Key Differences Between Program Increment and Sprint

Agile software development has revolutionized the way companies build and ship software products. Two of the most central concepts in the Agile manifesto are Program Increments and Sprints.

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they refer to distinct ideas that serve different purposes.

Program Increments are longer periods of work that provide direction and alignment for multiple teams, while Sprints break down projects into shorter, repeatable work periods to maximize flexibility and feedback.

To fully understand Agile development, we must understand these two key concepts in depth, explore how they differ, and see how they work together to enable Agile execution at scale.

In this comprehensive blog post, we’ll provide an in-depth overview of Program Increments and Sprints, compare them side by side, and discuss how they are used together in the Scaled Agile Framework.

An Introduction to Agile Values and Principles

Before diving into Program Increments and Sprints, it’s important to understand the Agile mindset and principles.

The Agile Manifesto was published in 2001 and outlined a set of values and principles to guide developers in creating software more flexibly and iteratively.

Agile favors:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

Agile principles emphasize things like frequent delivery of working software, embracing changing requirements, face-to-face communication, and continuous attention to technical excellence and good design.

Agile is an umbrella term encompassing various frameworks that espouse these values and principles, such as Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming (XP), Lean, and the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe).

These frameworks implement Agile in different ways, but they share the common goal of improving flexibility, collaboration, and the responsiveness of software development teams.

Sprints: A Deep Dive

The most well-known Agile framework is Scrum. In Scrum, work is organized into Sprints – short, fixed-length iterations that typically last between 1 and 4 weeks.

The Sprint is the basic unit of development and container event in Scrum. It enables Scrum teams to strategize, develop, review, and refine features through fast feedback cycles.

The other Scrum events are:

1. Sprint Planning

At the beginning of each Sprint, the team conducts Sprint Planning. In this meeting, the team decides which Product Backlog Items they will commit to completing in the upcoming Sprint.

They estimate the level of effort for each item and have an open discussion to determine how much the team can accomplish.

The Sprint Goal is established, and the Sprint Backlog is created to document the work the team will perform in pursuit of the goal.

2. Daily Stand-Ups

Each day of the Sprint, the team conducts a quick Daily Stand-Up or Scrum meeting.

Team members share what they worked on since the last meeting, what they plan to work on next, and any impediments blocking their progress.

Stand-ups provide visibility into the team’s progress and allow them to synchronize their work.

3. Sprint Review

At the end of the Sprint, the team demonstrates the features they’ve built to key stakeholders in a Sprint Review.

Stakeholders then provide feedback that informs future Sprints. The “Done” items from the current Sprint are reviewed to make sure they meet the team’s pre-established Definition of Done (DoD).

4. Sprint Retrospective

Following the Sprint Review, the team holds a Sprint Retrospective to reflect on the Sprint and identify ways to improve.

They discuss what went well, what could be improved, and how to incorporate lessons learned into future Sprints.

The retrospective allows the team to continuously refine how they work together to optimize efficiency and quality.

Benefits of Sprints

The use of Sprints for managing projects especially when it comes to software development has a lot of benefits. These include:

1. Rapid Feedback

Short, iterative Sprints produce working software that can be frequently reviewed by stakeholders. This rapid feedback loop allows teams to adjust quickly based on user or customer feedback.

2. Flexibility

Sprints enable teams to adapt to changing requirements and priorities. The scope of each Sprint can be reassessed and altered as needed during Sprint Planning.

3. Risk Management

Decomposing projects into smaller Sprints avoids the risks of long, complex projects spanning many months.

It’s easier to estimate work, track progress, and make adjustments when dealing with shorter timeframes.

4. Continuous Improvement

The retrospective process enables teams to frequently inspect and adapt their methods to optimize productivity, collaboration, and work output. Incremental improvements build up over multiple Sprints.

5. Focused Work Periods

Time-boxed Sprints provide a focused period for teams to concentrate on a specific set of objectives before reevaluating priorities. This structure leads to greater productivity and momentum.

Program Increments: Taking Agile to the Next Level

For small teams, Sprints are sufficient for implementing an Agile development process.

However, larger organizations typically need a more comprehensive framework to scale Agile across multiple teams, departments, and products.

The Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, provides a model for enterprise Agile adoption.

The SAFe methodology organizes Agile teams into a hierarchy including:

  • Teams: Cross-functional groups of 5 to 10 developers focused on specific features or components. Teams plan and execute work using Sprints.
  • Programs: Multiple teams and stakeholders coordinated with a shared vision and roadmap. Programs utilize Program Increments to drive alignment.
  • The Portfolio: Encompasses multiple programs and coordinates strategy across an entire organization. The portfolio level focuses on optimizing resource allocation and budgeting across programs.

Program Increments, or PIs, are 8-12 week timeboxes that synchronize teams under a program. PIs provide vision, direction, and a planning mechanism for around 5 Sprints worth of work.

During PI planning, teams work together to define objectives, prioritize key features, and create a cohesive plan for the upcoming PI.

Like Sprints, PIs enable fast feedback and risk mitigation but at the program level. They also provide visibility into dependencies, opportunities for shared work, and cross-team coordination.

Some key components of PIs include:

  • PI Planning: At the beginning of each PI, all teams come together for PI Planning to define objectives, features to develop, and the work required to achieve the PI scope. Individual team Sprint Plans are created to work towards the PI objectives.
  • PI Objectives: Teams agree on detailed, measurable objectives to achieve within the PI timeframe. Objectives should ladder up to broader program goals and business strategies.
  • Team Iterations: Teams break down the PI work into Sprints. They continue executing Sprints as usual throughout the PI to build and deliver features.
  • Inspect and Adapt Workshop: At the end of the PI, teams convene to demonstrate completed work, reflect on lessons learned, and make improvements for the next PI. Teams get a holistic view of program progress and dependencies at the PI cadence.

Benefits of Program Increment (PI)

There are also benefits to using PI for Agile. These include:

1. Alignment

PIs provide a mechanism for multiple Scrum teams to align on common goals for an extended period of time. This leads to tighter integration, less rework, and a shared sense of purpose.

2. Large-scale planning

PI Planning addresses dependencies, risks, and integration opportunities in a way that is difficult to achieve at the individual Sprint level or when teams operate in silos.

3. Visibility

PIs give enhanced visibility into progress across teams, allowing leadership to make better data-driven roadmap decisions and resource allocations.

4. Continuous improvement

The Inspect and Adapt Workshop allows teams to make improvements at the program level, in addition to the team-level improvements gained from Sprint Retrospectives.

Program Increment vs Sprint Comparison

While PIs and Sprints serve distinct purposes, they are complementary concepts in SAFe. Here is a side-by-side comparison:

  • Duration: Sprints are 1-4 weeks, while PIs are 8-12 weeks consisting of multiple Sprints.
  • Scope: Sprints focus on individual teamwork, while PIs coordinate work across all teams in a program.
  • Planning: Sprint Planning defines work for a single team, while PI Planning synchronizes all teams in a program.
  • Objectives: Sprints have a short-term Sprint Goal, while PIs have broader PI Objectives aligned to organizational strategies.
  • Review and Adaption: Sprints have a Sprint Review and Retrospective, while PIs have an Inspect and Adapt Workshop for program-level improvement.
  • Risk management: Sprints mitigate risk for individual teams, while PIs address risk from a multi-team, program perspective.
  • Feedback loop: Sprints get feedback from stakeholders, while PIs get feedback from leadership and customers to adjust program direction.

Using PIs and Sprints Together

PIs and Sprints are complementary in SAFe.

PIs provide a “big picture” view of what needs to be achieved over the next few months, while Sprints break that work down into digestible pieces for individual development teams.

PI Planning ensures teams are working together towards the same priorities and program goals. Teams then execute the PI work by continuing their usual cadence of Sprints.

They hold all standard Scrum events like Sprint Planning, Daily Stand-Ups, Reviews, and Retrospectives to work towards the objectives defined during PI Planning.

This combination of PIs and Sprints allows organizations to realize the benefits of both short-term iteration and long-term alignment.

Teams can operate with a reasonable level of independence and move fast while still collaborating closely with other teams on shared work.

Leadership gains visibility and input across teams through the PI events but does not micromanage the details of how individual teams choose to organize themselves during Sprints.

PIs provide guardrails to keep teams moving in the same general direction without being overly prescriptive.

Teams have the flexibility to determine how they will navigate within those guardrails to build features as needed.

The relationship between PIs and Sprints is symbiotic, with each mechanism operating at a different scope and timescale but enabling the overall vision.

Benefits of Using PIs and Sprints Together

Using PIs and Sprints in combination, scaled Agile organizations can achieve extraordinary results. Some of the benefits include:

1. Alignment at Scale

Hundreds of individuals can coordinate priorities and work together effectively. Dependencies are minimized through planning and visibility across teams.

2. Flexibility and speed

Although aligned on a common purpose, teams can adapt to changes independently and move quickly due to their Sprint cadence.

3. Continuous improvement

Teams optimize how they work at multiple levels – within Sprints, across the program, and for the broader organization. Practices evolve rapidly based on feedback.

4. Rapid value delivery

The PI planning process focuses teams on delivering key features that move the needle for the business. Features can be built and released or demonstrated during each PI.

5. Transparency

Leadership has clear visibility into progress, risks, and roadblocks to make informed decisions and provide necessary support. Teams also gain insight into cross-program initiatives.

6. Risk management

Potential risks that could derail or slow down teams are identified and mitigated through planning at both the Sprint and PI level. Dependencies between teams are also accounted for in planning.

A Final Look at Agile Frameworks

Agile methodologies have revolutionized the software development industry by enabling faster delivery, close collaboration with customers, and the ability to respond quickly to change.

Frameworks like Scrum provide a structured process for implementing Agile that can scale from a single team up to large organizations.

The Scaled Agile Framework builds on concepts like Scrum and introduces mechanisms for coordinating multiple teams with shared outcomes.

PIs and Sprints are two of the key mechanisms in SAFe that work together at different levels of granularity to achieve alignment and autonomy.

PIs organize teams around a common direction and vision but provide flexibility in how the work is executed. Sprints give teams an engine for driving fast progress while adapting to stakeholders’ needs.

By planning together at the PI level but working independently in Sprints, teams can achieve both alignment and speed.

Organizations looking to scale Agile should understand how to effectively implement Sprints, PIs, and the Scaled Agile Framework.

When used properly, these frameworks provide a powerful set of tools for building software at an organizational scale with rapid feedback, continuous improvement, and frequent delivery of customer value.

The concepts of PIs and Sprints are foundational for achieving alignment and autonomy, and therefore, are essential for any scalable Agile implementation.

David Usifo (PSM, MBCS, PMP®)
David Usifo (PSM, MBCS, PMP®)

David Usifo is a certified project manager professional, professional Scrum Master, and a BCS certified Business Analyst with a background in product development and database management.

He enjoys using his knowledge and skills to share with aspiring and experienced project managers and product developers the core concept of value-creation through adaptive solutions.

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