Serious Games Drive Agile Strategic Planning

This content is syndicated from Agile Development Blog: Scaling Software Agility by Ronica Roth. To view the original post in full, click here.

I just played our fourth Agile portfolio planning game with a team of executives. First they had to rank and plan a portfolio of new product ideas, enhancements, architectural refactorings, and other work. It’s tough to balance competing priorities against strategic financial targets. Then we simulate a monthly steering council that must react to new learnings, development mishaps and market changes, all while maintaining strategic alignment.

I’ll give you a hint to winning the game:  Turn that waterfall team into Scrum teams early, and pay attention to quality.

Wagged by Plans: Is It Time to Change?

Do any of these problems sound familiar?

Execs play an Agile steering game

  • The organization funds all or most proposed projects, and expects to make progress on them all simultaneously.
  • Teams adjust each iteration based on new learnings, but the annual plan for the organization does not change.
  • Teams adjust, but it’s hard to know whether the adjustments throw the portfolio off-goals.
  • Projects are managed within silos; trade-off decisions are not made across the portfolio. As a result, some silos are under-capacity and others are overcapacity. Or, the whole doesn’t add up to the strategic objects for the organization.
  • Teams are judged on their ability to deliver value; the portfolio is judged on its ability to meet plan.

If these scenarios apply to you, you’re probably ready to bring Lean and Agile principles into your portfolio management process. Especially if you have already solved these problems:

  • Your Scrum teams are cross-functional and persistent and have learned to deliver consistently on iteration and mid-range commitments.
  • Your Kanban teams have reduced significant waste in their value stream and consistently deliver to service level agreements.
  • Agile teams have achieved a fairly consistent velocity/throughput (amount of work delivered per timebox) while delivering against quality goals.
  • The Product Owner group elaborates requirements just-in-time, feeding teams a steady stream of high-value work.
  • You have added the structures that enable multi-team programs to coordinate dependencies and deliverables within a closely related group of teams.

In working with earlyvangelists to develop our Agile Portfolio Management solution, we learned that in most organizations the portfolio is managed under the old, plan-driven paradigm, which is at odds with the Agile practices at the team and program level. However, it is equally clear that we cannot begin to challenge that paradigm before we’ve reached a certain level of Agile maturity.

It is too hard to engage the business before development has a track record of success.

It is too hard to build a realistic roadmap before teams have developed a steady velocity.

It is too hard to emphasize steering before teams have the discipline to deliver iteratively and incrementally.

Advance Your Agile Practices: The Agile Enterprise
Our early work delivering the Agile Portfolio Steering service has been exciting.  Fellow coach Isaac Montgomery and I have watched a room simply buzz as a group of leaders begins to imagine and employ the paradigm shift from plan-driven to value-driven portfolio management.

The buzz begins because of the people in the room; namely, a cross-functional group of leaders (directors, VPs, SVPs) from the business, product/portfolio, and technology. Together, we explore and understand the current challenges around building realistic roadmaps, tracking the progress of initiatives, and leveraging the agility of teams without losing focus and alignment. Sometimes this group has never built so shared a view of the organization.

There can be a moment of frustration when we’ve made the challenges so clear. But then the energy gets high as Isaac and I begin to provide possible solutions in the form of Lean practices. Together we dig into redesign their portfolio processes, to inject the visibility, feedback, governance and focus that enables Agile to work at scale.

Rally has already begun to see patterns in the Lean practices that implement more adaptive portfolio management.

  • Map the value stream from concept to cash, and build a Kanban board to represent those states. “In Development” is just one state.
  • Limit work-in-progress on that board. Fewer initiatives in play means better throughput, productivity, time to market, responsiveness, and reduced risk.
  • Emphasize value and budget over cost estimates. This requires new data and a new mentality.
  • Provide clear strategic objectives  and constraints, and then let the people closest to the work (the teams) plan the work. Use clear visualizations and data to verify the results align back to the strategy. Help teams adjust as necessary to remain aligned.
  • A rolling wave cadence of planning and steering helps your leadership be both strategic and adaptive.
  • Effective portfolio management will require planning and learning at different levels of the organization, on different levels of abstraction and strategy, and on different cadences.

The Service: Re-Tool for Agile Portfolio Management
Built on those early deliveries, I’m excited to now offer more generally our Agile Portfolio Steering workshop. I think it provides a powerful benefit through focused work.

Inspired by the lessons of the portfolio planning game, the leadership group works with an Agile coach to begin to redesign its portfolio management process:

  • How could we have better value data on proposed projects?
  • How can we decide our investments rather than be wagged by cost projections?
  • How could we fund fewer projects?
  • How could we commit to goals rather than to lists of features?
  • What data would we need to be able to steer the portfolio effectively?
  • How often should we steer the portfolio? A project? A program?
  • Could we reorganize our teams to enhance flexibility?

The outcome might be a new planning process, new data requirements, new progress visualizations, new planning and steering councils, and more.

The service is listed as “2 days”. In reality, we have learned that a leadership group might not spend two whole days in a room with us, but the hours they commit will be intense, with short breaks and working lunches, because this work matters. Dollars are at stake; business success is at stake. We will work together to design the right on-site session.

Stay tuned for more details during our Dec 6 and beyond launch events. We look forward to working with your organization, to understanding your context, and what challenges you have to align the work of your Agile teams and your strategic goals. What prevents you from delivering all the value you could to your business?

As Rally’s “Solutions Evangelist”, Ronica Roth promote solutions for our customers that combine product and process. She also promotes fun that involves mountains and snow.

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