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We Explored the Difference Between Backlog Refinement and Sprint Planning

January 7, 2024 by Maria Garcia

Helpful summary

  • Overview: Backlog refinement and sprint planning are key Agile processes. Backlog refinement involves reviewing, detailing, and prioritizing tasks to ensure clarity and feasibility, while sprint planning focuses on selecting and breaking down tasks for the upcoming sprint.

  • Trustworthy Source: At Teaminal, we provide insights based on our experience with clients like T-Mobile and Workday. Our approach has been fine-tuned over years of working with Agile teams.

  • Why It Matters: Understanding these processes is important for effective Agile project management. Backlog refinement ensures a prepared and prioritized backlog, while sprint planning establishes a clear focus for the sprint.

  • Action Points: Regularly engage in backlog refinement to maintain an updated and relevant backlog. In sprint planning, select tasks based on capacity and goals. Use tools like Teaminal to facilitate these processes, cut down on wasted time, and maximize focused work.

  • Further Research: Consider exploring Teaminal’s features and how they can aid in effectively managing backlog refinement and sprint planning.

Want to learn more about backlog refinement and sprint planning?

Understanding the difference between backlog refinement and sprint planning is critical for effective Agile project management. Both stages play an important role—but they serve different purposes and require different approaches.

At Teaminal, we’ve helped hundreds of Agile teams at companies like Angi, T-Mobile, and Workday streamline their backlog refinement and sprint planning processes. Through our experience, we’ve learned the key elements of each stage and how to optimize them for maximum efficiency and productivity.

So, if you’re looking for ways to improve your Agile project management process, read on.

Why listen to us?

Simply put, Teaminal’s purpose is to streamline complex Agile processes and simplify collaboration for remote teams. We’ve spent years studying the ways Agile teams work and have developed a platform that caters to their specific needs. Our team is made up of experienced Agile practitioners who are passionate about helping teams work smarter, not harder.

Now, let’s dive into the differences between backlog refinement and sprint planning.

Backlog refinement vs. sprint planning: a quick overview

Backlog refinement (or backlog grooming) is a process where the product owner and team review items on the backlog to make sure they’re appropriately sized and prioritized for upcoming sprints. 

The process involves:

  • Reviewing the backlog items

  • Detailing and estimating backlog items

  • Voting on story points

  • Prioritizing the backlog items

Sprint planning is a meeting that marks the start of a new sprint. In this meeting, the goal is to define the scope of work, assign tasks to team members, and create a plan for how the sprint will be executed.

The process involves:

  • Reviewing the backlog

  • Selecting items from the backlog to work on in the upcoming sprint

  • Breaking down selected items into smaller tasks

  • Assigning tasks to team members

  • Creating a plan for how the sprint will be executed

Traditionally, sprint planning and backlog refinement both demand a fairly large time investment. In our optimized Agile workflow, thorough backlog refinement combined with a tool that supports easy collaboration and information sharing (like Teaminal) leads to a much shorter sprint planning event.

In fact, we find that a lot of the time, sprint planning can be done in 15 minutes by the product manager.

What is backlog refinement?

Backlog refinement involves the product owner and development team reviewing and refining the product backlog to make sure it’s ready for upcoming sprints. 

This includes: 

  • Reviewing backlog items

  • Breaking down large items into smaller, more manageable tasks

  • Estimating the effort required for each task (or voting on story points)

  • Prioritizing backlog items based on business value and team capacity

  • Removing or deprioritizing items that are no longer relevant

The goal is creating a backlog that’s always ready to be drawn from, actioned, and delivered. If you do this successfully, sprint planning becomes a quick, painless process (rather than a long meeting that no one enjoys).

What is sprint planning?

Sprint planning is the process of choosing items from the backlog to schedule for an upcoming sprint. 
As we mentioned earlier, this doesn’t need to be a long, drawn-out meeting. We often find that if you’re working with a well-groomed backlog, the product manager can usually handle sprint planning on their own—often in as little as 15 minutes.

That said, there are bound to be backlog items that need to be clarified and shaped before they can be added to a sprint. In these cases, it’s important for the product manager and development team to work together to discuss and refine these items during sprint planning.

Backlog refinement vs. sprint planning: key differences

Purpose

Purpose is the biggest differentiating factor between these two processes—they’re related, but ultimately very different.

Backlog refinement is focused on long-term planning. You’re building a pool of potential work that could be tackled in future sprints—months or even years down the road. It’s about prioritizing and preparing for future work, rather than actually scheduling it.

Sprint planning, on the other hand, is all about short-term execution. The team is looking at a specific sprint—usually 2–4 weeks—and deciding what tasks will be completed during that time frame. Since the items were (hopefully) already refined during backlog grooming, this is a matter of matching skills and capacity with the work that needs to be done.

Despite this difference, you still do see some overlap in the methods used to achieve these goals. For example, you can use Teaminal’s async planning poker to estimate the backlog items during refinement, as well as in sprint planning.

Outcome

The outcome of backlog refinement is an updated, clean, and prioritized product backlog—no more, no less. 

This means that the team and stakeholders clearly understand what needs to be done to achieve the product vision. The backlog items are also estimated and prioritized, allowing for efficient planning and decision-making in sprint planning.

The outcome of sprint planning is a clear, actionable plan for the upcoming sprint. This includes a selection of backlog items to be worked on, estimated and broken down into tasks, as well as a defined sprint goal and any necessary dependencies or resources.

To keep your team aligned throughout the sprint, Teaminal offers intuitive and asynchronous daily standups via Slack. Rather than eating up development time with meetings, developers can check in on their own schedule and stay updated on the progress of their team members.

Activities

The final difference between backlog refinement and sprint planning we’ll be covering is the activities involved in each process.

For backlog refinement, the main activity is reviewing and prioritizing items in the backlog. This can involve re-evaluating the importance of certain items, breaking down larger tasks into smaller ones, and discussing any changes or updates to the overall project roadmap.

On the other hand, sprint planning involves more hands-on activities like task estimation, assigning team members to specific tasks, and creating a timeline for completing each item. Additionally, sprint planning may also include discussions about potential risks or obstacles that may arise during the sprint and how they will be handled.

Both processes work best when you’re actively investigating how to improve. Teaminal’s reports provides users with actionable insights and a comprehensive overview of their teams’ health. 

By analyzing team sentiment, common topics, and trends over time, Teaminal helps users identify areas for improvement and make data-driven decisions.

Conclusion

Understanding the distinction between backlog refinement and sprint planning is crucial for effective Agile project management

Backlog refinement involves reviewing and prioritizing tasks, ensuring clarity and feasibility before starting the next sprint. On the other hand, sprint planning involves selecting and committing to specific tasks for the upcoming sprint, based on the team’s capacity.

Both processes can be simplified with an async Agile tool like Teaminal. With a range of collaborative features and actionable insights, teams can streamline their planning process and stay on track towards achieving their project goals.

Try Teaminal for free and see the difference.

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