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Effective project planning while staying agile
by Bojan Jancevic
Embark on a journey of agile project execution. Uncover fundamentals, navigate common challenges and master strategies that seamlessly blend flexibility with precision for optimal planning in dynamic environments.



In today’s business landscape, the change is constant and innovation is key.

Organisations are increasingly turning to agile methodologies to navigate the complexities of modern work environments. While agility is crucial for responding to change swiftly, effective planning remains a cornerstone for project success.

It is quite delicate to balance planning well while staying agile. Agile methodologies, born out of the need for flexibility and adaptability, have become synonymous with the iterative and collaborative approach to project management. Agile emphasises responding to change over following a rigid plan and values individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

Planning essentials

Planning provides a roadmap, establishes clear goals and ensures that resources are allocated efficiently. However, the challenge lies in integrating planning seamlessly with agile practices to create a harmonious and responsive workflow.

In the dynamic intersection of planning and agility, organisations can achieve a delicate equilibrium that maximises responsiveness without sacrificing structure. By embracing adaptive planning, incorporating iterative cycles, fostering collaboration, prioritising effectively, maintaining open communication and leveraging agile tools, organisations can plan well while staying agile.

Creating this balance is not a one-time effort, but a continuous process that allows organisations to navigate change with resilience and achieve success in an ever-shifting business landscape.

Do you believe in effective planning or not? Let’s verify some facts.

Planning types

Waterfall approach

In the traditional waterfall project management model, the sequential and linear progression through phases, such as preparation, planning, requirements gathering, design, implementation, testing and deployment, poses challenges when key stakeholders express hesitancy to accept the business blueprint or design specifications before witnessing a running solution. This challenge is primarily due to the inherent nature of the waterfall model, which delays the delivery of a tangible product until the later stages of the project. It can significantly impact planning in several ways and the project can collapse like a house of cards.


Illustration: Planning in waterfall projects


Waterfall projects often require comprehensive planning upfront, including detailed requirements and design documentation. Any changes or adjustments identified later in the project can disrupt the meticulously crafted plan, leading to delays and increased costs. The waterfall model’s structure makes it challenging to adapt to evolving user needs or market conditions. Altering the project plan to accommodate changes identified during testing can be a cumbersome process. The late revelation of discrepancies between the business blueprint and user expectations can result in extensive rework during the testing and deployment phases, leading to project timeline extensions.

Agile approach

In contrast, the agile approach addresses the challenges associated with delayed user feedback by introducing dynamic and iterative planning, continuous collaboration, adaptable scope and enhanced risk management. This ultimately leads to a more responsive and successful project outcome. Here is key reasoning behind the agile approach:

  • Agile methodologies embrace dynamic planning, acknowledging that requirements and priorities may evolve. This allows for ongoing adjustments to the project plan as new information emerges during each iteration.
  • Agile projects plan in short iterations, typically two to four weeks, with each iteration delivering a working increment of the solution. This iterative planning approach enables the team to respond promptly to changes and user feedback, reducing the impact on the overall project plan.
  • Agile emphasises continuous collaboration between the development team and stakeholders. This frequent interaction ensures that planning decisions remain aligned with evolving stakeholder expectations and project goals, reducing the likelihood of surprises late in the project.
  • Agile allows for changes to the project scope based on ongoing feedback and priorities. This adaptability ensures that the final product aligns closely with stakeholders needs, resulting in a more successful and satisfying outcome.
  • By addressing potential issues early in the project through continuous stakeholders’ involvement and feedback, agile methodologies contribute to better risk management. This proactive approach reduces the likelihood of major disruptions to the project plan.

Pitfalls of planning in agile projects

Regardless of the project management methodology employed, project managers and teams can enhance the effectiveness of their planning processes by being aware of and actively addressing planning pitfalls.

Focusing excessively on short-term planning may lead to neglecting the broader project vision and long-term goals. That is why a proper balance of short-term iterations with periodic reviews of the overall project roadmap is needed.

Ignoring external factors, such as market changes or technological advancements, can lead to project obsolescence. Regular assessment of the external landscape and proper adaptation of the project plan can overcome this pitfall.

Incomplete user stories, too-optimistic approach, inadequate capacity planning, overlooking integration dependencies, lack of continuous feedback – these are also some project planning pitfalls, which can lead to project ineffectiveness.

Importance of stakeholder management

Effective stakeholder management is essential for successful planning in agile methodologies. By adhering to key principles such as identifying and prioritising stakeholders, fostering open communication, defining clear roles and incorporating collaborative planning sessions, agile teams can navigate the complexities of stakeholder engagement during the planning phase. Strategically involving stakeholders in workshops, user story sessions and progress reviews and leveraging visual tools and iterative planning, ensures that agile planning remains customer-centric, aligned with business objectives and adaptable to changing needs.

At the beginning of the project it is important to identify all potential stakeholders who have an interest in the project and prioritise them based on their influence, impact and contribution to the project. Recognising the primary stakeholders and establishing clear roles and responsibilities for each stakeholder ensures focused communication and engagement.

Workshops or collaborative sessions with stakeholders are very important to gather requirements, define priorities and establish a shared understanding of project goals. These sessions foster engagement and alignment among all involved parties.

Regular progress reviews with stakeholders will showcase completed work, demonstrate features and gather feedback. These sessions provide stakeholders with visibility into project progress and allow for timely adjustments based on their input.

Visual tools such as product backlogs, burn-down charts and roadmaps will make planning information accessible and understandable for stakeholders. Visual artefacts enhance communication and transparency, facilitating more effective collaboration.

Sharpening the saw

You probably know the tale of a young lumberjack, struggling to fell a tree with a dull saw:

  • A passerby suggests to the lumberjack to sharpen his saw, but he refuses because that would mean he has to stop his sawing.
  • The passerby, however, persists: “Sharpening the saw would make your cutting more efficient and effective”.
  • “But I can’t afford to take a break!” – the lumberjack responds.

In the tale of the young lumberjack, valuable insights are applicable to agile planning. Much like agile planning, the lumberjack’s refusal to sharpen the saw reflects a resistance to change. In agile, adaptability is crucial, teams should be open to refining their approach based on feedback and evolving requirements. The passerby’s suggestion to sharpen the saw mirrors emphasis on continuous improvement. The lumberjack’s urgency to avoid a break highlights a common misconception in agile – the fear that pausing for planning or improvement might slow down progress. The story suggests that a brief pause for sharpening (planning and reflection) can lead to greater efficiency in the long run. The lumberjack’s focus on immediate sawing over sharpening draws a parallel to short-term thinking. Agile planning encourages short-term adjustments, like refining tools, for long-term gains in productivity and project success. The exchange between the passerby and the lumberjack highlights the importance of effective communication. In agile planning, clear communication is vital for conveying the benefits of short breaks for improvement, ensuring everyone understands the long-term goals.

Understanding and managing scope creep

Even in an agile landscape, a common challenge known as “scope creep” can disrupt timeline and project dynamics. Scope creep refers to the unauthorised or uncontrolled expansion of project scope beyond its originally defined boundaries. In the agile context, where change is expected and even encouraged, scope creep can still present a threat to project timelines, budgets and overall success. Agile methodologies are designed to embrace change, but unmanaged changes can lead to scope creep and hinder project progress.


Illustration: Unmanaged change in the project


Common cause of scope creep in agile is too flexible agile process. While agility is a core principle of agile methodologies, excessive flexibility without proper control mechanisms can open the way for scope creep. Projects must strike a balance between adaptability and maintaining a defined scope. Without continuous collaboration and feedback, new expectations may emerge, leading to scope creep.

Unclear acceptance criteria for user stories or features can open the door to uncontrolled changes. When criteria are ambiguous, it becomes challenging to determine whether a proposed change is within or outside the project’s original scope.

Scope creep is a challenge that can affect projects in any project management framework, including agile. However, by implementing clear requirements, maintaining stakeholder collaboration, prioritising effectively, defining change control processes and conducting regular reviews, agile teams can prevent scope creeps successfully.

Strategies for meeting hard deadlines

In certain situations, projects operating within an agile framework may encounter hard deadlines that require precise planning and execution. Hard deadlines are fixed and non-negotiable dates by which a particular feature, release or project must be completed. These deadlines are often set externally, driven by factors such as market demands, regulatory requirements or contractual obligations.


Illustration: Soft and hard deadlines in the project


Agile typically operates on the principle of fixed timeframes, such as iterations or sprints, with a variable scope. Hard deadlines introduce the challenge of fixed scope within a predefined time, requiring careful and precise prioritisation and efficient time management. Also, agile projects often deal with uncertainty and complexity and hard deadlines can intensify these challenges. Unforeseen issues, changes in requirements or technical hurdles may arise, making it difficult to predict and adhere to rigid timelines. Therefore, hard deadlines require a delicate balance between speed and maintaining the desired level of product quality, between flexibility and precision.

By employing strategies such as prioritisation, iterative planning, time-boxed sprints, collaborative stakeholder engagement, risk management, efficiency measures and transparent communication, agile teams can enhance their ability to meet hard deadlines successfully. Embracing the agile principles of adaptability while recognising the constraints of time ensures that projects not only remain agile but also deliver valuable outcomes within the specified deadlines.

Clear categorisation and prioritisation is crucial when facing hard deadlines, including identification and focus on the most critical features and functionalities that align with the project’s roadmap. Also, a proactive approach to risk management allows the team to address challenges swiftly and minimises the impact of unexpected issues on the project timeline. Definition of contingency plan and regular risks reassessment will keep team confident and increase trust.

At the end of the day, the trust is crucial for a successful project. Maintain transparent and open communication channels within the team and with stakeholders. Communicate the successes, but also any challenges or delays promptly and work collaboratively to find solutions that align with the project’s hard deadlines.


So, do you believe in effective project planning?

In the dynamic landscape of project management, the question of belief in effective project planning is one that often opens discussions and reflections. As we explore the details and complexities of project planning, it becomes evident that it’s not about abandoning traditional planning altogether, but rather about embracing a more adaptive and responsive approach.

Agile project planning recognises the inherent uncertainties in complex projects and advocates for flexibility, iterative adjustments and a continuous learning mindset. Rather than rigidly adhering to a predefined plan, agile methodologies encourage project teams to embrace change, learn from experiences and adapt their strategies accordingly.

Belief in project planning, within the agile context, is not a blind faith in a static blueprint. It is a commitment to a process that values collaboration, prioritisation and frequent reassessment. Agile planning acknowledges that the project landscape is constantly changing and planning is not a one-time event, but a continuous and collaborative endeavour.

In the realm of agile projects, success is not measured solely by adhering to an initial plan but by the ability to respond effectively to changing requirements, deliver incremental value and foster a culture of continuous improvement. It’s a paradigm that places emphasis not just on reaching the destination but on the journey itself, where adaptability and resilience are the most important.

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