A great iteration planning meeting (IPM) sets the tone for the entire iteration. Your team leaves the session energized, excited, and with a clear picture of how to hit the ground running in the new iteration. But, what if things don’t go as well as you’d hoped? Then your team will leave the session tired and frustrated. They will leave without a clear idea of how to get started on their new set of work. They may even leave without any idea of what their goal for the next iteration even is.
If you’re a product manager, you may appreciate the importance of the IPM, but may be unaware that the success of this meeting is also your responsibility. To help make this meeting a success, here are a few simple tricks that you can use to help your team get the most out of this critical event.
The IPM is your opportunity to paint a clear picture of the upcoming iteration and the objectives that you hope to complete. But to do so, you must come prepared with an engaging vision for your team and be fully prepared to discuss the details of each product backlog item that you’ve selected to support that vision.
The details that you provide will be essential for helping your team appreciate the depth and complexity of the items that you’ve selected. And it’s these details that will help your team give the most accurate estimate possible.
Just accept it, it’s going to happen: sometimes your team will throw an estimate on an item that’s higher than you expected. But when it does happen, how you react will play a major role in setting the tone for your relationship with your team.
On many teams, the product manager is treated as a figure of implicit authority. For this reason, it’s imperative that you be acutely aware of your body language, facial expressions, or any other behavior that may put pressure on your team to reduce their estimates—even if this pressure is inadvertent.
Pressuring your team to reduce their estimates won’t reduce the actual work behind the estimate and will only make your job harder. This is because your own long-term planning lives and dies by the validity of the estimates that your team provides. If you pressure your team into giving inaccurate estimates, then it will be your release plan that suffers in the end.
Instead of applying pressure, take this opportunity to ask questions. Why is the estimate higher than you expected? Or, what hidden complexity exists that you didn’t see before? Taking the time to understand why the estimate is higher than you expected may reduce your chances of being surprised in the future. In fact, it may even uncover an alternative path to achieving that same goal with less complexity.
Above all, remember that the estimates your team provides are a forecast…not a commitment. Holding a team to their estimates creates a culture of fear. And, in such cultures, your team will invariably begin to sandbag their estimates to protect themselves from the possibility of occasionally underestimating an item.
Once this happens, your team will begin to continually pad their estimates to create a larger and larger margin of safety. The result, of course, is that the amount of actual work completed each iteration will continue to dwindle.
But there’s an even worse casualty of this trend: learning can only occur when a team feels safe enough to embark on experiments and learn from their failures. If a team is punished for every mistake, then all learning will eventually cease. And without the ability to learn, your organization cannot hope to compete in the world of product development.
The role of the product manager is easily one of the most important roles on a team, but is also arguably the most difficult. The IPM is your opportunity to invest in your relationship with your team each iteration. Because only with an ongoing investment in that relationship will your product see long-term success in the market.
Jeremy Jarrell is an agile coach who helps teams get better at doing what they love. When he’s not mentoring Scrum Masters or Product Owners, Jeremy loves to write on all things agile. You can read more of his thoughts at www.jeremyjarrell.com, see his videos at Pluralsight, or follow him on Twitter @jeremyjarrell.