Today more than ever, organizations are hyper focused on their agile process to ensure alignment with strategy and manage the delivery of value with cost and time constraints… almost too much so! Having worked with many different organizations over the last few years on their agile process to facilitate the delivery of value, I’ve noticed a common theme — the hyper focus on agile process impedes the delivery of value. The “key” is having the right balance.

Dudes Law

balance agile processA good friend and colleague of mine, David Hussman, calls this out by citing his very own “Dudes Law” (Value = Why/How). This basically translates to … “The more you focus on ‘The How’ the less value you get. Use ‘The How’ (ie. your process) as a tool to facilitate the delivery of value. Don’t treat it as if it were the Law of the Land.” So, what David is really saying here is, “focus on ‘The Why’”! Meaning… understand why you are doing what you are doing. Connecting with “The Why” allows teams to be more innovative in their approach. This is what we want folks… You did not hire people to just “follow a process” … You hired innovators, and engineers! “The Why” as David so eloquently puts it, is best known in the agile world as “Epics, Capabilities, Features, etc”… ie. “The Big Rocks”, ideas, initiatives, or in VersionOne… Portfolio items, that we break down into stories that live in a backlog. In a traditional sense, these are also “Projects” that teams work on in support of a given strategy.

A Balancing Act

Having a solid understanding of “why you are doing, what you are doing”, and balancing that with the team process to deliver on that value is key! The key word here is “balance” … Most organizations only focus their process around team delivery at the backlog level. Applying the same agile/lean practices at the program and portfolio levels is needed to achieve “the right balance” to keep value flowing and to answer the two questions that everybody need answered:

  1. When will this be done?
  2. Are we working on the right things?

An organizations ability to manage their portfolio of projects is no small task. Its not uncommon to see teams working multiple projects at once — even though that may not be the intent. What I mean is… I’ve seen, in many cases, teams focused on a prioritized project, then some other “high priority” project comes into play and traction is lost on the original project they were focusing on — so much so that it ends up sitting in a half-baked state for months! Then, once revisiting, teams are having to re-learn, and re-calibrate on what was done prior, let alone what needs to be done. Sound familiar?

“Dog Fooding”

For an organization to manage their portfolio of work successfully, they should do what they coach their teams to do. Teams manage delivery of value, in a disciplined way, by incorporating agile & lean practices that chips away at the prioritized backlog of work that’s on their plate.

At the very core, teams apply lean principles to value delivery. After all, lean is the very reason why agile works, right? (Thank John Little for that!)

  • Limit their focus (i.e. WIP – work in progress)
  • Visualize workflow
  • Optimize cycle and lead times

Why can’t these lean practices be applied to the portfolio of projects? Let’s look at each one of the above mentioned “rules” for applying lean.
Little's Law

Limit WIP

Seems like everything do in life involves a queue, right? Going to work in traffic – that’s a queue. Going to the grocery store — in a queue. Well, projects in an organization are in queue just like backlog items.

Here are a few tips to get you started on keeping “The Right Focus”:

Tip 1: Timebox your backlog

Timebox your backlog to control the focus. For backlog items, I like to timebox it to 90 days or less. For your portfolio items, double, or triple that. If a project doesn’t fit into the timebox, don’t put it there! Doing this alone, will afford teams “The Right Focus” when viewing/managing “what’s on their plate” so they can set realistic expectations. Having a manageable backlog allows for a percentage of time spent each sprint/week to look ahead, prototype, investigate, and tee things up.

Tip 2: Set WIP for active work

For backlog items and story boards, I typically start off with 1.5 * # team members. For portfolio items, I typically use # teams — but, it’s up to you, based on the number of team members, and focus they have.
Agile Process Comic

Visualize Workflow

What I’ve noticed to be most helpful, is the use of planning rooms in VersionOne to create views that are consumable and relatable to folks at different levels in the organization. For example, Senior level execs aren’t really concerned with the low tasks that a developer is doing. They care about their initiatives or “Epics”, and if the teams working on them are “moving the needle” or not. Program teams, take the “Epic” work and decompose into two or more “Features” that follow a different, more refined workflow, and manage to completion to deliver on the “Epics”. They work with the delivery teams to bridge the gap between the stories they are committing to in a backlog that derive from the “Features”. See below for a visual of what this looks like.Workflow Visualization

Here’s another example below from the context of a Planning Room in VersionOne. This illustrates two different perspectives of how an organization is delivering on its strategy. On the left, you have an “Epic” workflow at the portfolio level. On the right, you have a “Feature” workflow at the program level that also shows the relationship to the parent “Epic” it derives from.Agile PlanningRoom
Here is a view from the agile team level detailing the stories committed to, the feature they derive from, and the progress on each as effort is tracked and tasks are completed.
Agile TeamRoom
With this view, anyone in the organization can see the things they are responsible for in addition to how that same work contributes to the bigger picture.

Optimize Cycle & Lead Times

Use Cumulative Flow and Cycle time reports to validate how the “flow” rate of your portfolio work, identify bottlenecks, establish a cadence of delivery, and calibrate estimation.
In the portfolio item cumulative flow chart below, you can see many opportunities to improve upon. Specifically, with respect to ensuring that the average rate in which work enters a status is equal to the average rate in which it leaves that status — implementation and testing is stalled at various points.
Portfolio Item Cumulative FlowA portfolio cycle time trend provides an opportunity to improve upon estimates, or what I like to say… provides a way to have “validated learning” — comparing estimates on portfolio work to cycle times.
Portfolio Cycle Time TrendSo, be sure to keep the “right” perspective and always keep a hyper focus on “The Why”, using “The How” as a tool to deliver. This will help you maintain a balance to keep value flowing!

And remember… A little can go a long way!

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