceptance criteria, and clarifying any uncertainties. The goal is to make these items "sprint-ready," so they can be easily selected and worked on during the sprint.
  • Estimate effort. Work with the development team to estimate the effort required for each high-priority item. 
  • Identify dependencies and risks. Review the high-priority items for any dependencies on other tasks, teams, or external factors, and identify potential risks. 
  • Prepare supporting documentation. Make sure any supporting documentation, such as user research, technical specifications, or design mockups, is readily available and up to date.
  • Schedule a backlog grooming session. If possible, schedule a backlog grooming session with the team before the sprint planning. This session is an opportunity to discuss the high-priority items in detail, finalize estimations, and address any remaining uncertainties.
Pro tip: Host your next backlog grooming session async in a Switchboard sprint planning project room and skip coordinating across teams, departments, and time zones. Easily review, update, and prioritize user stories based on their value, urgency, and dependencies in an interactive canvas everyone can access.
Collaboration tools open in a Switchboard room
Switchboard lets you do more during and between meetings—setting you up for a more successful sprint planning session.

3. Lacking a clear meeting agenda

To lead a successful sprint planning meeting, you need to know your sprint planning meeting duration, what topics will be covered, and who will contribute to each discussion. A meeting agenda ensures everyone's time is being respected and used effectively, and that all aspects of the sprint are thoroughly considered and agreed upon by the team.

According to product manager Matthew Goldman, managing member at Totavi, without clear roles and responsibilities, it's likely you'll get an unclear agenda. This is because most "product managers don't see themselves as meeting runners, so you need a Scrum master or project manager who has those critical skills." 

If you're using Switchboard, the project manager can simply add the meeting agenda to your sprint planning room and get input from stakeholders on their own schedule, before the meeting. This gives everyone a sense of responsibility in shaping the sprint planning session, while ensuring the agenda's always there and up-to-date.

Switchboard room filled with sticky notes, Google Docs, and named cursors
Switchboard lets you bring your meeting agenda, roadmap, issues, and tests, in one place—so you can always collaborate in context.

4. Letting fear derail innovation 

Innovation thrives in environments where risk-taking is encouraged and failures are seen as learning opportunities. On the other hand, when teams operate in a culture of fear, they can shy away from proposing bold ideas or exploring original solutions. This can negatively impact your team's ability to deliver value and adapt to changing market needs.

For example, a software development team might avoid working on a new feature because they're not sure of the best way to do it—even if it's the most valuable backlog item to work on. This, therefore, prevents them from planning and executing their next sprint according to product goals and is one of the many reasons why meetings become ineffective. 

To keep fear at bay, try: 

  • Cultivating a psychologically safe environment. For example, where everyone feels comfortable voicing their thoughts, asking questions, and taking risks. 
  • Encouraging experimentation. Enable Agile teams to test new ideas on a small scale, which can reduce perceived risk and make the idea of failure less intimidating.
  • Providing support and resources. Ensure that team members have access to the resources, time, and support they need to explore new ideas.
  • Implementing a feedback loop. Create mechanisms for regular, constructive feedback that helps team members learn and improve. 
  • Creating flexible structures and processes. Adapt organizational structures and processes to support innovation. This might involve creating cross-functional teams, streamlining approval processes for new ideas, or setting aside dedicated time for brainstorming activities.
  • Keeping all things innovation in one place. In Switchboard, you can keep everything related to a sprint in one spot. This means the whole team has a bird’s-eye view of how work is going—and can dig into the details anytime.
Sticky notes, Google Doc, PDF, and recently closed apps in a Switchboard room
Switchboard fosters a creative working environment where everyone can contribute to sprint planning async or in real time. 

5. Focusing on velocity over outcome

Velocity is a metric used to measure the amount of work a team can complete during a single sprint or iteration. A team's velocity is often expressed in terms of story points, ideal days, or hours, depending on the estimation practices. While tracking velocity can get you insights into your team's productivity, placing too much emphasis on it can lead to misguided priorities. 

Remember: The ultimate goal is to deliver value, not just complete a set number of tasks or only focus on how "busy" people are. It's important to focus on outcomes and the impact of your work rather than just the speed of delivery. Balancing velocity with quality and relevance ensures efforts are genuinely contributing to project success. Here's how: 

  • Use velocity as a planning tool, not a target. Treat velocity as a guide for understanding what's realistic for the team to achieve, rather than a target to hit or exceed. This helps in setting achievable sprint goals without overcommitting.
  • Focus on value delivery. Prioritize work based on value delivery rather than just completing a set number of story points. Using the product backlog to align work items with the overall goals can help. 
  • Adjust work based on feedback. Incorporate feedback from stakeholders and users to adjust the direction and focus of work. 

6. Wasting too much time on carry-overs

Carry-over work from previous sprints can be a sign of overcommitment or unforeseen challenges. But spending too much time addressing these issues in planning can take away from focusing on new opportunities. 

While it's important to understand why work wasn't completed in the sprint backlog and how to adjust, the primary focus should be planning for the current sprint. Plus, you can always revisit it in your sprint retrospective. You need to find a balance between addressing carry-overs and moving work forward to maintain momentum and keep teams and projects on track. 

Here's how to analyze and prioritize carry-over work and keep everything moving: 

  • Understand why tasks were carried over. Was it because of underestimation, external dependencies, or unforeseen complexities? Analyzing the root causes can help you plan more effectively and prevent similar issues in future sprints. 
  • Evaluate the importance and urgency of carry-over items. Prioritize work in the context of current project goals and priorities. Some tasks may have become less urgent or important compared to new items on the product backlog. Prioritize carry-overs alongside new items to ensure that the most critical work is addressed first.
  • Allocate time. Consider dedicating a portion of the sprint capacity specifically to addressing carry-over work. This ensures there is a clear plan for completing these tasks without overwhelming the team with new work.

7. Not being open to unexpected changes

Just like you need to budget time for carry-over work, you also need to carve time in the sprint planning process for handling unexpected changes. This ensures your team can adapt to new information, requirements, or issues as they come up—which can boost productivity and output.   

"The point of good planning is to identify what you can reasonably get done and not overstuff a sprint. It's better to undercommit than overcommit," says Goldman. So, here's what you can do to stay flexible and responsive: 

  • Set adjustable sprint goals. Define clear sprint goals that are flexible enough to accommodate changes. Goals should focus on outcomes rather than specific tasks, allowing for adjustments in the work that needs to be done.
  • Incorporate buffer time. Allocate some time within each sprint for unexpected tasks or changes. This can help absorb the impact of changes without significantly derailing planned work.
  • Plan for shorter sprints. Consider using shorter sprint cycles if you're dealing with a highly volatile environment. Shorter sprints let you frequently reassess and adjust, which can reduce the risk of disruption. 

Stop sprint planning from going sideways by working in context

Like most meetings, sprint planning sessions can get unproductive, quickly. Whether it's because of poor preparation, lack of clear objectives, or ineffective meeting management, you need to address these issues head-on—and not get lost in the shuffle. 

That's why leaders of highly collaborative teams need to understand why sprint planning fails so everyone can come prepared to do their best work and move projects forward meaningfully. 

For example, not setting strong sprint goals, failing to prepare a product backlog, and focusing on velocity over outcomes, are just some of the ways sprint planning can become unproductive. 

If you're using Switchboard, it's easier to overcome the obstacles that can lead to failed sprint planning and therefore, sprints. The giant canvas in your persistent room lets you add all the apps, tools, and files you need—like your project management tool, virtual whiteboard, meeting agenda, and product backlog. Plus, Switchboard AI makes it easy to summarize content in your room, so you can always have conversations–and build–in context. 

Plan and host sprints all from one place. 
Switchboard rooms unify people, files, and apps—and make sprint planning more productive. 
Sign up free

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Plan and host sprints all from one place.

Switchboard rooms unify people, files, and apps—and make sprint planning more productive.