What is a sprint cycle? (Definition and how it works)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 11 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Within the Scrum framework, there are time periods called 'sprints'. These are an integral part of scrum and involve the completion of tasks, with a project often requiring multiple sprints prior to completion. If you're interested in development or project management, understanding what sprints and their cycles are is going to be very useful. In this article, we explain what a sprint cycle is, how these cycles work and describe the roles which perform them.

What is a sprint cycle?

A sprint cycle is a period of time within which scrum teams complete work. Within each of these sprints, there's usually a cycle of steps which lead to completion. The scrum framework uses these sprints to ensure consistent and timely deliveries and enable regular feedback, with multiple sprints often necessary for a project. The elements of the cycle include all of the necessary steps for achieving the individual sprint's goals. Usually, these cycles last between two and four weeks each, with emphasis on rapid delivery and the acquisition of feedback for inclusion in subsequent sprints.

Read more: What is the difference between agile vs scrum? (With tips)

How does a sprint cycle work?

Within each sprint, there are usually eight steps which allow it to complete the cycle and achieve its goals. These eight steps are as follows:

1. Determine product backlog

The first step is determining a product backlog, which is a list of product requirements. Typically, these are in order of priority. The product owner is the individual responsible for determining this backlog. Determining the backlog is usually part of an initial meeting where the product owner also explains the vision for the product. For developers, this is when they start to think about the time necessary, software architecture and other estimates.

2. Backlog definition

Based on the initial product backlog list, the team can start to make the necessary arrangements and estimates. Developers can propose the software architecture they have in mind and describe the product's features. These features are part of the product backlog items (PBIs). Product owners also define the product's primary goal at this stage, which stipulates the reason for its development. They may choose to refine and change this over the course of the project.

Read more: What is a product backlog and why is it important?

3. Sprint planning

Each sprint can last up to four weeks, so developers want to make estimates for which elements of the product backlog they can complete in an upcoming sprint. Developers, therefore, have planning sessions where they can estimate this and allocate responsibilities. A major contribution to this comes from the product owner, who lists the PBIs in order of priority. For those at the top of this list, the product owner gives sufficient details for developers to know what to do. The developers can then complete each of these in order of priority.

At this stage, there's also a 'sprint goal', which is the reason why each sprint exists. The product owner and developers determine these sprint goals together.

4. Sprint

The sprint itself involves completing the work which developers planned in the previous step. For the first cycle, developers typically start with the highest-priority element from the product's PBIs and complete as much as possible within a sprint. Developers often use task boards to keep track of work and set criteria for the completion of various steps. Every day, they hold a scrum meeting which typically lasts around 15 minutes. Within these meetings, anyone can speak to anyone else in an in-person setting to ask questions or collaboratively solve problems.

Read more: What's a sprint in agile project management? (With tips)

5. Product increments

At the end of each sprint, a certain aspect of the project is typically ready for use. These are product increments, or daily integrations, which demonstrate progress. It can be helpful to use testing and deployment automation for each PBI.

6. Feedback

Once each sprint's objectives are complete, the team can submit their work and begin to receive feedback. This feedback could be the discovery of bugs or requests for certain changes. The team can then integrate the feedback into their plans for future sprints, allowing them to improve the product with each successive sprint. Any other suggestions, such as those from the team themselves, first go to the product owner for approval. If they consent to these other suggestions, the team can include them in the backlog for a subsequent sprint.

7. Sprint review

After the team has received and approved any feedback and suggestions, they can review their progress from the recently completed sprint. Part of this includes demonstrating completed PBIs or showing videos of them working to the product owner. This allows the product owner to understand the progress from the last increment and discuss any other feedback ideas. The discussions and demonstrations from this step are the main determinants of that cycle's success.

Read more: Sprint review vs. retrospective (with differences and goals)

8. Sprint retrospective

The final step in the cycle of a sprint is the sprint retrospective, where the scrum team have a general discussion about what they've completed so far. They can talk about what they believe went well, what didn't go well, areas for future improvement and anything else which might contribute to future work. If they've identified issues or ineffective processes, they can also discuss solutions and alternatives.

The sprint retrospective can last for more than an hour and allows the development of team culture and spirit. If there are subsequent sprints to complete for the same project, the planning session for the next cycle can start with the sprint retrospective.

Read more: What is a sprint retrospective? With benefits and obstacles

What are the roles within scrum?

Within a team operating on the scrum framework, there are three main roles. Here's a description of each of these roles and what they do:

Product owner

The product owner is responsible for the delivery of the product and its value. This individual acts as a representative for the client who's requested the product. They communicate the needs of the client to the scrum team and inform the client of the team's progress and ideas. It's therefore important for the product owner to understand what's possible, have good communication skills and develop trust with the client. The product owner also has the clearest vision for the product which the customer wants. They balance the priorities and needs of various stakeholders to ensure that work proceeds smoothly.

They prioritise work tasks and clarify misunderstandings or conflicts. Product owners are also responsible for ensuring that the client trusts the development team. They manage the scrum backlog and keep track of progress, manage the release of work increments and act as a point of contact for the project's various stakeholders.

Read more: Product owner responsibilities within a development project

Developers

The development team consists of the people who do the work of producing the product. This team includes programmers, designers, writers and anyone else who contributes work to the product. Within the Scrum framework's terminology, anyone who contributes work is a 'developer', not just programmers and software developers. The development team is typically flexible and capable of self-organisation, meaning they can take decisions rapidly to ensure continuity of work. They, therefore, tend to be quite independent and autonomous.

The developers deliver the work necessary for every sprint and take part in daily meetings. These meetings help to encourage transparency among team members and allow them to discuss issues or obstacles and find solutions. The name for this meeting is either the 'daily scrum' or the 'standup'. Although a scrum master can act as a facilitator or mediator for this meeting, the development team is responsible for running it.

Related: What does a software developer do? (With skills and salary)

Scrum master

The scrum master is both a leader and an assistant to the entire scrum team. They help the development team deliver value, the product owner to define what that value is and help everyone improve. Scrum masters can help developers self-organise, facilitate communication, motivate everyone and manage obstacles. They also promote and contribute to a work environment which supports scrum and agile values.

Explore more articles