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Delivering on time: Essential Product management & Sprint Techniques for early stage startups.

No one has ever managed to avoid it. For some it has been nightmare and for other it has became part of things. I am talking about missed deadlines. And in fair honesty I have missed many, due to various reasons from changed requirements, Developer unavailability, miscalculated timelines and natural disasters ( team mates breakup ). For early stage startups, it can be the difference between success and failure. One of the most valuable tools in the arsenal of project management is the sprint. In this article, we will explore what a sprint is, why it's a great tool for early stage startups, and some essential project management techniques for a successful sprint.

What is a Sprint?

A sprint is a short, focused period of time during which a team works to complete a specific set of tasks or deliverables. Sprints are commonly used in agile project management methodologies, such as Scrum, and are typically between one and four weeks long. The goal of a sprint is to break down larger projects into smaller, more manageable pieces, allowing teams to work more efficiently and effectively.

In a sprint, project deliverables are broken down into smaller tasks or user stories, which are prioritized and assigned to team members. Throughout the sprint, the team works together to complete these tasks, often holding daily meetings or "stand-ups" to discuss progress and address any roadblocks. At the end of the sprint, the team reviews their work, reflects on the process, and plans for the next sprint.

How is a Sprint a Great Tool for Early Stage Startups?

Sprints are particularly beneficial for early stage startups for several reasons:

  1. Flexibility: Startups often face rapidly evolving market conditions and customer needs. Sprints allow teams to adapt quickly to new information, making it easier to pivot and change direction when necessary.

  2. Efficiency: By breaking down larger projects into smaller tasks, teams can more easily focus on high-priority items and make rapid progress.

  3. Transparency: Sprints promote open communication and collaboration, making it easier for teams to identify and address issues as they arise.

  4. Continuous Improvement: Regular reviews and retrospectives help teams learn from each sprint, making improvements to both the product and the development process.

Essential Things for a Successful Sprint

To ensure a successful sprint, there are a few key elements that must be in place:

1. Product Roadmap

A product roadmap is a high-level overview of the product's development plan, outlining key features and milestones. It provides a clear vision for the team and helps prioritise tasks during sprint planning. Its vital that the deliverables are clearly mentioned in form of features or user benefits broken down into different priorities like Must Have, Performance and Delighter. It doesn’t need to be to decimal accurate and very far reaching but at least next 3 months and overarching deliveries.

A typical product roadmap with clear priorities, clear timelines and Organisation Chart.

2. Sprint Deliverables

Before the sprint begins, it's crucial to define the specific deliverables that the team will work on during the sprint. These deliverables should be realistic and achievable within the sprint timeframe. These could be extracted from the product roadmap itself. A typical user story or features would require 3-4 tasks to be done. And a sprint should comprise of these certain number of tasks in order of the product roadmap.

3. Sprint Specs

Sprint specs are detailed descriptions of the tasks or user stories that make up the sprint deliverables. They should include clear acceptance criteria and any necessary technical specifications. This mainly includes the number of story points that could be delivered during the sprint.

A Story point is typical in developer days. Eg if you have 2 developer then you can deliver upto 2 story point each x 10 Days = 20 story points in a week. It will vary depending upon engineers proficiency and other resources.

Every task contains estimated story points i.e. how much developer days it would take for each. And then you only fit those tasks that can be achieved in that time window.

An example of sprint tasks with sample deliverables.

4. Backlogs

For some unforeseen reasons there might be some pending tasks from previous sprint, these are called backlog and should be done first before adding new tasks. If the current sprint tasks are undelivered then these tasks will move to backlogs as well.

Planning a Sprint

The foundation of a successful sprint is a well-planned roadmap, clear project goals, and well-defined objectives. Here's how to get started:

1. Gather the Requirements

To create a product roadmap and establish clear project goals, the first step is to gather requirements from all stakeholders, including customers, team members, and management.

2. Assign Story Points

Once the requirements have been gathered, they should be broken down into smaller tasks or user stories, and assigned story points. Story points are a measure of the effort required to complete a task, taking into consideration factors such as complexity, risk, and uncertainty.

3. Scope

With story points assigned, the next step is to prioritize tasks and determine the scope of the sprint. This involves deciding which tasks will be included in the sprint, and in what order they should be completed, based on factors such as priority, dependencies, and team capacity.

Executing a Sprint

With a solid plan in place, it's time to execute the sprint. Here are the key steps:

1. Start of the Sprint

At the beginning of the sprint, the team should hold a kick-off meeting to review the sprint plan, discuss any questions or concerns, and ensure that everyone is aligned on the goals and objectives.

2. Standup

Daily stand-up meetings are a crucial part of the sprint process. These short, focused meetings provide an opportunity for team members to share updates on their progress, discuss any challenges or roadblocks, and receive support from the rest of the team. But if the team is mature and doesn’t need much handholding then it might not be necessary to do them daily and communication could be more async. A standup agenda typically looks like one shown in the picture.

A typical standup structure.

3. Follow-up Call

In addition to daily stand-ups, it's also helpful to schedule regular follow-up calls throughout the sprint. These calls can be used to address any issues that may have arisen since the last stand-up, and to ensure that the team remains on track to meet their goals.

4. Sprint Closing and Introspection

At the end of the sprint, the team should come together to review their work, discuss what went well and what could be improved, and plan for the next sprint. This process of reflection and continuous improvement is a key aspect of agile project management and helps teams become more efficient and effective over time.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

While sprints can be a powerful tool for project management, there are also some common pitfalls that teams may encounter. Here are a few tips on how to avoid them:

  1. Poorly Defined Goals: Ensure that project goals and objectives are clear, specific, and measurable. This will help the team stay focused and make it easier to track progress.

  2. Lack of Communication: Open communication is essential for a successful sprint. Encourage team members to share updates, ask questions, and raise concerns as they arise.

  3. Scope Creep: Keep a close eye on the scope of the sprint and be prepared to make adjustments if necessary. If new tasks are added, consider whether they can be completed within the sprint timeframe, or if they should be postponed to a future sprint.

  4. Burnout: Sprints can be intense, and it's important to ensure that team members are not overworked. Make sure to monitor workload and provide support as needed.

By incorporating these essential project management and sprint techniques, early stage startups can greatly improve their chances of success. With a focus on flexibility, efficiency, and continuous improvement, sprints can help teams deliver high-quality products on time and on budget.

There is no silver bullet to timely delivery but using techniques like these have greatly helped me get better on delivering things on time. What are some of the techniques that you have used for timely delivery? Let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments.

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