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Effective small teams need coordination to make an effective large organization

This is part 2 of 10 of the 10 Pitfalls of Agility on Large Projects. In part 1, we talked about how planning a month or less ahead is not enough on a very large project, and what to do about it.

Here’s some of why people say that long-term, full-detail plans are essential:

  1. You need the detailed work breakdown structure through the end of the project to produce estimates.
  2. And you need estimates to schedule handoffs, deliverables, and other dependences between teams.
  3. And as things do change, you need a plan through which to communicate those changes.

How can we satisfy these needs while still allowing small teams latitude to adapt and be agile?

Concern #1 is a red herring of sorts. Estimates constructed from a detailed WBS are not the most accurate, if you’re in a domain with significant unknowns (like most new product development). In these domains, you’ll get much better estimates from other methods like an experienced expert or group of experts using a technique like Wideband Delphi. For more, see a book like McConnell’s Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art

#2 is a dominant concern for organizations with long internal lead times. The motivation and techniques for attacking this problem in other ways is what lean thinking is all about. In short, agile/lean teams are much better equipped to handle changes in other teams’ plans, so they don’t need those plans to be as firm. It’s a self-reinforcing benefit of shorter cycles that pays off in spades.  The trick is keeping the peace during the (often long) transition period where an organization has a mix of long-cycle and short-cycle teams. These solutions to #3 can help during this transition.

Concern #3 speaks to allowing your high and low level plans to evolve as you progress and learn. But how do you keep them in sync?

Top Down and Bottom Up

  • Have top-down goals and priorities that are clear about the customer and business need, but that don’t over-anticipate the technology to best fulfill that need.
  • Be prepared to take top-down input and provide bottom-up feedback as part of your regular planning cycle (e.g. Scrum’s monthly sprint planning).
    • For inputs, the Scrum Product Backlog and processes around it are an effective way to turn top-down priorities into actionable technical workitems.
    • For feedback, provide actuals. In order to keep the trust of the organization, some kind of actuals in terms of feature throughput, earned value, or time data, etc. are essential. If agile teams “go dark” on a large organization, it becomes harder maintain trust when things go bad (as they invariably will from time to time on a large project).
    • For feedback, provide new estimates on the larger goals, based on this last cycle’s progress on specific workitems. To make this feasible, use a fast group estimation method like planning poker or its elder kin, wideband delphi.
  • As the size of the team goes up and dependencies between teams get more tangled, coordination on just a monthly basis isn’t enough. Getting information more frequently than your usual planning cycle (or getting your planning cycle down to one or two week sprints) may become essential. The diagram above says weekly (which might match an org with more than 6-8 Scrum teams).

    This might also be the threshold where project management specialists are called for — don’t distract your project leads with sub-sprint communication and coordination between teams. But also don’t lose Scrum’s designed benefit of protecting teams from constant interrupts — the team controls whether their plan changes within a sprint. Project Managers can help make sure status and communication flow between teams even during a sprint, but they (like all stakeholders) should be prepared to hold new work and priority changes until teams plan their next sprint.

If you’re adopting short-cycle methods in a (long-cycle) large organization — what are your pain points that weren’t covered here. And how have you adapted?

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Planning a month or less ahead is not enough

This is part 1 of 10 of the 10 Pitfalls of Agility on Large Projects.

One of the most common, valid critiques of agile or lean processes is the time horizon of planning. Scrum focuses on one month sprints. XP advises shorter iterations (2 week, typical). Lean focuses on a single piece (one feature, in the case of design projects), delivered in the shortest possible time.

To many organizations and many people — especially when they first manage projects — these kinds of planning horizons are crazy and negligent. Rather, they strive to plan in as much detail as possible, out to the end of the project. They want to identify critical paths, plan resources, etc. It’s obvious, right? Ah, but I see you’re smiling.

Unfortunately, what you may know (but isn’t obvious to everyone) is this over-planning can be disastrous when there is any level of risk or significant unknowns. Almost any non-trivial software development project would fall in this category.

Usually, this highly detailed initial plan falls quickly out of touch with reality, and must be ignored by the team after a certain point. Good project managers will try to adapt the plan, but if they built in too much detail initially, they’ll find keeping it up to date impossible. Either way, this all can be damaging, as now the team often feels like they’re confused and failing, and management or stakeholders can quickly get dangerously out of touch — they’re still looking at and expecting that initial plan.

Beyond that, there are a host of other harms. First among them that you’re trying hard to lock down your plan at the earliest possible stage of the project, when you have the least understanding of what customers want, what the technology is capable of, and how quickly your team will be able to deliver it. You’ve not explored or mitigated any of the risks yet. You’ve basically committed to be as unresponsive as possible to the new things you learn as the project unfolds.

This is such a common problem — so much pain and so many failed projects could be avoided if it could be solved. And a simple conceptual solution is widely known, but is under-adopted.

It’s called Rolling Wave Planning. And it’s one effective way to unify the worlds of agile/lean and traditional project planning. Here’s a crude diagram illustrating how plans are detailed in the short term, but get progressively more generalized and flexible in the longer term.

Rolling Wave Planning

How does this work?

  • Identify just a few strategic, long-term product line and product goals. If they don’t fit on one side of one sheet of paper, they’re probably too long. These might look 1-2 years out for a large organization.
  • Expand that into a short, prioritized list of near-term problems for your team to solve in the coming year.
  • Bring in your more technical people to produce a short list of functionality the organization is capable of delivering in the coming months to make progress towards solving those problems. There should be lots of room to scale bells and whistles up or back, and especially to make technical choices about how to implement the functionality — you will reap significant efficiencies if your team can adjust as they learn more about the technologies involved and how long things will take to implement.
  • Involve the whole team to do a detailed work-item level just a few weeks ahead. If you have a low-risk, well-understood domain, you could choose to approach this as a work breakdown structure with gantt chart and analysis. If you’re in a higher-risk domain (like new product development), use Scrum-style monthly sprints or, even better, a lean production flow. This is the schedule people can rally around for day to day work.
  • At the end of that shortest planning cycle, percolate your learnings from the small, granular work through to the larger grained goals, then back into your next short-term planning cycle. The key to making this doable is again to not allow too much detail into the larger goals. Keep them high-level, meaningful, and always flexible.

In short, you match the level of detail to (1) how far out in time you’re planning and (2) how risky your domain is.

By doing so, you’ll gain a host of benefits, many of which relate to lean — reducing work in progress, making decisions at the last responsible moment (when you have the most information), pushing responsibility down and empowering the people who are closest to the problem, and generally being open to feedback and agile in response to the changing forces around your project.

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Dualities: A Pattern Language of Project Mangement

Change and risks of the unknown are the primary challenges of modern projects — changes in our team, our understanding of our problem, our market, etc. Experienced project members know that the “best process” for our project doesn’t fall neatly into formulas.  What was a successful strategy in one circumstance may fail completely in a seemingly similar circumstance. The relationship between our current situation and the best processes to deal with it are non-linear.

Lean thinking is one of the best starting points we have to systematically attack this problem with savvy about continuous improvement, shifting bottlenecks, systems thinking, statistical management, and respect for people on the front lines of the problem. And it’s been under-applied in getting us past the breakdown of traditional project management techniques in high-risk domains like software development.

But successful lean companies like Toyota have taken years or decades to build up institutional and cultural knowledge of where to start and how to evolve. Can we shorten this learning process for other companies or other domains?

Our unique circumstances and the changes around us require a kind of dance to make progress and stay balanced — sometimes steps forward, others to the side or back. This non-linear adaptation is very jarring for both our managers and our teams.

We need to find a way to empower people with the savvy to sense dissonance between the process we have vs. the process we need, give them the vocabulary to be able to discuss it, and the power to take action on that dissonance even if the solution is a step in a new direction or even a step back.

One of the best places to start is by attacking the belief that there is “one right process” for our teams.

Instead, we drive dialog around the spectrum of possibilities between any two poles or dualities: predictive vs. iterative management, larger vs. smaller batches, top-down vs. bottom up control, standardized vs. adaptative process, specialist vs. generalist teams, etc.

It’s not about choosing one or the other .. it’s about where you are on the spectrum.

As managers, we probe our teams, asking if they should be trying “more of this” or “less of that”. We can go forward or back on a spectrum, and we can step “to the side” by focusing our energies on a different duality.

What would help — in fact, what’s almost essential — is a pattern language to give names to abstractions and make dialog and discussion about where we are and where we’re going possible. Unfortunately, the PM pattern languages you’ll find today are based on absolutes (an assumption of one right process). We’re looking for one based on dualities — opposing forces or alternatives that we must balance to achieve the best-fit process for our circumstance, for this one point in time. We want terminology that ask us to think, adapt, and step in whatever direction our circumstance calls for.

Boehm (balance) and Cockburn (meta-methodologies) are wonderful starting points for this kind of thinking, at least in software developement. I’m sure there are others — please add a comment if you want to point out a resource.

Can we discover and build this pattern language of adaptive project management — and make it a an approachable, practical tool for today’s managers and project teams?

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