Every day you use timeboxing, whether you’re aware of it or not. If you hit up an hour-long workout class, take your dog for a 30-minute walk or meet a friend for a 20-minute coffee break, these are all common examples of timeboxing.

When it comes to work, what does “timeboxed” means in Agile project management terms? Simply put, there is an agreed-upon timeframe when work or activity stops once that timeframe is up. Then this process is reviewed and it’s determined if the goals were met during the assigned timeframe or not.

If you’re already an experienced Scrum team (or plan to be) then solid knowledge of timeboxing is a must. Scrum timebox planning is a backbone for all Scrum events and is a key tool for concretely defining open-ended or ambiguous tasks.

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Benefits of timebox in Agile and Scrum

Why do you need to put a timeframe on tasks? The simple answer is that if you’re using Agile project management it’s a must. There are several major benefits:

Prioritization

Timebox project management forces you to focus on the task at hand. And since you have a limited time, tasks are easily prioritized.

Focus

When deadlines are soft, distractions creep in. But when using a set timeframe, you increase productivity by focusing on meeting the end goal before time expires.

Resources

Project management is all about maximizing the time and resources spent on a project. When you’re using timeboxing in Agile, it’s easy to judge how much each team member is spending on a project to meet the overall goals.

Accountability

Every team member needs to pull their weight on a project, but without task timeframes or sprints, it’s hard to tell when and where a project is falling behind. With timeboxing in Agile, after each sprint an analysis can be performed showing where needed deliverables stand.

Patterns

After a project is complete, you can go through your timeboxing sessions and notice patterns. For example, if you notice projects stall using a certain software program or a certain team member, you can make adjustments on future projects or invest in the resources your team needs to make work happen most efficiently.

Manageable

When you have a large and complex project it can seem overwhelming to a team. But if you break that project up into small sprints and use timeboxing in Agile, it seems manageable and you’ll receive better buy-in from everyone involved.

How to use timeboxing for Agile planning

Before you begin to use timeboxing in Agile, you’ll need to decide which type to use and what length. Adding in Agile project management software can also help streamline this process.

Typically, timeboxes should run two to four weeks. There are two main types to consider.

1. DSDM structured timebox

In this approach, there are three distinct phases: investigation (research), refinement (using research to solve tasks) and consolidation (wrapping up the project before the timebox expires). These three phases are spread over a timebox to ensure adequate focus on each phase.

2. Free-form timebox

The other approach is simply setting a timebox and working until it expires. This is a more free-form approach and may be better suited for less complex projects or very small teams.

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How to start planning your timebox

1. Timebox kickoff

 The first step is to review the objectives and goals of your time-planning timebox. Then make sure the tasks to complete are doable in the timeframe you’ve established. It’s also important to choose which timebox structure will make the most sense to use, either  DSDM or a free-form timebox. Speak to all team members who will be involved to make sure they have the required time to dedicate to the project. If they don’t, plan to hire contractors to fill in the holes. This meeting should be attended by all team members involved in the project.

2. Investigation

During the investigation stage in timeboxing in Agile, you look at all the tasks for the project and decide how these will be accomplished within the given timeframe. Timeboxing is important because it creates iterations in Agile management. When you use short iterations it breaks the workload up and forces everyone to pay attention at the right time. Once the team understands the work needed, they should work through the tasks, plan for testing, and build any needed prototypes to ensure the end result will work properly.

3. Refinement

The next phase is testing. All the tasks completed within the investigation stage should be studied to make sure they will meet your objectives. After testing is complete, the results of this timebox in Agile should be presented to the stakeholders for approval. Feedback is then provided by these stakeholders.

4. Consolidation

During consolidation, any feedback that requires action should be made. Further testing might be necessary based on these new changes. Next, the end results are compared to the objectives to judge the success or failure of the timebox. If some or all of the objectives were not met when the timebox expires, a new sprint planning timebox will be needed.

5. Closeout

Finally, a timebox should be carefully analyzed. If unforeseen problems surfaced during the timebox or certain objectives weren’t met, then the next iteration in Agile management should be planned. Just keep in mind to analyze all unfinished tasks and decide if these should be rolled over, should be tabled indefinitely or saved for a future date. Since the goal of timeboxes is ultimately to stay on a specific timeline, you don’t want to mindlessly pass work off to a future time box without close analysis to make sure that it will be worth it.

It’s also important to learn from the timebox. What could be improved upon for the next one? How could it be more effective? That’s why it’s a good idea to hold a short Agile ceremony after each timebox. This is a meeting between team members to discuss successes to carry over to future timeboxes, recognize problems to avoid in the future and define any issues for a new timebox.

Timeboxing for better project management

The use of timeboxing will help strengthen your projects and empower your teams to focus on what matters. They help improve productivity and keep projects moving in a way that also energizes your team to do their best work. 

Plus, by cutting out the distractions and drilling down to the important tasks, you’ll save time, money and resources. For more help, check out our Agile planning page.