August 10, 2015

Reasons for Continuous Planning

By Johanna Rothman

I’m working on the program management book, specifically on the release planning chapter. One of the problems I see in programs is that the organization/senior management/product manager wants a “commitment” for an entire quarter. Since they think in quarter-long roadmaps, that’s not unreasonable—from their perspective.

AgileRoadmapOneQuarter.copyright-300x223There is a problem with commitments and the need for planning for an entire quarter. This is legacy (waterfall) thinking. Committing is not what the company actually wants. Delivery is what the company wants. The more often you deliver, the more often you can change.

That means changing how often you release and replan.

Consider these challenges for a one-quarter commitment:

  1. Even if you have small stories, you might not be able to estimate perfectly. You might finish something in less time than you had planned. Do you want to take advantage of schedule advances?
  2. In the case of too-large stories, where you can’t easily provide a good estimate, (where you need a percent confidence or some other mechanism to explain risk,) you are (in my experience) likely to under-estimate.
  3. What if something changes mid-quarter, and you want more options or a change in what the feature teams can deliver? Do you want to wait until the end of a quarter to change the program’s direction?

If you “commit” on a shorter cadence, you can manage these problems. (I prefer the term replan.)

If you consider a no-more-than-one-monthly-duration “commit,” you can see the product evolve, provide feedback across the program, and change what you do at every month milestone. That’s better.

Here’s a novel idea: Don’t commit to anything at all. Use continuous planning.


If you look at the one-quarter roadmap, you can see I show  three iterations worth of stories as MVPs. In my experience, that is at least one iteration too much look-ahead knowledge. I know very few teams who can see six weeks out. I know many teams who can see to the next iteration. I know a few teams who can see two iterations.

What does that mean for planning?

Do continuous planning with short stories. You can keep the 6-quarter roadmap. That’s fine. The roadmap is a wish list. Don’t commit to a one-quarter roadmap. If you need a commitment, commit to one iteration at a time. Or, in flow/kanban, commit to one story at a time.

That will encourage everyone to:

  1. Think small. Small stories, short iterations, asking every team to manage their WIP (work in progress) will help the entire program maintain momentum.
  2. See interdependencies. The smaller the features, the clearer the interdependencies are.
  3. Plan smaller things and plan for less time so you can reduce the planning load for the program. (I bet your planning for one iteration or two is much better and takes much less time than your one-quarter planning.)
  4. Use deliverable planning (“do these features”) in a rolling wave (continue to replan as teams deliver).

These ideas will help you see value more often in your program. When you release often and replan, you build trust as a program. Your managers might stop asking for “commits.”

If you keep the planning small, you don’t need to gather everyone in one big room once a quarter for release planning. If you do continuous planning, you might never need everyone in one room for planning. You might want everyone in one room for a kickoff or to help people see who is working on the program. That’s different than a big planning session, where people plan instead of deliver value.

If you are managing a program, what would it take for you to do continuous planning? What impediments can you see? What risks would you have planning this way?

Oh, and if you are on your way to agile and you use release trains, remember that the release train commits to a date, not scope and date.

Consider planning and replanning every week or two. What would it take for your program to do that?

August 10, 2015 04:58 PM

August 04, 2015

Who Should be Your Product Owner?

By Johanna Rothman

In agile, we separate the Product Owner function from functional (development) management. The reason is that we want the people who can understand and evaluate the business value to articulate the business value to tell the people who understand the work’s value when to implement what. The technical folks determine how to implement the what.

Separating the when/what from how is a great separation. It allows the people who are considering the long term and customer impact of a given feature or set of features a way to rank the work. Technical teams may not realize when to release a given feature/feature set.

In my recent post, Product Manager, Product Owner, or Business Analyst?, I discussed what these different roles might deliver. Now it’s time to consider who should do the product management/product ownership roles.

If you have someone called a product manager, that person defines the product, asks the product development team(s) for features, and talks to customers. Notice the last part, the talking to customers part. This person is often out of the office. The product manager is an outward-facing job, not an internally-focused job.

The product owner works with the team to define and refine features, to replan the backlogs, and to know when it is time to release. The product owner is an inward-facing function.

(Just for completeness, the business analyst is an inward-facing function. The BA might sit with people in the business to ask, “Exactly what did you mean when you asked for this functionality? What does that mean to you?” A product owner might ask that same question.)

What happens when your product manager is your product owner? The product development team doesn’t have enough time with the product owner. Maybe the team doesn’t understand the backlog, or the release criteria, or even something about a specific story.

Sometimes, functional managers become product owners. They have the domain expertise and the ability to create a backlog and to work with the product manager when that person is available. Is this a good idea?

If the manager is not the PO for his/her team, it’s okay. I wonder how a manager can build relationships with people in his/her team and manage the problems and remove impediments that the team needs. Maybe the manager doesn’t need to manage so much and can be a PO. Maybe the product ownership job isn’t too difficult. I’m skeptical, but it could happen.

There is a real problem when a team’s manager is also the product owner. People are less likely to have a discussion and disagree with their managers, especially if the organization hasn’t moved to team compensation. In Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company, Sutton discusses the issue of how and when people feel comfortable challenging their managers. 

Many people do not feel comfortable challenging their managers. At all.

We want the PO and the team to be able to have that give-and-take about ranking, value, when it makes sense to do what. The PO makes the decision, and with information from the team, can take all the value into account. The PO might hear, “We can implement this feature first, and then this other feature is much easier.” Or, “If we fix these defects now, we can make these features much easier.” You want those conversations. The PO might say, “No, I want the original order” and the team will do it. The conversations are critical.

If you are a manager, considering being a PO for your team, reconsider. Your organization may have too many managers and not enough POs. That’s a problem to fix. Don’t make it difficult for your team to have honest discussions with you. Make it possible for people with the best interests of the product to have real discussions without being worried about their jobs.

(If you are struggling with the PO role, consider my Product Owner Training for Agencies. It starts next week.)

August 04, 2015 12:01 PM

July 30, 2015

Embracing the Zen of Program Management

By Johanna Rothman

The lovely folks at Thoughtworks interviewed me for a blog post, Embracing the Zen of Program Management.  I hope you like the information there.

Agile and Lean Program Management: Scaling Collaboration Across the OrganizationIf you want to know about agile and lean program management, see Agile and Lean Program Management: Scaling Collaboration Across the Organization. In beta now.

July 30, 2015 12:47 PM

July 29, 2015

Great Review of Predicting the Unpredictable

By Johanna Rothman

Ryan Ripley “highly recommends” Predicting the Unpredictable: Pragmatic Approaches to Estimating Cost or Schedule. See his post: Pragmatic Agile Estimation: Predicting the Unpredictable.

He says this:

This is a practical book about the work of creating software and providing estimates when needed. Her estimation troubleshooting guide highlights many of the hidden issues with estimating such as: multitasking, student syndrome, using the wrong units to estimate, and trying to estimates things that are too big. — Ryan Ripley

Thank you, Ryan!

PredictingUnpredictable-small See Predicting the Unpredictable: Pragmatic Approaches to Estimating Cost or Schedule for more information.

July 29, 2015 12:31 PM