Whether starting a new software project or simply transitioning to agile project management, your team needs to pick a length for upcoming sprints. A sprint is a repeatable, fixed-length iteration. During this time, the team delivers a potentially-shippable product increment. The length of the sprint can vary from project to project but is typically less than a month. You may wonder how much the sprint length really matters. Why not just pick two weeks and call it good? But there are several important questions to ask when choosing the right iteration length for your team and project.
What happens during a sprint?
In the scrum project management framework, a sprint contains all the work necessary to achieve the sprint goal, plus several scrum ceremonies. Sprints should also include inspection and adaptation of the team’s process.
- Sprint Planning
- Daily Scrums (or Standups)
- Sprint Retrospective
- Backlog Refinement (as needed)
You’ll also want to consider logistics for your team size and stakeholder availability. Who needs to be in each meeting, and how often are they available to meet? One-week sprints might sound good for a variety of reasons until you begin scheduling ceremonies and see the impact on your calendar.
How often can your team deliver value?
By the end of the sprint, your team should be able to complete and deliver a specific task, milestone, or project deliverable. The time needed to show a shippable product increment to stakeholders and users may vary based on the length and complexity of the software project. If you’re working in startup mode where change is constant, it makes sense to have a short iteration length. That way, you can respond quickly to new information. If your project has a very short timeline, a week-long sprint will allow you to check in on progress regularly and course-correct as needed.
Alternately, on long-term projects with complex domains, it may take the team longer than a week to deliver a valuable product increment. While called a sprint (I personally hate the name), each iteration should give the team adequate time to achieve the objective. And don’t forget to consider the bandwidth of your product owner to unblock the team and refine the product backlog. No team can deliver value without clear, actionable work in the backlog.
How long can you go without change?
After sprint planning concludes, the team should make no changes to the planned work of the sprint. Introducing change mid-sprint endangers the sprint goal and reduces the team’s ability to deliver value effectively.
If the project goal is unclear and requirements are in flux, stick to shorter cycles. That way, you can react quickly without disrupting the team. Do you have a well-defined product vision and abundant actionable work in the backlog? Then the team can probably get a bit more done during a longer sprint before making any adjustments. However, if your time horizon is too long, your original sprint goal may become invalid before the end of the sprint. A month is a lot of time for unexpected complexity to emerge and risk to increase, causing the team to spin its wheels.
What is sustainable for your team?
Ultimately, your sprint should set a consistent and sustainable pace for your team. Too short of sprints may result in a breakneck pace, looming deadlines, and unnecessary stress. If there’s no time for life to happen (for instance, a team member is out sick), it can suddenly jeopardize the entire sprint goal. A more leisurely sprint may allow more time for team problem-solving and collaboration, or for creativity to bubble. That said, overly-long sprints may become too relaxed or even boring, resulting in loss of engagement or overanalyzing. Work with your team to pick a length that is both comfortable and sustainable while still maintaining a healthy sense of urgency.
Choose the ideal length for your team’s sprints.
Sprints are key in creating certainty and routine throughout your project. Don’t miss the opportunity to think strategically about which iteration length will best serve your team in the long run.