Best Practices to Improve your Engineering Sprints

What is the purpose of sprints? We break work into sprints so we can more easily monitor, estimate and predict what we want to ship and when. Over the years, engineering teams have gotten used to moving quickly from one sprint to the next, but I think it’s important to be more thought in how we plan and execute sprints.

Running effective and successful sprints can define whether or not your organization is able to ship high-quality software fast and often. It also gives teams more flexibility and the ability to quickly change something that is not working or, on the other hand, to iterate on a successful technology.

After almost 20 years as an engineer, manager and as a CTO, I have found there are several best practices that improve the sprints that are part of my team’s software development life cycle.

Sprint Planning

When planning a sprint, there are several things to keep in mind.

Make Sure the Work Aligns with Business Priorities

There are always a number of elements an engineering team can focus on during any given sprint. It’s fairly easy to lose sight of the business’ end goal. Make sure to gut-check to make sure that the sprint goals align with current business priorities.

Ensure the Workload is Balanced From the Start

This seems like an obvious statement, but make sure team members have equivalent workloads so you avoid burnout. It is also important to understand how different engineers on the team work—some people work best by selecting their own tasks with items that are unassigned, some pick up unfinished tasks as they finish others and some prefer to be assigned certain tasks because they have specialized skills.

Don’t Underestimate the Time That Interruptions/Additions Take

Along the same lines as the above, don’t overlook this for several reasons. Without adequate, data-driven insight into the actual state of each team member’s workload, it is almost impossible to gauge what’s happening in real-time. While business-critical sprints are assumed to take priority, side projects, Slack interruptions and meetings can easily consume an engineer’s day. Make sure to proactively check that each member has enough true deep work time without becoming burned out.

Don’t Underestimate the Time it Takes to get Things to a Done State

Sometimes engineering teams only look at the development stage, but the full cycle required for the software to get to the end user might take longer. Allotting the right amount of time to get the job done across all phases of development will help avoid unexpected surprises.

When You Get to Mid-Sprint

Monitor Unplanned Work

Initial planning doesn’t necessarily take into account the bugs and fire drills that will likely arise after the sprint starts. Pay close attention to any mid-sprint additions and adjust as necessary. There may be team members who have cleared their sprint queue and are capable of taking on this work, but being aware of team members’ workloads at every stage is critical.

Do Daily Stand-Ups and Raise Flags as Early as Possible

This will help anyone encountering roadblocks so a small issue doesn’t turn into a huge bottleneck. If you look closely at your PR cycle time, you will find a ton of insights about where roadblocks often happen. Using historical data during sprints can also go a long way toward helping identify potential bottlenecks, allowing you to proactively avoid friction by delegating reviews or setting out additional time for approvals.

Get Ahead of Burnout

The tech industry has a turnover rate of 13.2%—pretty high when compared to other sectors. But the reality is that it can be really difficult to identify burnout without hard data. Don’t wait until people start speaking out about being overworked: Burnout prevention should be a full-time focus. Before sprints, make sure people aren’t coming in with high levels of fatigue and make sure that overtime doesn’t routinely increase throughout.

Use Sprint Progress Estimations to Reprioritize

Each sprint starts off with a set workload, but in reality, every sprint is dynamic. Take a look at each day’s progress and evaluate if your team is ahead of or behind the schedule. If you are on track to finish a majority of the work, you can anticipate a successful sprint end. If not, don’t worry; you can always recommend that your team recalculate priorities. Engineering managers can take this time to load-balance some of the heavier work and shift goals to the next sprint as needed. Staying flexible while maintaining a clear view of what is actually happening during the sprint, will inevitably result in success.

At the End of the Sprint

Do a Thorough Sprint Retrospective

As a team leader, you should constantly be thinking about how things are going and how people are feeling. If you can, use hard data to look at things like time allocation, PR throughput and any items added mid-sprint. Taking notes throughout the sprint will help remind you of any issues that came up, and you can discuss ways to improve for next time. Each sprint is a chance to learn; the more you learn, the better the sprint and the better the product will be for end users.

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