Top Down Release Planning

Release Planning from the Top Down

Quick…what was the killer feature in your last big release?  If your release is like most then you’ll probably have trouble answering that question.  In fact, if your release is like most it was probably filled with a grab bag of low quality features and a handful of bug fixes.  Sure, there may have been one or two important features in there, but for the most part they were buried amongst an avalanche of noise.

Bottom-Up Release Planning

Bottom Up Release PlanningWe call this type of release planning Bottom Up Release Planning.  It often begins with simply combing the backlog for stories that need to be released and grabbing as many as you can fit in your next release.

Sure, there are advantages to this, most notably that it’s easy to do.  Release planning tends to be simpler and take less time using this method.  In fact, you’ve probably seen these types of releases before, they often begin with a “wishlist” of features that absolutely must be in the next release.

But releases planned in this way tend to feel disjointed and often fail to make an impact on your users since there’s nothing tangible for them to bite on to.

Top-Down Release Planning

Top Down Release PlanningThere’s a better way…and we call it Top Down Release Planning.  This type of release planning occurs when we first define an objective or goal for each release and then select only those backlog items that fit that objective.

This type of release planning can be a bit more involved since we must decide if each item selected fits the objective of the release, but it can lead to much more cohesive releases.  These types of releases often make a bigger impact on users which can resonate with them for a long time to come.

Why Bother?

You may be wondering why if Top-Down Release Planning is even a little more difficult then why we put forth the extra effort?  Well, aside from the advantages I mentioned already, highly cohesive releases tend to be much easier to build a memorable marketing message around.

In addition, focusing the release on a key objective also allows us to make greater strides in trying to solve a sticky problem that our users are currently facing.  If we can solve a particular pain point—and build a great message around that solution—then we’re much more likely to deliver a release that will resonate with our users.

Want to Know More?

I cover Top-Down Release Planning in more depth in my course new course Agile Release Planning, available on Front Row Agile.  If you’ve ever struggled with building large-scale projects using agile techniques, or have just wondered how planning works in an agile framework then this course is a great fit.

In addition to Top-Down Release Planning I also cover

  • How traditional planning and agile planning differ, and how to start adopting a more agile mindset.
  • How to develop a vision for your projects, including creating a vision board and learning proven techniques to cultivate focused concepts.
  • Strategies for building a roadmap to your goal and important things to consider in the first release and all future releases.
  • Ways to plan the release, including how to develop a release grid and prioritize features well.
  • How to build the product backlog by looking through the lens of DEEP and constructing effective sprint plans now and far into the future of your agile development.
  • Methods to keep plans on track when things just don’t go as you expect.

This course is regularly $50 but for a limited time readers of this blog can get all of this content for just $40 by using the discount code PLANBETTER at checkout.  That’s an additional 20% off just for following this blog.

Just enter the code above to claim your discount and be on your way to planning great releases and I’ll see you in the course!

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coffee

Where Afternoon Standups Go Wrong

Most teams are familiar with the morning standup, or the classic scrum ritual that gives teams the opportunity to sync up and plan their work for the day.  For many teams, the morning standup is the bread and butter of their scrum process.

But every once in a awhile a team tries to move their standup to the afternoon.  The reasons always sound legitimate:

“Not everyone gets here at the same time, so we’ll just hold our standup in the afternoon.  That way everyone can attend.”

or

“Mornings are when we’re most productive…we don’t want to interrupt that with another meeting.  Let’s just have the standup in the afternoon.”

As valid as these reasons sound afternoon standups have a tendency to be less useful than morning standups, but the reasons why aren’t always clear.  Let’s take a look at why.

The Ritual Suffers

The standup ritual suffersMorning standups create a nice ritual for your team.  Everyone trickles by 9 o’clock, checks their email, and gets their morning cup of joe.  But, at 9:30 everyone filters into the team room and it’s time for the standup.  After a quick standup the team starts their day for real.  The 9:30 standup is the signal for the day to start.

On the other hand, even though afternoon standups are still scheduled at the same time every they are much less likely to start at the same time every day.  This is because by the afternoon the day is much more likely to have gone awry.  Maybe tasks have taken longer than expected so not everyone is ready.  Perhaps a fire has much of the team too distracted to make the original time.  Or, even if all of the team is available, maybe other meetings outside of the team have ran long and the team’s normal meeting space isn’t available.  Now the team has to hustle to find a space that can accommodate them for their already late standup.

Standups Last Longer

No one likes a long standup.  In fact, one of the most common complaints from new scrum teams is

“Our standups always last at least 45 minutes.”

All standups are susceptible to this but afternoon standups are particularly so.

Standups last longerThink of how you feel in the morning:  You’re energized for the day, you’ve had a fresh cup of coffee, and you’re ready to tackle that sticky problem from yesterday.

Now, think of how you usually feel in the afternoon:  You’ve just had lunch.  You’ve already been at work for 5 hours, and all you want is a reason to sit down and take a break for a bit.  The afternoon standup is that reason.

And, once everyone has sat down, the standup begins to drag.

Your New Status Meeting

But, the most insidious problem of all with afternoon standups is much more subtle.

Standups should have two goals…

  1. Identify blockers so they can be brought to light and removed.
  2. Allow the team to sync up and plan their work for the day.

Nowhere in that list is a goal for the team to report the status of their current work in progress.  That’s not the purpose of the standup…that’s the purpose of the scrum board.

Morning standups are very conducive to these goals since they encourage the team to identify blockers early in the day and to synchronize the day’s work before they get started on the wrong path.

But afternoon standups share neither of these traits.  Although the same blockers might exist in the afternoon as they did in the morning, team members are less likely to bring them to light since they may mistakenly believe they’re close to solving them.  Even if they do, the other team members are likely too deep into their own tasks to volunteer much help.  In addition, since the individual team members have already started their work for the day there’s no opportunity to synchronize the work as a team…everything has already begun.

With both of these options off of the table only one thing is left to talk about in an afternoon standup…status.  When held in the afternoon the focus of the standup naturally shifts to what each team member has accomplished so far that day.  Rather than providing the opportunity for the team to clear their own way and plan the day’s work ahead, the standup simply devolves into yet another status meeting.

Try It and See

The differences between afternoon and morning standups are subtle but the results can vary dramatically.  If your team is currently using afternoon standups and something just doesn’t feel quite right then give morning standups a try.  The difference may surprise you.

Want to see more about how to make textbook agile work on real teams? Check out my course, Agile in the Real World, for tips and techniques for making agile really work in your organization.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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Product Backlog

Splitting User Stories Across Teams

I recently received a question by email wondering if large user stories should be split across teams.  The question was so interesting that I thought I would summarize my response here.

Sometimes large user stories are broken down into smaller stories that are tackled by multiple teams.  For example, imagine that your organization has two teams: a team that owns your web application and a team that owns your mobile application.  If you are releasing a feature across both platforms you may originally start with that feature described as a single user story but then split the story in two as each team tackles their respective implementations.

When multiple teams work on a single product we like to keep a single Product Backlog that all teams share. This lets the Product Owner see the big picture at any given time which helps keep them focused on the overall vision for the product.

Even if a larger story that will ultimately be split across several teams we tend to keep it as a single story during the Product Backlog phase.  This helps to prevent us from getting mired in the weeds of each story too early and makes the story easier to move up and down the backlog as new priorities emerge.

Product Backlog

Keeping the story as a single unit also it makes it easier to assign an estimate to.  Admittedly, we know that the estimate won’t be as accurate as if we broke the story down and estimated each individual part, but that’s ok.  We accept that estimates are less reliable during this stage and only use them for getting an idea of the complexity of a story relative to other stories in the backlog.

Splitting User Stories During Sprint Planning

However, during Sprint Planning the top stories in the product backlog are moved into a separate Sprint Backlog for each team. At this point those same large stories are broken down and split into separate stories for each team, who then take this opportunity to estimate their individual portions. The sum of those estimates may add back up to match the original estimate of the large story, but don’t be surprised if they don’t.  Breaking larger stories down into smaller stories often tends to expose gaps that we didn’t originally consider when the story was in its larger form, so new stories may emerge as a result.

Product to Sprint Backlog

Allowing each team to work from their own Sprint Backlog minimizes the number of dependencies each team needs to complete their work.  We want each team to have as many of the skills as possible to complete a valuable increment of the product during each sprint, which is one of the reasons why we strive to make scrum teams cross-functional.  If a team can still deliver a valuable increment themselves, then we want that work split only into the portion that they can complete.

In addition, Velocity is our primary planning metric in scrum.  Teams who estimate in story points eventually start to evolve those points to the range that makes the most sense for each team.  Put another way, a story point for one team may be wildly different than a story point for another team.  This flexibility is what gives story points their power as each team starts to assign the most accurate value to each point that makes sense to them.

The side effect of this, however, is that the Velocity of two different teams can start to vary wildly even if each team is completing roughly the same amount of work.  For this reason we want to be able to map a separately velocity to each team which better represents the amount of work they’re completing during a sprint rather than trying to roll all velocities into a single number.  This gives us a more accurate representation of how much each team tends to complete during each sprint, which lets us plan the overall product even better.

Want to learn even more ways to split your user stories so your team can start working with them immediately? Check out my course, Creating Effective User Stories, for easy techniques that will have you writing better user stories today.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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User Stories, Themes, and Epics are often represented by sticky notes

Themes versus Epics in 2 Minutes

The difference between themes and epics are a common sticking point for many teams first diving in to user stories. Not only can descriptions of both topics often be vague, but the difference is often muddled further by many project management tools that use the two terms interchangeably. However, the difference doesn’t have to be so hard.

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railroad spike

Stop Estimating Spikes!

The most common question that teams face when first working with spikes is whether or not to estimate these stories. Luckily the answer is simple…don’t.

The whole point of spikes is to help us learn more about stories that we don’t yet know enough about to estimate well. This very unknown nature means that estimating the spike itself would be fruitless. Instead, our goal is to learn enough during the spike that we can estimate the associated story in an upcoming sprint.

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Team

Turning Your Standups on Their Head

The daily standup is one of the most powerful tools in the scrum toolbox, so powerful in fact that when teams move beyond scrum they often still retain the standup as one of their core practices. But, there’s still room for improvement.

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