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Agile Math

The basic math of team-based agile is pretty simple. You can slice it several ways, but at the end of the day, one of these three basic formulas has to hold true. It’s all about time, cost, and scope… you get to decide which two constraints you want to lock, but then you have to derive the third.

1. backlog size / velocity = duration

2. duration * velocity = backlog size

3. backlog size / duration = velocity

I generally suggest that agile is all about fixing time and cost, and deriving scope… but it doesn’t have to be that way. Feel free to derive time-based on a fixed backlog and known velocity. You can even derive a planning velocity based on fixed scope and time. This one is the riskiest, so be prepared to measure, adjust, and negotiate as the plan unfolds.

Limiting WIP

But here’s the rub… when a team has too much work to do, and not enough time to do it, there is a cognitive dissonance between the messages of agile and what they see on the ground. We can say all day long that the PO gets to decide the “what” and the team gets to decide “how” and “how much”… but if management is fixing all three variables, the team isn’t going to buy in.

Putting the Right People in Place

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when working on any coding project is not having the right people in the right spots to help them out. It is absolutely necessary to use the talent and resources that are available to you in the most effective ways possible. Doing anything short of that can lead to major issues that you do not want to deal with. 

Instead of taking a risk, make sure you look at the pool of talent you have beforehand and begin to reassign people based on the skills that they clearly possess. You may be able to connect just the right pieces where they need to go in order to place people in the correct spots where they can be the most effective possible for you. If this is the case, then you will be in good shape when the time comes to use those people to get certain missions completed. 

You are responsible for putting people in a position where they can be as helpful and useful to you as possible. Observe their strengths and weaknesses to try to figure out exactly where that spot is. This may take some time, so make sure you have budgeted enough time for yourself to get these kinds of things figured out. It won’t always be easy, but it is the kind of work that you need to do to see real results on your projects.

Rushing the Backlog

Generally, here is what I ask from management out of the gate… give us three sprints to help the team come up with a backlog and establish a velocity, afterwards we’ll see what we have and decide how to proceed further. We’ll start by doing just enough backlog planning to identify a sprint or two worth of work and get the team working to establish a velocity.

While the team begins work to establish their velocity, the PO aggressively moves to create the backlog. Almost never do I see a PO that can create a backlog all by themselves. Very often we need Product Managers, Architects, and Analysts to paint the complete picture. More often than not, I’ll ask these folks to work full time for as long as it takes to get the backlog together.

I’ve got one PO team that has been at it for 8 weeks just to get ahead of the team, and define the release. Initially, the PO team is focused on feeding the team’s high-value, high-risk stories… but as the backlog emerges we start rounding out the app. If all goes well, after several sprints we have a decent idea of what we have to build and the rate at which the team can complete the work.

At that point, we apply one of our three formulas, baseline the plan, and go.

Emergence or Convergence

How far ahead of the team you need to be, largely depends on your business goals for the release. If you are highly uncertain about what you need to build, smaller backlogs are probably better, and the release planning process can be more nimble. Trying to predict stuff you just don’t know is a waste. In this case, agile is helping support an emergent outcome.

Not all companies are going for an emergent outcome… Some want stability and predictability. In these cases, the PO team needs to plan further ahead of the team and adjust as the product is developed. The better we know where we are going, and what it is going to take to get there, the further out we can plan the backlog, and the more certain we can be about outcomes. Here agile is supporting a convergent outcome with a focus on risk reduction and predictability.

One of the biggest problems I see with teams new to agile is that they act as if they are going for stability and predictability, when their product requires an emergent approach. Either requirements are not well understood or because of high technical risk or a ton of unknowns around how to implement them. Either way, you have to act as if the project is emergent until you gain enough knowledge to establish a more predictable plan.

Not Knowing What You Don’t Know

I’ve met a few teams lately where everyone is new and unfamiliar with the product and the code base. How do you set a schedule in this environment? The short answer is… you don’t. It’s okay not to know, but it’s not okay not to know forever. In this case, you better have a plan to get it figured out fast… It’s not reasonable to indefinitely ask the business to invest with no strategy for getting it done.

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