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One of the most important elements of the Scrum methodology is the “sprint.” This is a pre-defined amount of time, usually between one and four weeks, within which a certain number of tasks connected to a project are set to be completed. The sprint kicks off with a sprint planning session on Day One, where tasks are selected from a project’s product backlog, deliverables are planned and responsibility is assigned to team members.

Sprints take on an important role, representing digestible chunks of time and effort that can make both task delivery more efficient and reflection of successes and failures easier.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that sprints are essentially a means to an end for completing deliverables, the entire process can be thrown off track if teams try to do too much within a sprint. Whether through overestimation, imperfect capacity planning, or just not being able to say no, an overloaded sprint can create stress, cause stakeholder unrest and challenge the confidence in the sprint process in general.

So, are you trying to do too much? And, if so, what can you do about it?

How much is too much in sprint planning?

As we’ve looked at before in our guide to sprint planning, resource availability is one of the most important aspects of any sprint. This encompasses several different considerations which need to be taken into account:

  • What resources are available during the sprint timeline?
  • Will additional resource requests have to be made?
  • What is the team’s task capacity?
  • What factors are forecast to affect resource availability?
  • Where are individual resources going to be assigned?

Teams run into problems with capacity planning for a number of reasons, such as:

  • Underestimation of task length
  • Overestimation of resource capacity or team capabilities
  • Desire to please stakeholders

All of these problems with capacity planning can be solved through the iteration process, i.e. understanding what went wrong with the last sprint and using this knowledge to make the next one more successful. For example, if a task that was estimated to take 20 hours actually takes 80 or needs to be split into separate tasks, this can be acknowledged and made to make the product backlog more precise.

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While Scrum is particularly focused on reducing these issues, if they are happening consistently, then the problem is probably not with the team or your processes but the fact that you’re trying to do too much in the sprints.

If you are consistently running into the following problems, you’re probably overloading your sprints.

  • Resources always seem stretched to the breaking point
  • Deliverables remain unmet
  • Tasks need to be carried over or sent back to the product backlog
  • Stakeholders are questioning processes and the number of unfinished deliverables
  • Resources that were planned for end up not being available

Trying to do too much within a sprint is understandable if it is part of the reiteration process but is not a desired outcome. Not only is it demoralizing for your team to constantly fail to meet their goals, but stakeholders will also, rightly, start to question why your team is constantly falling short of its targets.

The solution is better resource and capacity planning and making sure that you are utilizing all of the task estimation knowledge you have at your disposal during the sprint planning session. The aim should always be to be making full use of available resources and completing what you set out to without overextending your team.

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