Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
July 05, 2022 · 12 min read

A modern (and easy) guide to the 5 agile ceremonies

A modern (and easy) guide to the 5 agile ceremonies

Agile ceremonies are the fuel that keeps your development team moving forward. Even in the depths of the most complex projects, regular check-ins, moments for self-reflection, and planning sessions can help illuminate the path ahead.

But what if you’re not entirely comfortable managing and running Agile ceremonies?

Agile ceremonies get abandoned when teams stop seeing the value in them. But often, the real issue is that they’re missing a key ingredient: leadership.

In this guide, we’ll cover the essential elements of each of the five Agile ceremonies, how you can learn to run them properly, and the most significant challenges you’ll need to overcome.

What are Agile ceremonies? (And why do they matter?)

Agile ceremonies — also known as Scrum ceremonies or just ‘events’ — are specific events that provide a structured framework for iterative software development processes.

That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let’s break down what we’re talking about.

Agile is an umbrella term for different iterative and feedback-driven software development processes. Unlike a waterfall or ‘traditional’ approach that relies on planning your entire project upfront, Agile teams work in ‘sprints’ and constantly ship usable software to their users. Then, based on user feedback, usage data, and self-reflection, they plan their next sprint.

Working this way reduces the risk that you’re building the wrong software. It also helps you quickly adapt to changes in the market or your company. But it also makes projects more complex.

While long-term Agile planning provides a vision of the ‘final’ product that you’re working toward, your teams deal with more uncertainty than they would if you planned everything upfront.

That’s where Agile ceremonies become so important. Rather than just meeting for meeting’s sake, ceremonies have specific goals and structures that help bring order to the complexity of Agile.

Here are the Agile ceremonies that most teams use and why they’re essential:

Agile ceremonies that most teams use

  1. Sprint planning: These sessions are what initiate each sprint. Your team decides what work from the product backlog can be completed in the time period, who will complete what tasks, and how you’ll be successful.
  2. Daily scrum (or daily stand-up): These daily check-ups help teams stay on track and mark progress. Each morning, team members discuss what they worked on yesterday, what they’re doing today, and what’s blocking them from moving forward.
  3. Sprint review: At the end of each sprint cycle, teams meet to demo what they’ve shipped and get early feedback from stakeholders. These review sessions can be informal ‘show and tell’ sessions or more formal meetings.
  4. Sprint retrospective: At the end of each sprint cycle, the team also meets to discuss what’s working (or not) on a process level, including blockers, communication issues, or a lack of resources.
  5. Product backlog refinement: While not always listed as an ‘official’ ceremony, product backlog refinement is a continuous process of cleaning up, adjusting, and updating your task and feature list. Some teams set specific times to go through and clean up the backlog, while others do it continuously throughout each sprint.

Depending on your team, you might use different names for these ceremonies. That’s fine. Different Agile methodologies take unique approaches to structure. The only thing that matters is that you have a system you’re following.

The 3 key players of every ceremony

Every Agile ceremony includes a few critical individuals and groups, including:

  1. Development team: The development team in Agile is a small group of technical and cross-functional workers who collaborate on tasks in the sprint. They’re responsible for managing themselves and determining how much work they can complete in a sprint.
  2. Scrum master: A scrum master is a servant leader — meaning their role is to serve the team. They often help facilitate Agile ceremonies and communicate status updates to internal and external teams.
  3. Product owner: The product owner is a member of the Agile team responsible for prioritizing the backlog and defining user stories. They’re responsible for maximizing the value that the team creates in each sprint.

Not everyone is required for every ceremony. And sometimes their roles will change. However, you must know who is taking on what role to stay organized.

Agile ceremonies are the fuel that keeps your development team moving forward.

A ‘quick-start’ guide to the 5 Agile ceremonies

At the core of every Agile methodology is the idea of a ‘sprint’ — a fixed-length period of time that your team uses for planning. At the end of every sprint, the goal is to ship usable software to your users that you can then get feedback on.

Sprints are so essential to Agile that the 2020 Scrum Guide even includes them as an Agile ceremony. However, sprints are less of a specific ‘event’ and more of the whole reason your team is here in the first place.

If you think of the other five Agile ceremonies as the fuel that keeps your team moving, sprints are the engine. Here’s how to keep your team fueled up:

1. Sprint planning ceremony

What it is: A sprint planning session aligns your team and sets you up for a successful sprint.

Goal: To determine what work will be completed in this sprint and flesh out how it will be completed. A successful sprint planning ceremony will address and answer three critical questions:

  1. Why does this sprint matter?
  2. What can be done during this sprint?
  3. How will the chosen work get done?

When does it take place? At the beginning of a sprint.

How to run a sprint planning session:

Before the sprint planning session, the product owner should develop a sprint goal and then update relevant user stories and prioritize the product backlog.

Then, the development team works together to discuss each item and estimates how much effort will be required to complete them.

The development team then decides how much they can realistically get done and adds those tasks to their sprint backlog.

In Planio, you can view all the items in your product backlog to see what could be included in a sprint. You can also view tasks and items by category, status, priority, or assignee.

As you come across tasks and issues that you want to include in your sprint, you can add them just by dragging and dropping. Planio will give you a running estimate of the time required to hit your goals based on each task’s user story or estimed time.

Sprint planning board in Planio with drag and drop feature
Tasks can be added to each sprint with a one quick drag and drop.

Together as a team, you can update the details of each issue, including its priority, estimated time, description, related tasks, and more.

Issue view in Planio showing custom fields and checklists
You can add custom fields, checklists, sprints, time tracking and more to every Planio task.

Once you’re ready, the Agile board tracks all of your sprint tasks in one place, giving you a quick view of your progress.

Agile board in Planio
Agile boards in Planio are customizable to your team’s workflow.

Who should attend? Everyone — development team, product owner, and scrum master.

How long does it take? It depends on your team and your structure. A good rule of thumb is to set aside one hour for every week of your sprint. For example, a two-week sprint should require around two hours of sprint planning time.

Pro tips:

2. Daily scrum ceremony

What it is: A scrum — or daily stand-up — is a short daily meeting where everyone on the development team gives an update on their work.

Goal: To keep everyone in sync and identify any blockers getting in the way of your sprint goals.

When does it take place? Ideally, at the start of each day during the sprint.

How to run a daily scrum:

Open your project management tool and filter your current sprint board by “assignee.” This will give you a clean view of each task a team member has been assigned and its progress.

Agile board in Planio, filtered to one assignee
Filter your Agile board by the “assignee” to see each team member’s workload.

Then, ask each person to answer three questions:

  1. What did I do yesterday?
  2. What am I working on today?
  3. What is getting in the way of my work?

Keep this ceremony short. If any issues come up, make a note to address them later or update the issue with new details. The goal here is to create accountability around the work you’ve completed. No one wants to say the same thing every day during their standup.

Who should attend? Everyone — the scrum master should facilitate the meeting.

How long does it take? Daily standups should be tightly timeboxed to 10–15 minutes.

Pro tips:

3. Sprint review ceremony

What it is: A sprint review — sometimes called an ‘iteration review’ — is a chance to demo the work that was completed during the previous sprint.

Goal: Show everyone on your team (and sometimes outside stakeholders) what was completed. This is a great opportunity to get early feedback from stakeholders that can be implemented in the next sprint.

When does it take place? At the end of a sprint or milestone.

How to run a sprint review:

Head to your Agile board and view your “completed” or “done” column. This is a great way to start as it shows everyone the amount of work that was completed during the sprint.

Agile board in Planio, showing most issues are already completed
Agile boards in Planio are a great way to quickly show stakeholders the progress you’ve made.

Then, choose one person on the team — or the product owner — to run the demo.

Gather your team together and walk through the work that’s been completed. Allow time at the end for questions and immediate feedback and capture these in each task.

Who should attend? Everyone on your development team and any relevant stakeholders. Refer to your communication plan to see who should be included.

How long does it take? There’s no minimum time required for a sprint review. However, you should cap it at an hour per sprint week (i.e., a three-week sprint will have a three-hour review).

Pro tips:

4. Sprint retrospective ceremony

What it is: A sprint retrospective is an opportunity for the development team to give feedback on how they felt the previous sprint went — what worked, what didn’t, and what you should change.

Goal: Agile is built on continuous improvement and rapid feedback. The sprint retrospective ceremony is a chance to give feedback to the entire team on what worked (and what didn’t), so you can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

When does it take place? At the end of a sprint or milestone.

How to run a sprint retrospective:

Start by reviewing your notes from the previous sprint retrospective. Did your insights get applied during this sprint? Why or why not? Are there recurring themes you’re starting to see?

Then, ask each person on the team to provide insights on:

Make sure you’re documenting your lessons learned somewhere that everyone can access them, like a Planio wiki or using a defined tracker.

Task showing how to document lessons learned
Planio tasks (and Wiki) are a great way to store and share your team’s knowledge.

Retrospectives are also an opportunity to have an honest conversation about workloads. One of the main reasons sprints fail is that your team overestimated what they could complete within the timeframe.

Planio’s Agile reports can map out your progress (measured by our integrated time tracker or overall workload) against your estimation.

Agile Burndown chart showing a well progressing sprint
Agile diagrams and reports in Planio can help you get better at estimating projects.

This is a powerful tool not just to check your progress during a sprint but also to help you with future sprint planning ceremonies.

Who should attend? Everyone — but try to avoid inviting stakeholders unless you feel it is necessary. This should be a ‘safe space’ for your team to discuss their work.

How long does it take? There’s no established rule for how long a retrospective should last. However, a good guideline to follow is 45 minutes per week of a sprint. So, a one-week sprint retrospective should last 45 minutes, while a month-long one could take up to three hours.

Pro tips:

5. Product backlog refinement

What it is: A product backlog is the list of tasks and issues that your team wants to complete in future sprints. But because Agile is based on rapid feedback, these issues can become outdated or change in priority. While not an official Agile ceremony, refining your backlog is an essential part of keeping your team efficient and effective.

Goal: A well-prioritized and organized backlog makes all other Agile ceremonies easier. The goal of these sessions is to use your latest knowledge and feedback to update your backlog, rewrite user stories, and prioritize or deprioritize tasks.

When does it take place? Before sprint planning and throughout the project’s lifecycle.

How to refine your backlog:

There are two moments when you’ll want to focus on refining your backlog:

Start by looking at your full list of issues either on your product roadmap or by filtering them by trackers, milestones, or priority.

Then, move your most important tasks and issues to the top of your list. Planio also lets you add a priority tag to each issue so you can quickly see what’s next on your plate.

You can add your own custom priorities
The powerful filter function in Planio means you can keep an eye on the most important tasks first.

Then, go into each task and make sure that it’s updated with the latest information and an accurate estimation of how long it will take to complete.

Issue list with time tracking and estimated time included
Time tracking function in Planio means you can keep track of progress down to the minute.

While it’s usually up to the product owner to refine the backlog, getting feedback from team leads and stakeholders on what to prioritize next is a good idea.

Who should attend? The product owner. As this isn’t necessarily an ‘event,’ it doesn’t require your full team. In most cases, the product owner is responsible for prioritizing and updating the backlog.

How long does it take? There’s no set time limit on backlog refinement. Take your time and make it a part of your ongoing workflow.

Pro tips:

The 7 biggest challenges to running successful Agile ceremonies

Agile ceremonies are one of the core parts of running a successful Agile team. However, many teams make mistakes that derail their ceremonies. Here are a few common ones to watch out for:

The 7 biggest challenges to running successful Agile ceremonies

  1. Meeting/Zoom fatigue for remote teams. Agile ceremonies can feel like they take up a lot of time. Make sure to keep meetings short, focused, and valuable, so they don’t feel like a waste.
  2. Letting Agile ceremonies devolve into technical discussions. Stay on topic and don’t let technical discussion creep up. If they begin (and they will!), gently guide your team back on topic and propose an alternate time to meet to go over the issue.
  3. Not preparing for planning sessions and sharing sprint goals. The success of each Agile ceremony depends on your willingness to be prepared. Regularly groom your backlog and send out meeting agendas before you meet.
  4. Getting everyone together. A ceremony needs all relevant parties to be effective. If stakeholders or team members keep missing them, it needs to be addressed.
  5. Not putting your insights into action. Teams lose faith when their feedback doesn’t get implemented. If you’re running retrospectives but don’t have a change management process for putting your lessons learned into action, your team will give up on them.
  6. Stopping retrospectives or stand-ups because you ‘don’t need them’ anymore. When your team is motivated and effective, you might not feel like you need to spend time on the regular ceremonies. But they’re a guardrail that keeps you on track. You can reduce the scope of meetings, but don’t cut them out entirely.
  7. Being too rigid in your ceremony structure. Agile is adaptable, and your ceremonies need to be too. Be flexible in how you work and listen to your teammates’ feedback. While sticking to a structure is good, it can get in the way if you don’t adapt to your workload and working style.

Master the Agile ceremonies for better collaboration

Agile ceremonies can seem like a waste of time — especially when everything is going right. But they’re valuable practices that every team should try to maintain.

When you meet regularly, have open and honest communication, and plan together, you create a better team culture, avoid miscommunication, and enhance collaboration.

To keep your team in sync through every Agile ceremony, sign up for Planio free for 30 days.