Creating a Sprint Plan – The Four Types of Work

Earl Beede
Construx Senior Fellow

When we work with Scrum teams in creating a sprint plan, we usually see four types of work in it. Three of the types of work are defined in the sprint planning meeting and the fourth appears during the daily scrums.

The First Type of Work: Product Backlog Items

This work is estimated either by a count of the PBIs—if similarly sized—or by story points. The amount product backlog work being added to the sprint plan is limited by the team’s product backlog velocity. How much product backlog work the team can complete given the other three types of work adjusts the product backlog velocity.

Product backlog work is generally the only type of work that is estimated/sized.

The Second Type of Work: Infrastructure Work

Items the team wants to work on to improve the team’s ability to do product backlog work. This is not to be confused when the product is a form of infrastructure that enables other components or teams.

Imagine that you created your code back in punch card days. The team that created the IDE for others to use would be doing product backlog work. The team that integrated the IDE into their environment so that they can do whatever product they were working on faster/better would be doing infrastructure work.

Infrastructure work is not estimated but timeboxed. That is, you limit the amount of time dedicated to infrastructure work in every sprint plan. When that time is up, you wait until the next sprint to continue working on it. A common value is about 10% of the theoretical effort available be allocated to infrastructure work.

The Third Type of Work: The Spikes

Spikes are work on future PBIs that have outstanding questions or uncertainty that needs to be resolved before that PBI can come into a sprint of its own. Since we only want to take work into a sprint that we have a high confidence of completing, we need to answer questions before. Spikes are also timeboxed. That is, we decide how much effort a certain spike should receive (usually a few hours per spike).

When the time is up, the team can decide at the daily scrum if the spike should:

  • Be allocated another block of effort and change the sprint plan
  • Accept the output of the spike and place the PBI in a ready state
  • Or determine from the work on the spike that the PBI needs to be renegotiated as the team can’t meet the current acceptance criteria

The Fourth Type of Work: Unplanned Work Items

Unplanned work items are items not part of the plan created during sprint planning. Unplanned work is typically support of production systems, requests for team expertise outside to other teams, management requests, anything that requires team members effort that isn’t one of the previous three types. This doesn’t include items like training or vacation which isn’t a plan item but a reduction of availability that limits the plan.

Unplanned work often requires trying to meet the sprint plan and do the unplanned work. Because of this, seasoned Scrum teams often leave a bit of room in the sprint plan for unplanned work.

Take a look at your sprint plan and see if you can identify the four types of work.