Iterative Project Planning in Research and Development

Posted on Fri 16 June 2017 in Productivity

Objectives and Scope

The purpose of this document is to outline a successful strategy for the optimal preparation, execution and measurement of plans for open-ended research and development projects. In particular this document demonstrates the effective use of short-term iteration cycle planning commonly known as Agile, Scrum or Kanban project management. It is important to note that the methods described in this document are not applicable to projects which have well-known execution times such as engineering, procurement and construction (EPC). Also while short-term iteration cycle planning may work well for open-ended research questions, they may be combined with traditional waterfall techniques in time-limited projects.


In a nutshell, an iterative project plan has these major features:


All projects should have a big giant overriding mission statement. This is what you look at when you're really lost and trying to re-inspire your team. In other words, this is what it's all about. For example a school projects mission might be the following:

To empower students to become agents of their own learning

Goals or Objectives

In order to accomplish the mission, you need a few long-term, broad goals or objectives that point out what direction you think you need to follow. Don't be too specific here. Continuing the school environment example, some goals might be the following:

  • Engage students in STEAM
  • Reinforce literacy in every interaction
  • Create a strong sense of community

Release Cycle

Pick a long-term time frame to work in, during which you hope to make progress in the same direction as these goals. This is your "release cycle". For example in a school setting the release cycle might be every three months.

Milestones or Epics

Narrow down milestones for each of the broad goals that you think can be accomplished during each release cycle. These milestones are sometimes called "epics" or "projects"

Iteration Cycle

Pick a short-term iteration cycle during which you can meet with your team and measure progress on your "epics". Iteration cycles vary anywhere from weekly to monthly, but a good compromise is every two weeks. This time-frame is your "iteration" or "scrum" because you will often meet your group for a quick tally kind of like a rugby scrum.


Brainstorm the detailed, small, atomic tasks that you think would be required to complete the epics and put them on cards in a list called your backlog. There are many online tools like Trello that are designed to make this easy, but a large cork board works just fine. An atomic task is nearly the smallest discreet unit of work you can think of that would need to be done in order to accomplish the milestone. Tasks are easily measured, and it should also be easier to predict the time necessary to complete them.


Assign each card or task an effort score. Keep the scale small; think of it as a rubric, not a linear scale, but it could loosely be proportional to time. A common effort scale might be the following:

Effort Description Approximate time
0 chore any known length of time
1 easy < 1 day
2 hard < 1 week
3 mini-epic > 1 week

Usually a chore is a well-defined task that is done all the time so you know exactly how long it takes. Just mark chores on your schedule and do them. A mini-epic probably means you should break it into smaller tasks, but you may try to do it as a single task anyway. Effort is used to measure progress; the data is used to normalize and prioritize future iteration cycles. Since any data is useful as long as it is carefully measured and calibrated, you may adjust your effort scale to fit your needs after several iterations and releases.


Kanban, Scrum and Agile have many similarities. See this Smartsheet article for a side-by-side comparison. In a nutshell, Agile is a philosophy, while Scrum and Kanban are implementations of Agile. Scrum introduces the concept of a sprint or interval while Kanban introduces puts all tasks into lists or swimlanes on a board that everyone can see and manipulate. IMO forget the names and concentrate of what works best and is easiest to use. The goal is to be efficient and productive.

The simplest Kanban board can be divided into 3 swimlanes, which is the default workflow for a new Trello board:

  • To do (aka backlog)
  • Doing (aka current work)
  • Done (aka completed work)

You can add more swimlanes to capture other items such as:

  • wishlist, icebox or parking lot - items for a rainy day
  • won't do - items ruled out
  • in review - almost done
  • on deck - in between backlog and current work


One aspect of an iterative workflow that can create anxiety is the measurement of progress and the evaluation or prediction of the time to complete a task or milestone. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method from the 1980's that provides a concrete conversion rate between units of work and units of time. One pomodoro is typically equivalent to 30-minutes. Using the Pomodoro technique is a diagnostic tool that eliminates the need to normalize burndown rates since converting between pomodoros and time is not subjective.

Trello and Pomello

Trello is an online tool that offers a Kanban-esque board to organize tasks and iterations. The Pomello app is a plugin for Trello that integrates Pomodoro. It logs time on task, measures the number of pomodoros spent on a task and lets you move completed tasks to their swimlane when done.

Current Work (Option 1: Kanban)

This is my personal preference because IMO the workflow is much simpler since there are only 3 swimlanes. I use this with the Pomodoro Technique. At the beginning of each iteration, pull cards into the current work list and count the number of pomodoros used on each. When a task is done, move it to the "completed" list and pull a new item from the backlog. That's it!

Current Iteration (Option 2: Scrum)

Note this method won't work with Pomello, it's better to use Scrum for Trello and Burndown for Trello.

At the beginning of each iteration cycle move some cards from the backlog into a new list called your current iteration. Iterations may be numbered or identified by date or work-week as long as they are recorded. You should assign individuals or small teams to tasks and encourage frequent communication and collaboration between individuals and teams during the iteration. During the iteration teams and individuals should measure their progress by deducting points from the initial effort of each task until they are complete and the remaining effort is zero.

During the iteration communicate with your team frequently and make adjustments as needed. For example, during an iteration you might do any or all of the following:

  • Take new cards from the back log as needed until the iteration is over.
  • Reorder cards on the backlog or current iteration board to reprioritize.
  • Choose tasks based on their estimated effort and the remaining time in the iteration.
  • Reclassify a tasks as an epic and break it into to subtasks.
  • Reassign individuals and teams to tasks.

Burndown (Scrum)

At the end of the iteration, tally up the effort points completed, add it to the previous total and divide by the total number of iterations. Plot this data for everyone, for individuals, for all iterations cumulatively and for each iteration. These are your burndown rates. Use them to normalize team members and to determine how much effort can be accomplished per iteration.

Table 1: Example Burndown Calculation

Iteration Bobby Sally Juan Briana Effort Bobby Sally Juan Briana Cummulative Bobby Sally Juan Briana Average
1 12 4 7 10 8.25 12 4 7 10 8.25 12 4 7 10 8.25
2 6 6 9 11 8 18 10 16 21 16.25 9 5 8 10.5 8.125
3 8 5 7 9 7.25 26 15 23 30 23.5 8.67 5 7.67 10 7.83
4 10 3 8 7 7 36 18 31 37 30.5 9 4.5 7.75 9.25 7.625

Looking at the burndown rates and cumulative effort you can make several observations:

  • Bobby and Briana are either the team’s top performers or are over estimating effort. Use this info to normalize the team by either using your own effort scale or pairing teammates together to see their joint effort estimates. For example if Briana is high performer, her burndown stands, and if Bobby’s performance is more equivalent to the team average then adjust it by a factor of around 85% to 7.65 instead of 9. Ditto for Sally if she is sandbagging her effort estimates, adjust hers by a factor of 1.7x to 7.65.
  • Now that your burndown is normalized, the adjusted team average is around 8 points of Effort per Iteration. Therefore you should only plan to add tasks summing up to around 32 effort points each iteration.
  • If your iteration is half over, and Juan’s queue is empty, you can only expect him to deliver around 4 effort in the remaining time, so choose tasks summing up to this or less.


After calculating burndown your team can reprioritize tasks and epics, both in response to data on progress but also due to a shift in the team mission and associated objectives. Move incomplete tasks from the current iteration either to epics because they were just too big to do in a single iteration, back to the backlog because you over allocated effort or to a board called the “Icebox” or “Parking Lot” to revisit on a rainy day.


At the end of the release, publish what you have. Report on it. Re-evaluate your milestones and compare to your broad long term goals and your mission. Adjust your milestones as needed. Then celebrate!


Here are some typical workflows and how you can set them up using Trello.


Just take the default Trello layout and start working. Put ideas that come up into the backlog. Break them up into tasks as needed. Each week move some items into the current work list. When an item is finished move it to the completed list. Use the Pomello app to measure how many pomodoros they take, and use that info to make predictions about when projects will get done. That's it!


One way to use Trello for Scrum is to set up 4 boards:

  • Epics
  • Backlog
  • Current Iteration by date
  • Icebox

Each iteration, I archive the old iteration and create a new iteration board with the date. I move cards around all the time. I only assign effort to tasks in the backlog which get dragged to the current iteration. I create links from tasks to epics and vice-versa. I put lots of comments on the cards as I make progress.


There are many arguments for using short-term iteration cycle planning. I will list the major salient points here.

Uncertainty is Hyperbolic

Research and development projects are inherently unknowns. There may be some data that indicates around doing small isolated tasks, but predicting a string of tasks and how they will proceed from one another is not possible because as predictions move out of the data centroid and extrapolate to larger projects and longer time-frames the uncertainty explodes hyperbolically. Therefore better predictions can only be made close to the data centroid centered on small atomic tasks.

Humans are Meta Cognitively Wired

Meta cognition is understanding about how we think, and we know a lot about how we think we work.

We get a rush from checking off tasks. (Dopamine)

Using iterative project planning with shorter term iterations allows contributors to feel more sense of accomplishment because they complete more tasks, they receive recognition for completed work and have a clear sense of expectations because data is explicit and meaningful. The feeling comes from dopamine released each time we tick off a task.

We dislike wasted effort. (Endorphins)

Only tasks are S.M.A.R.T. Milestones, objectives and mission statements are only loosely structured allowing teams to concentrate on the task at hand. By spending less time planning out long-term objectives teams feel a strong sense of purpose. Nothing is more aggravating than spending a long time planning something only to have it switched around completely halfway through it. This frustration leads ultimately to burnout and dysfunction. The corollary to this is the excitement and morale boost of diving into work quickly and quickly scoring small victories. Even a few small failures here are seen as positive data toward the correct course of action because there isn’t a lot riding on them. Working hard releases endorphins, which soothes anxiety and makes us feel accomplished. A lack of endorphins however leads to anger and stress.

We are more productive when we feel self-directed and that our work has purpose. (Serotonin)

Iterative project planning allows teams to be more productive with less oversite since they participate in creating tasks and their current workload by taking tasks from the backlog. Also by leverage Agile project management software to organize tasks in iterations and calculate burndown, companies can allow management to focus on the “Big Picture” giving the entire organization a stronger sense of unity and focus. This sense of purpose and self-value comes from serotonin released as we partake in planning our own work.

We like to work in groups. (Oxytocin)

Iterative project planning is inherently designed for groups. Working together on a project build trust intimacy and ultimately synergy which multiply productivity. Understanding and valuing each other’s strengths and weaknesses makes us closer even in a professional setting. This releases oxytocin which makes us feel appreciated and loved.


IMHO iterative project planning is a no brainer for any research and development group. It increases productivity while reducing costs by leveraging more individual contributors and sharing leadership.


Wikipedia Articles and Perspectives:

Online Tools: