Your First Sprint

Sprint planning session

Based on work by Mountain Goat Software

You’ve read about Agile Marketing, have a basic understanding of Scrum, and you’re excited to get going on your first Sprint. How do you get started, and what’s different about that first sprint? I’ve been working with some teams on implementing their first sprint and here’s what I’ve learned.

There are some obvious differences that apply to your first Sprint. You don’t have an existing marketing backlog (or at least you don’t call it a backlog, and it’s not written as User Stories). Your team isn’t that familiar with the process or the terms of Agile. You don’t have experience estimating in terms of units like t-shirt sizes or story points. You have no idea what velocity to use (how many story points per Sprint for the team). These are just a few of the factors that make the first Sprint different and harder. There’s also one big difference, which isn’t obvious, but I’ll explain that later in the post. For now, let’s get started, step by step, in executing your first Sprint.

Educate the Team

In the first step, educate the entire marketing team regarding the processes and terminology surrounding Agile Marketing. You can put together a presentation from the materials on this site. You can also find some good stuff over on Scott Brinker’s Chief Marketing Technologist blog or on Frank Day’s and John Cass’s Agile Marketing blog. I also teach a two-day course in Agile Marketing, and I begin by teaching the principles, processes and terminology of Agile. If you’re interested in learning more about my course, contact me.

Gather Inputs

Before holding your first Sprint Planning meeting, gather up some inputs for the meeting. Estimate the team capacity you’ll have for the first Sprint. Who’s on vacation? Who’s committed to attending an event or training? I recommend estimating in terms of person-days, not hours.

List out everything that is “in-flight” – tasks that people are working on that need to be finished, and everything that has a hard commitment. Look at these carefully, and where possible, label something as a “nice to have” or “probably should have” rather than a “must do”.

Lastly, list out any events. Are you shipping any new features or versions of the product during the next Sprint? Any events like a national sales meeting or a large partner meeting? Any competitive actions or events that you know you need to react to?

You might also consider gathering your Personas and what I call the marketing model, which is a concise statement of your market segments, unique value proposition, brand personality, buyer’s journey, etc. If you don’t have a marketing model and Personas that you’re happy with, creating these marketing touchstones may become a task in your first Sprint.

Syncing with Sales and Executive Management

Agile Marketing provides a built-in mechanism for ensuring that marketing is aligned with the business and revenue generating portions of the company. Representatives from Sales and from Executive Management should be invited to the first hour of the Sprint Planning meeting. For the first Sprint, in particular, it is essential to get beyond the tactical, and dive as deeply as possible into sales and management’s expectations and needs in regards to marketing. This cannot be accomplished by asking them the typical questions: “How are we doing?”, “What do you think Marketing should be doing?”, “What are your priorities for Marketing?”

For the first Sprint planning session, I ask some variation of the question “What would it take for you to be able to say that marketing is your secret weapon?”

That question seems to encourage sales and executive management to remain at the strategic level, and not dip down into the tactical, day to day. Whether you use this question or something of your own, make sure that you listen carefully to what is being said, and summarize what you heard in an email to both your team and to sales and executive management.

Brainstorming and Prioritizing Themes

I believe that every Sprint should have a theme – a singular goal that has an impact on the business. Trying to accomplish multiple goals in the same Sprint usually results in nothing very big being accomplished. Most marketing problems have a certain amount of inertia, and just to get something moving takes concentrated effort. Force concentration is a central tenant of both Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Clausewitz’s Principles of War. It should also be a central tenant of your marketing.

These themes may come from your discussion with sales and executive management or from your own understanding of the strategic imperatives. For the first Sprint, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the potential themes you’ve uncovered, and you may want to plan out themes for the first 3-4 Sprints.

Make sure that for each theme you have acceptance criteria; in other words, how will you know that you’ve reached the goal? How will you know that you’re done?

Once you come to agreement about the theme or goal for your first Sprint, you’re ready to write user stories.

Writing User Stories

I’ve written extensively about writing user stories. During your planning for your first sprint, it is important to write user stories not only for your theme, which you selected above, but also for all those tasks that are “in-flight” that you listed in step 2 above. This is important for two reasons: one, these in-flight activities must be accounted for in terms of person days; second, they should be prioritized compared to the activities necessary to accomplish your Sprint goal.

For your first Sprint, assign a rough estimate, in terms of man days, for each user story. I use a variation of the Fibonacci sequence to assign estimates. 1/2, 1, 3, 5, 15. These correspond to X-small, Small, Medium, Large and X-Large in t-shirt sizes. These estimates should take into account the normal lights-on activities you do every day: read email, check your twitter feed and tweet, get interrupted, etc. You can also think of it as:

  • X-Small – something that you could have done by lunchtime if you started working on it when you came in on a normal day
  • Small – something that you could get done by the end of day on a normal day
  • Medium – something that you could get done by mid-week
  • Large – something that would take all week to get done
  • X-Large – something that would take more than a week’s time. It probably needs to be broken down, at least at the task level.

Prioritize and Estimate

Many teams are tempted to prioritize, detail and re-estimate user stories in a linear fashion – in other words, rank all the user stories in priority order, then break each one down into it’s component tasks, then re-estimate by estimating at the task level and adding up the task estimates. A better way is to do this in an iterative fashion. In other words, select the most important user story in priority, break it down into it’s component tasks, re-estimate just the single user story, then subtract the estimate from the available capacity.

Once this is done for the highest priority user story, iterate back around and repeat the process for the second highest priority user story. Iteration works better as it allows you to skip the break down into tasks and re-estimating for those user stories that don’t make the priority cut.

During this phase, you will almost certainly learn that your rough estimates at the Story level were wildly optimistic. Until you break down a user story into its component tasks, it’s almost impossible to estimate it accurately. You’ll also find out that as you discuss the specific tasks necessary to accomplish a particular user story, that different people in the group have different ideas about what is necessary. More often than not, this is what leads to different estimates.

Make sure that you include the in-flight items in this prioritizing and estimating exercise. Perhaps some of them will not make the cut, and you can make the case that they can wait.

Create and Publish the Sprint Plan

Once you have prioritized and estimated enough user stories that you are out of capacity for your first Sprint, gather them together into the Sprint plan. This may consist of a physical Scrum board, a spreadsheet, or a tool like Kanban tool or Trello. Publish the plan to the team, to sales, to executive management and perhaps to other areas of the company as appropriate. Publicly declaring your plan leads to the biggest difference for your first Sprint compared to all future Sprints. Remember I mentioned this above, in my second paragraph? I haven’t forgotten.

The Biggest Difference for the First Sprint

The biggest difference for the first Sprint, and something that can potentially de-rail the team, is simple: expectations. In working with teams, I find that they’re very excited once they publish their first sprint plan. Here it is, a concrete plan. One that is aligned with sales and management. Perhaps it’s up on the wall for everyone to see.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Gartner Hype Cycle

In many ways, adoption of Agile Marketing follows a path similar to Gartner’s famous hype cycle. Publishing your first sprint plan is equivalent to the “Peak of inflated expectations” in the hype cycle. Which means that you still haven’t crossed the “trough of disillusionment” and the “slope of enlightenment” before you reach the “plateau of productivity”. It’s good to keep this in mind, and damp down both your own expectations and those of management.

There is a balance here. You want the team (and management) to be excited about what you’ve just accomplished, at the same time, you need to be realistic that you’ve probably bitten off more than you can chew, and that you won’t get everything done on the board before the end of the Sprint. Take heed.

I’d love to hear war stories from people who’ve gone through their first sprint. What was your experience? Please share so that we can all learn.

Comments

  1. Jim – I’m planning for my first internal agency sprint. I’ve thought about much of what you talk about, but also missed valuable insight. Reading this post has helped me focus my thoughts and be better prepared for our first sprint, so thanks for this blog post….it’s invaluable.

  2. Jim – I’m planning for my first internal agency sprint. I’ve thought about much of what you talk about, but also missed valuable insight. Reading this post has helped me focus my thoughts and be better prepared for our first sprint, so thanks for this blog post….it’s invaluable.

  3. Your link to the Chief Marketing Technologist blog has a typo (.bom instead of .com). Thanks for the article.

  4. Your link to the Chief Marketing Technologist blog has a typo (.bom instead of .com). Thanks for the article.

  5. Hi Jim — Thank you for your helpful insight regarding the First Sprint. We are setting sail on our Agile Marketing journey on Monday with our first Sprint Meeting! I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks again for all of the helpful tools and for the MarketingProfs webinar 2 weeks ago — it was the nudge that I needed to get my team to take the plunge!

  6. Hi Jim — Thank you for your helpful insight regarding the First Sprint. We are setting sail on our Agile Marketing journey on Monday with our first Sprint Meeting! I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks again for all of the helpful tools and for the MarketingProfs webinar 2 weeks ago — it was the nudge that I needed to get my team to take the plunge!

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  1. […] How is the first sprint different from subsequent sprints? I've been working with several teams, coaching them through their first sprint, and here's what I've found.  […]

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