Ben, a program manager, said, “My management wants a quarterly commitment. They think this will let them commit to customers about features. But, this is a problem for a couple of reasons: we change our minds more often than once every 12 weeks and the managers are talking to other managers, not the people who need the features. Sometimes, the Product Owner wants more features in one feature set than we had planned. Sometimes, the PO wants a new feature set because the customer—the people we sell to but don't sign agreements with—realized they had different needs.
“I don't want to commit. I want a more resilient program. I don't want my management to think we're running open-loop either. Now, what?”
Your managers might be looking for a commitment when what they need is resilience. I asked Ben. He had no idea what his managers needed.
Often, managers ask for commitments when they are worried they won't get enough value soon enough. They might not be ready to trust you or the project or program.
Before you attempt to commit, ask the managers these questions:
Question 1: Do you want a commitment or the ability to change at least as often as our iterations?
Agile or lean approaches allow the team to change the order of the work as they finish the first most valuable work. The team is then ready for more or different-from-planned work. Your managers might be thinking, “The team has to finish everything in the product backlog, in that order. I need to know when they will complete Feature 37.”
That's typical of thinking the team will do everything in the backlog. It might happen. More often, I've seen Product Owners realize they don't need everything in the backlog to meet the customer's needs.
If the managers need to know when Feature 37 will be complete, maybe the PO can rank that feature earlier. Maybe the managers need to see internal releases. Ask managers what they need.
Question 2: Do you want a commitment or the need to know when we can stop?
Managers ask for commitments because they are accustomed to receiving them. When you ask this question, the managers realize they have more possibilities to manage the project's progress or if they need to consider continuing this project at all. (See the Zeroth Question.)
Projects exist to meet the customers' needs, not to finish “all” the work.
Question 3. Do you want us to change how we work, so we can adjust what is in our backlog at any time?
If your team is working in iterations, your managers might need to see and rerank features more often than at the end of your iteration. You might need shorter iterations, also.
Consider using kanban, where the team always takes the top-ranked feature, and the product owner can change that feature any time. The team doesn't commit to an iteration's worth of work. They work feature-by-feature.
I have met more people who needed project resilience instead of project commitments. If you want resiliency, consider how small you can make your stories, how often you can demo your working product, and how fast you can change.
If you need to make commitments, pick up your copy of Predicting the Unpredictable: Pragmatic Approaches to Estimating Cost or Schedule. You'll learn how to provide commitments in a way that makes sense.
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© 2015 Johanna Rothman