Ask a room full of agile product managers what comes out of a sprint planning meeting, and most will list two things.

  1. The sprint goal: a written summary of what the team expects to complete during the next sprint.
  2. The sprint backlog: a list of items pulled from the product backlog that the team agrees to work on.

But there’s a third thing that comes out of many sprint planning sessions: disagreement.

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Why Sprint Planning Meeting Debates Are Almost Inevitable

These meetings have an enormous amount of pressure built into them. Differences of opinion and even arguments are understandable. After all:

  • The cross-functional team can choose only so many stories or other initiatives to work on from its list of product backlog items.
  • The session itself will have a time limit, usually an hour or two of discussion for each week of sprint time.
  • Different team members will have different ideas about what’s most important to work on next.

In one sense, this is good news. When your sprint team debates what your users will care most about, or which features deserve development priority, it means those team members feel passionately enough about your product to have strong opinions.

But this is a time-boxed session. So what do you do to come out of a sprint planning meeting with an agreed-upon set of tasks and goals for your upcoming sprint?

Allow for some debate in these meetings. In fact, you might want to encourage it. When you explore the thinking behind competing opinions it can help you make better strategic decisions.

But if your sprint planning turns into a full-blown argument or strays too far from the topic, you’ll need to get the conversation back on track.

Here are a few tips to help you do that.

(Note: If you’re new to product management, or if you just aren’t familiar with the Scrum agile framework, you might first want to read our page, What Is Sprint Planning?)

3 Strategies to Rescue an Out-of-Control Sprint Planning Meeting

1. Remind your team to focus on the what, not the how.

As your team reviews the product backlog during sprint planning, the discussion can easily drift from which items they’ll work on next to how they’re going to make progress on those items.

This is one of the most common ways you can lose control over your sprint planning meeting agenda! You need to be on the lookout for scope-creep so you can steer the discussion back on track.

Your signs of this type of scope-creep will be team members discussing or arguing over design details, which development technique or approach to use for a given story, etc. As soon as you spot the conversation veering in this direction, remind your team that your sprint planning session needs to only focus on what you’re working on in the next sprint, not how you’ll do it.

2. Make sure everyone is working from the product backlog — and nowhere else.

Another way your sprint planning session can drift off the rails is when team members suggest ideas for user stories or other initiatives that aren’t already on the product backlog.

Your team cares about your product so the temptation to suggest brand-new ideas is also understandable.

But your sprint planning meeting is not a brainstorming free-for-all. These meetings are intentionally limited not only in time but also in scope.

If your team starts to suggest new ideas for your upcoming sprint, capture those ideas so you can vet them later, under the appropriate conditions. Then redirect everyone to your product backlog — which should be prominently displayed in your meeting — and remind them that it’s the only source of initiatives to add to your sprint backlog.

3. Remind the team of your sprint goals.

Yet another common way these meetings can lose focus is when team members start picking items from the product backlog that don’t match the current sprint goals.

When it comes to sprint planning in agile product management, it’s more important for your team to complete all work related to a single goal than to start items related to several goals.

If the conversation starts to stray from your agreed-upon sprint goal — which should be very narrow, by the way — you’ll need to bring your team back to focusing strictly on which backlog items will best support your sprint goals.

When you arm yourself with the preparation to counter the disagreements that will inevitably happen during your sprint planning meeting, your team and roadmap will be better for it.

Looking to read more on how to prep for your sprint planning meetings? We’ve shared our thoughts in, Why Product Managers Should Bring Their Roadmaps to Spring Planning Meetings.