Monday, March 24, 2014

Understanding Agile Planning

One common myth about Agile is that those who practice Agile don't plan. I've found the opposite to be true: those who truly understand Agile are planning all the time. The difference is that the planning they do is much more lightweight. They also anticipate change, rather than pretend it doesn't exist, resulting in plans that are living documents instead of notarized relics. Their plans are always accurate, but with varying levels of precision. How do they do this? Using one of the simplest, most powerful planning tools out there: the backlog.

The Backlog
A backlog is really nothing more than a prioritized list. If you've ever made a To-Do List (or its popular cousin, the Honey-Do List) then you've made a backlog. If your backlog was short, you probably got a lot done and felt a great swell of accomplishment. If your backlog was exhaustive and poorly prioritized, you probably got overwhelmed and did little to "move the needle".

Levels of Planning
I'm tackling this from an enterprise view of Scrum, but the concepts are the same regardless of how many levels you use or the terminology you pick. In general, an enterprise using Scrum should have five levels of planning.

Levels of Planning

I'm not the first to notice these five levels, so I can't take credit for the concept. The idea is that you start with a Vision that serves as your "True North". Everything that you do should align with your Vision, and your Vision statement should be updated infrequently. At this level, you're looking at Themes or Strategies that execute the Vision at a very high level.

Everything in your Roadmap - lets call them Epics - should align to one or more Theme. You may call it something different, and the word Epic may mean something different to you. When I say Epic, I refer to a set of one or more Features that provide significant strategical value to your organization. Waterfall project charters usually consist of one or more Epics as I've defined them here. Your Roadmap may go out 3-5 years or more, but becomes more "squishy" the further out you go. Roadmaps should be revisited at least quarterly and updated whenever necessary.

Releases should align to the Roadmap and should consist of one or more Features. When I say "Release", I'm referring to a production release with significant functionality. If you're in a shop that employs Continuous Delivery, this would obviously not refer to the type of release that happens multiple times each day; perhaps the word "Release" doesn't even make sense in that context. Regardless of the term, this is the level that is easiest for end-users to understand. Everything above this level is too abstract, and everything below this level is too granular.

Sprints should have goals that align with the Release plan. The Scrum teams do this by committing to User Stories that contribute to the completion of the next Releases Feature(s). My recommendation for Sprint Duration is two weeks. I've tried 3-week, 4-week, and month-long Sprints and I didn't care for any of them. Two weeks seems to be the sweet spot. Changes to the Sprint plan should be kept to a minimum, especially if the team is a less-mature Agile team. Again, the mechanics of this change for Kanban, DevOps, or similar teams.

At the lowest level, the team aligns in their Daily Scrum on how they will work together to accomplish the Sprint's goals. They may be aligning in the context of tasks, which may or may not be planned out at the beginning of the Sprint, but they are not likely to be discussing their daily work in terms more abstract than User Stories. After all, they know how their Stories are tied to Features, how those Features are tied to Epics, and how those Epics are tied to Themes; there's no reason to revisit the higher levels every day.

The Planning Engine
The mechanism for moving work intake to something that's actionable is actually quite similar across all levels. The cadence, level-of-detail, and people involved may differ, but the process is essentially the same.

  1. Discuss the item
  2. Estimate the item
  3. Prioritize the item
  4. Implement or Decompose the item
    • If Decomposing, the sub-items are fed to the next level down and the process repeats at step #1.
At the team level, this is done in the Backlog Grooming sessions (or, as I like to call them, "Story Time"). The same concept can and should be used at the other levels of Planning, simply modified to be appropriate for said level. For example, you may have more executive people meeting quarterly to groom the Epic backlog; you may have representatives from each Scrum team in a product area get together monthly to groom the Feature backlog; and you may meet as a Scrum team each Sprint to groom the Product (User Story) backlog. Use whatever cadence and team members that makes sense for your organization and circumstances.

A SAFe Approach
If you're familiar with the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), then you know that what I just described is accounted for in their Big Picture. If you wanted more advice on how to implement this planning engine then I recommend you view the abstracts found on their website. I've found their advice to be very useful and pragmatic.

You can implement the five levels of planning with a backlog-driven planning engine without SAFe. Indeed, there are many non-SAFe Agile companies that have established an Agile planning process before the advent of SAFe. I'm simply suggesting that, if you're new to this and don't know where to start or if you're in the middle of this and struggling with what you have, check out what SAFe has to offer. Take what works for you and toss the rest.

A Rose by Any Other Name...
As I stated at the beginning, mine is only one perspective on Agile Planning, and the terms I use may be different (or defined differently) than what you use in your organization. I would love to get your perspective on how Agile Planning can be done. After all, I'm always on the lookout for better, more Agile ways to do things!
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