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Agile Planning: А Step-by-Step Guide with Examples

An Agile project plan is a must in today’s volatile knowledge work environment. Learn more about the Agile planning process in the following paragraphs.

"Failing to plan is planning to fail." This quote by the time management expert Alan Lakein perfectly summarizes the importance of planning in project management. As much as we hate fixed dates and fixed scopes in the Agile world, it is the everyday life of many organizations, and we cannot just ignore its importance.

Even if we go outside the realm of fixed-date, fixed-scope projects and dive into the product development world, planning is still of crucial importance. Most customers won’t commit their budget to an open-ended specification and demand a delivery date alongside the quote.

Assuming such a reality, a natural question to ask is, "How do we create an agile project plan?". This is a tough question, and most materials on the topic only cover the software development practice. It creates an impression that Agile is suitable only for the software industry, but nothing could be further from the truth.

We will demonstrate how your organization can start with agile planning in an easy-to-follow step-by-step guide.

What Is Agile Planning? 

Agile planning is an iterative approach to managing projects avoiding the traditional concept of detailed project planning with a fixed date and scope. Based on the principles rooted in the Agile Manifesto, Agile project planning emphasizes frequent value delivery, constant end-user feedback, cross-functional collaboration, and continuous improvement.

Unlike traditional project planning, Agile planning remains flexible and adaptable to changes that may emerge at any project lifecycle stage. 

Why Is Agile Planning Important? 

Agile planning is crucial because it offers a flexible approach to project management that focuses on adaptability, meeting customer needs, and continuous improvement. Agile teams utilize regular feedback loops to share knowledge and align project goals with customer requirements, resulting in 59% of Agile adopters reporting increased satisfaction due to enhanced collaboration.

Medium and large organizations often measure success by predictability, while smaller companies focus on the value delivered. This trend underscores the importance of evaluating ideas based on their impact on business goals and return on investment.

Agile planning allows for real-time adjustments and work prioritization based on new information, promoting frequent delivery of small work increments and early risk mitigation. Recent data shows that 33% of organizations have adopted Agile planning tools for large-scale projects in the last three to five years, highlighting a significant shift towards Agile methods.

Agile Project Planning vs. Traditional Project Planning

In the past, business leaders spent considerable time crafting detailed long-term plans. This approach worked well until the late 20th century, when dynamic markets required more frequent changes, and a flexible planning method became necessary.

With the rise of knowledge work, Agile project planning emerged as a critical approach. Unlike traditional (Waterfall) planning, which is linear and rigid, Agile planning is iterative and adaptive to change.

Both methods have their merits. Traditional planning is ideal for projects like construction, where detailed, step-by-step plans are crucial, and changes can be costly. In contrast, Agile planning is suited for knowledge work, allowing for adjustments at any stage to meet customer needs. Agile focuses on short-term detailed planning, enabling easy modifications as needed.

Traditional vs Agile planning

Agile Planning Is NOT Scrum Planning

You will often read that Agile planning is the same as Scrum planning. However, this is far from the truth. Scrum is a prescriptive framework for software development that proposes one concrete way to plan. It is prevalent in the software world, but it is often the subject of severe criticism.

Agile planning vs Scrum planningWe won't go into the details of why Scrum planning is flawed, as we would rather talk about Agile thinking applied across various industries and not just software. It is more important to know how to apply generic techniques and practices on the global company level, regardless of the business type.

The 6 Levels of Agile Planning

The "Agile Planning Onion" is a great way to visualize the various levels of planning in an Agile project lifecycle. Let's explore each level from a product development perspective.

Agile Planning Onion

  1. Strategy: The outermost layer represents the organization's strategic vision and goals. Senior leadership defines how these objectives will be achieved.
  2. Portfolio: Here, senior managers plan the portfolio of products and services that will support the strategic vision set at the strategy level.
  3. Product: Teams create a high-level plan and break it down into key deliverables, focusing on features and functionalities that align with the strategic objectives.
  4. Release: At this level, key features are scheduled to be delivered within a specific time frame, usually about a month.
  5. Iteration: This level manages work over a few weeks. Teams select tasks or user stories from the backlog to deliver in small, manageable batches.
  6. Daily: Daily planning meetings allow teams to discuss their tasks, progress, and any roadblocks. They create an action plan for the next steps in project execution.

Agile planning is crucial at every level of the onion. It's not just for day-to-day team activities (Daily, Iteration, Release); it also applies to product management, portfolio management, and strategic planning. Being agile in your strategy defines true business agility.

Agile planning is iterative, meaning you continuously develop and adjust your plan as needed. The goal is to invest time in planning at the optimal moment and to adapt easily to changes during execution.

Key Characteristics of Agile Planning

Irrespective of the level at which you operate, your Agile project plan will have similar characteristics. Let’s explore them in no particular order.

The Goal from the Eyes of a Customer (Value)

An Agile plan must focus on delivering exactly what the customer wants, which is defined as value. The plan should clearly outline how and when this value will be delivered. Outcome-focused planning is crucial. Instead of detailing activities, prioritize the value produced. It's more important to measure results than to track individual tasks.

Lack of Detail Whenever It Can Be Avoided (Commit as Late as Possible)

Agile planning embraces flexibility by avoiding excessive detail early on, like preparing for an unexplored mountain expedition where you estimate food and water needs but cannot pinpoint exact camping spots. Many knowledge work projects share this uncertainty. While managers often demand strict, detailed plans, it's more practical to delay commitments until the last responsible moment, allowing for adjustments based on new information and circumstances.

Frequent Deliveries and Fast Feedback Loops (Small Batch Size)

Agile planning emphasizes frequent deliveries and explicit feedback collection, integrating feedback into subsequent plan iterations to enhance project success. While projects are inherently large, delivering them in smaller batches allows for early customer previews and alignment with expectations.

Suppose the project team misunderstood the requirements and set off to work on something completely different from what you envisioned as a customer. Would you rather give them feedback early on or wait until the project deadline? It is more than natural to have frequent feedback loops early in the cycle and prevent wasting precious time and resources.

Agile continuous improvement

Date Ranges instead of Single Date Estimates (Probabilistic vs. Deterministic)

Instead of providing a fixed date for project completion, offer a date range. Many customers appreciate this approach, as it is more realistic. Using historical data and forecasting methods to create date ranges in Agile planning allows for more accurate timelines, aligning better with the principle that it's better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.

Focus on the Work and Not the Worker (Team Is the Owner)

In Agile planning, focus on the flow of work rather than individual worker utilization. Assigning work too early can lead to inefficiencies. Instead, allow self-organizing teams to manage projects, even if it means some team members are underutilized at times.

Self organizing teams

Address dependencies realistically rather than trying to eliminate them entirely. Manage dependencies with a holistic view of your organization and value streams. If a team's progress blocks customer value, prioritize resolving that issue over keeping another team busy. This approach requires a shift in thinking but is essential for effective Lean and Agile project planning, emphasizing issue resolution over worker utilization.

No Separate Phase for Quality Assurance (Build Quality in)

In Agile planning, quality should be incorporated throughout the execution phase rather than in the final quality assurance phase. This approach, inspired by Toyota's principle of "Build quality in," ensures that quality is maintained consistently, avoiding issues at the end. A final quality check should be an exception, not the norm, as it indicates neglect of quality during the project.

Two-Tiered Plans (Plan Only the Initiatives and Not the Work Items)

An effective Agile plan focuses on high-level deliverables (initiatives) and allows teams to break these down into tasks. Unlike traditional Gantt charts, Agile plans do not assign start and end dates to individual tasks unless necessary.

Timelines on Kanban board

This approach lets teams pull new work when they have the capacity, following the pull system principle from Toyota. Setting dates for initiatives but not for their subtasks keeps planning flexible and empowers teams to make optimal decisions based on their technical expertise.

Data-Driven Decisions (Use Historical Data to Plan the Future)

Using historical data, Agile planning employs statistical methods like Monte Carlo simulations for forecasting. These simulations use past throughput and cycle time data to predict project outcomes, providing probabilities for completion dates or work delivery.

For example, they might forecast an 85% chance of project completion by July 2nd or a 95% chance of delivering 200 tasks by the deadline. This method, integrated with tools for continuous forecasting, offers real-time project status updates, reducing the need for detailed task-by-task estimation.

Monte Carlo When simulation

Continuous Forecasting

Agile project management tools integrate continuous forecasting with two-tiered plans to provide managers with real-time updates on project status and deliverables. Businessmap's software extends this capability to the portfolio level, allowing for real-time forecasts of all projects in the portfolio. To achieve this, simply run daily tasks on a set of team boards and connect them to the parent projects.

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Agile Project Plan Example

As we’ve already discussed Agile planning characteristics, let’s look at a practical example of building an Agile plan and how we do it at Businessmap.

Defining Major Project Deliverables or Releases

Let’s say we have to plan the creation of a new website. As the scope for that is quite big, the first thing that we would do is define different functional parts (deliverables) that will be continuously released to the market.

Here, we should note that we won’t plan the deliverables in detail. An Agile project plan leaves this for the "last responsible moment" and includes it progressively throughout the project. This will save us the otherwise wasted time of unnecessary planning and help us retain agility for any emerging changes.

You can use a project timeline to build a roadmap for executing the deliverables. In Businessmap, for example, we use a timeline (as seen below) to accomplish that. You can then input one or more of the deliverables to be executed in parallel or visualize a sequence when some of them are dependent on one another.Kanban Timeline

Breaking Down Deliverables into Tasks

Once we have the major functional parts of the project visualized in a roadmap-like view, our next step would be to break them down into individual work items. As we progressively elaborate on our Agile plans, we will start with the most critical deliverables at this point.

You can use a dedicated work board to visualize the tasks and their flow to completion. In our platform, we connect the Agile timeline containing the project roadmap and the kanban board.

This gives an unmatched view of the entire project's progress from concept to fruition. As a result, we can see which deliverables are currently in progress, their status, and who is working on what at any given moment. This setup also allows us to collaborate with one another when tasks get stuck in the process and resolve issues faster.

Through the concept of "just in time" planning, we can retain agility for any last-minute changes, emerging requirements, or shifting priorities. This allows us to satisfy customer needs better when delivering our projects.

Businessmap is the most flexible software platform

for outcome-driven enterprise agility.


In Summary

Agile planning is a new, flexible way of organizing future projects and adjusting to changing requirements without generating waste. These are the most important characteristics of a good Agile plan:

  • A goal from the eyes of a customer
  • Lack of detail whenever it can be avoided
  • Frequent deliveries
  • Date ranges instead of single date estimates
  • Focus on the work and not the worker
  • No separate phases for Quality Assurance
  • Two-tiered plans
  • Data-driven
Nikolay Tsonev

Nikolay Tsonev

Product Marketing | PMI Agile | SAFe Agilist certified

Nick is passionate about product marketing and business development and is a subject matter expert at Businessmap. With expertise in OKRs, strategy execution, Agile, and Kanban, he continues to drive his interest in continuous improvement. Nick is a PMI Agile and SAFe Agilist certified practitioner.

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