Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Release planning using the Agile Strategy Map

The situation

One of my teams provides the SDK for a range of hardware products, of which some are still in development. The hardware product development is working with milestones, at which certain new features of the product are available or changes to the hardware layout are made. The SDK is expected to support these features and layout changes with the release of the milestone. Although many features are known upfront, requirements do change in the course of the milestone completion. Example: The hardware layout has a flaw and needs to be changed.

The SDK does get a major version update (e.g. from 2.5.0 to 2.6.0) with a milestone release. The team was struggling to plan the releases. The scope of the features was unknown. Features that were not needed for the release were started to be built in, only to be stopped one sprint later, because a major feature request was forgotton until the last sprint before the milestone release. The team has 2 product owners, of which one is more of a consulting product owner, and at the moment one main stakeholder (apart from a lot more).

The approach

My approach was to use a hierarchical backlog to plan the contents of a release. There are quite some ways to achieve that, like User Story Maps, Impact Mapping or, my preferred approach in this case, the Agile Strategy Map. I helped the product owners and the one main stakeholder creating the Map using sticky notes of different sizes and colors. Our Agile Strategy Map consists of the following elements:

  • Release goal (large sticky note): The goal of the release in one sentence
  • Critical Success Factor (red sticky notes): A CSF is a feature/item/etc. that has to be done in order to reach the release goal
  • Possible Success Factor (yellow sticky notes): A PSF is a nice-to-have. It does not have to be done in order to reach the release goal
  • Necessary Condition (orange sticky note): A sub work-item of a PSF/CSF. In order to complete a PSF/CSF, every NC has to be completed.
Our first map draft looked like this:
The Agile Strategy Map at the start of the release planning

In order to create the map, we took the following steps in a series of sessions:

Collect contents for the release
Everyone writes down what they think and/or know has to be in the release

Weight contents using Business Value Poker
Similar to Planning Poker, everyone defines the business value of the contents defined. This will nicely show in a later step that business value does not automatically mean higher priority.

Define the release goal
Once the contents and the business values were clear, define the release goal. This is one sentence that describes what will be achieved with this release

Identify CSF and PSF
Once the release goal is clear, identity the critical items that have to be done in order to reach the release goal. Everything else will be a PSF.

Prioritize the PSFs and CSFs based on the available information likes Business Value, PSF, CSF, etc. We only used small sticky notes with the priorities on them combined with a discussion, but any other means of priorization such as dot-voting, "buy a feature" or else is fine aswell. This will show that high business value does not automatically mean high priority. On the picture above you can see that the item with the highest business value 3000 only had priority 5.

Identify the NCs
Identify all the requirements and work items a CSF or PSF has. You can group NCs below another NC.

The result

The Agile Strategy Map near the end of the release

Creating the Agile Strategy Map for release planning had several benefits. First off, since we put up the map on a whiteboard accessible for everyone, everyone including stakeholders could see what we were up to. In this case it actually lead to a stakeholder causing a priority shift, since she saw that an item that was a very important customer request only had priority 8. It also helped us to remove certain subparts (NCs) of a feature (CSF/PSF) we thought had to be in the release, the most common reason being that we didn't have enough time to complete all the NCs for a feature and they weren't crucial for the release anyhow (which we didn't know beforehand). Having a hierarchical backlog helped us to only remove certain parts of a feature easily instead of dropping the whole feature. Last but not least we could track throughput of PSFs, CSFs and NCs and because of that we were able to make pretty good predictions on how many items will fit in the next release (example: For the next release we only prioritized until 10, knowing that anything below most likely won't make it anyhow).

P.S. One side note: There is no rule how many user stories come out of a PSF/CSF or a NC. In our case we had PSFs that were only one user story and NCs that were 3 user stories.

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