How to Negotiate Sprint Commitment with Product Owners

Negotiating Sprint Commitment
It's that dreaded time again. You've gathered for the sprint commitment meeting and already have a fairly good idea of what the team will be willing to commit. Your velocity is 100 story points per sprint, and over the last three sprints they achieved +/-10% against that target. You're hoping for a 95 point commitment as there is a big meeting this week that will pull the team off task.

Only you know that the product owner is going to hope for a 108 story point commitment. She's aiming to get two more stories done this sprint, one with eight points and the other with five points.

And she'll come with all the right reasons why end-users will want the added improvements sooner. Your team has CI/CD in place but follows a release management standard of 3-sprints for a major release. Continuous deployment wouldn't work for this organization as every release requires some manual testing that can't easily be automated, documentation for SOC-2 compliance, and end-user training that can't be performed more frequently.


This is the second sprint in the release cycle and the last one where major new functionality can be introduced. If the product owner doesn't get the two additional stories committed, then she might have to wait for four more sprints before the added stories and their improvements get released to end-users.

The team is doing a great job with consistently improving sprint velocity, releasing reliable deployments that go to production on schedule, and showing that they can reduce technical debt. End users are very satisfied with the last six months of improvements. The DevOps KPI dashboard that the executive team's reviews monthly shows they are consistently in the top three across sixteen teams practicing StarCIO Agile Planning.

Common Approaches to Negotiate Commitment with the Product Owner


But every two weeks the team gets demoralized at this sprint commitment meeting. No matter what their success has been, the product owner comes in asking for more. She's a great product owner and doesn't exhibit some of the bad behaviors previous product owners had, but getting through this meeting has become too painful.

This meeting is no different and the team has tried everything with her!


  • Explaining the logic of their commitment given upcoming meetings and personal schedules.
  • Reviewing story priorities to see if some higher priority ones can be lowered to make room for new ones she is seeking.
  • Answering questions why other stories had higher story point estimates; because if the points can be lowered either by reducing scope or by convincing the team the work isn't as complicated, it should open the opportunity to take on more user stories.
  • Debating whether some defect and technical debt stories should be in the sprint or whether there is low impact delaying them to a future sprint. 
  • Listening to the product owner as to why this is the right time to stretch the team's velocity by putting in some extra hours and getting more user stories done.

End the Haggling by Introducing Shallow Commitments


Sprint Commitment vs Shallow Commitment
I'm watching this team from afar when one of the team members makes a new suggestion.

"What if we make a shallow commitment to these stories. If the other ones are done sooner and with less complexity then we're forecasting, then we'll move the added two stories to this sprint and get them done."

This idea diffuses the debate. 

If priorities can't be adjusted, scope refined, or estimates adjusted, then this idea is far better to the team than just falling to the pressure of committing to a larger number of story points. And the product owner accepts the idea, confident she'll see the additional stories done because she believes the team under commits and is conservative with their estimates. 

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I can't take credit for shallow commitments. It's a concept my teams at BusinessWeek adopted over a decade ago that I've applied with other agile teams since then. It works. 

In my post next week, I'll share more details on how to operationalize shallow commitments.

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