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Friday, March 18, 2016

Agile Portfolio & Program Management – Part 1: Ideation

Executive Summary:
Being able to evaluate the influx of project ideas in large organizations can be a tedious and time-consuming process for management, and a confusing process for stakeholders. Using a simple Kanban board for the process of collecting and approving these suggestions, helps guide stakeholders through the process, provides approval visibility, and most importantly, prevents the loss of some really great ideas.

Agile Portfolio and Program Management - Ideation

This article is the first of a three part series on Agile Portfolio & Program Management.

For quite some time now, both small and large organizations have been successfully executing agile and Kanban practices to manage individual projects at the team level, but one often overlooked area, is where agile and Kanban can be applied to portfolio and program management, especially at the point of ideation.

Simply stated, ideation is the process by which new ideas are captured, evaluated, and if approved, prepared for implementation. Ideation is the inflow of ideas and suggestions to both portfolio and program management. These ideas and suggestions may relate to the development of new programs, product enhancements, new products, improvements to a process, changes in infrastructure, or just about anything that a stakeholder might want to do that they think brings value to the organization.

Some Basic Terms:
Portfolio Management is the activities an organization performs to determine its overall strategic goals (e.g. Customer Care, Mobilize Workforce, Operational Efficiency) and the tactical programs made up of various initiatives to achieve those strategic goals. These types of strategic goals are referred to as Themes in Dean Leffingwell’s SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) methodology.

Program Management is the process by which the organization prioritizes, manage dependencies, and oversees the implementation of initiatives within each program. These initiatives are performed at the team level.

Here’s a bird’s-eye view of the Portfolio & Program Management ideation process:

Portfolio & Program Management Ideation
Figure 1: Portfolio & Program Management Ideation - Bird's Eye View

Because new initiatives may impact a significant number of teams, customers, clients, and/or may require lots of resources, some level of governance is usually instituted to evaluate and validate these ideas to confirm their value (i.e. value returned over time vs. investment & expenses). If approved, these ideas are then formalized for implementation. Unfortunately, this evaluation and approval process can be very time consuming and complex, involving multiple sign-offs, reviews, documentation, and impact multiple teams and systems etc. This is where Kanban can come to the rescue!

Unfamiliar with Kanban? - Here is the basic Kanban pattern:
Within Kanban, although there are many ways to tweak a Kanban board, at its simplest, a Kanban board uses the following to represent the flow of work within a process.

Figure 2: A Simple Kanban Board

Work is represented by a card containing a description of the item being worked on.
Work cards begin in the To-Do column, when work is selected from the To-Do column to be worked on it is assigned to someone and the card is moved into In-Process column. When work is complete, the card is then moved to the Done column. By looking at a Kanban board, you can see what work still needs to be addressed, what is currently being worked on, who is working on it, and what work is completed.

A Kanban Model for Ideation
You don’t need to be implementing the Scaled Agile Framework to use Kanban for ideation, but since the release of SAFe 4.0, the SAFe framework also encourages the use of Kanban for handling ideation.

Figure 3 – Kanban Portfolio & Program Ideation in Safe 4.0 - Click Image to Zoom

The only issue with this recommendation, is that SAFe doesn't necessarily tell you how to implement this process, that's up to you.

Having worked with organizations attempting to tackle this problem, I’d like to outline a generic approach involving three validation gateways that can help your organization simplify this process, make it more transparent, and improve your overall evaluation and approval (aka cycle) times.

Here's a revised bird's-eye view of an ideation process with three validation gateways.

Figure 4: Portfolio & Program Management Ideation with 3 Validation Gateways

Gateways are activities performed by a Portfolio-Program Management team and/or a PMO to ensure organizational initiatives are aligned with the organization's strategic goals, feasible, provide timely value to the organization, and if so, are budgeted appropriately.
The next step is taking this process and representing it as a Kanban board to manage and monitor the ideation workflow and gateways until the idea is ready for implementation.

Your Kanban board can be a physical board on a wall, an electronic board using software like VersionOne , Atlassian’s Jira, or Leankit. You might even consider using both physical and electronic boards.

I like to use the term ‘Ready’ for work that is ready to be worked on (i.e. To-Do), once work begins, a card is moved to an ‘In-Process’ column, and when work is completed, that work is then moved into a ‘Done’ column. If the there is another activity in the process chain, the card can be moved into another ‘Ready’ column.

Here’s how the idea capture process might be represented.

Stage 1: Capture
Figure 5 – Kanban Columns for Idea Capture

First we capture the idea as a card in a queue or backlog (To-Do), we then may need to do some cleanup and preparation on the idea to prepare it for a formal review (In-Process), and finally after it is ready to be reviewed, we move it to the ‘Ready’ column awaiting to be reviewed in the Validation stage. You could consider this its own independent Kanban board, in which case the ‘Ready’ column would be considered ‘Done’, or if we expand the board to include the evaluation process, it would be considered as a ‘To-Do’ column.

Essentially, anyone in the organization should be allowed to submit an idea, but you may want to establish some of your own limits on this as well as a standard set of attributes and supporting documents you want to include on your ideation cards. Consider setting up a general mailbox account to receive ideas and have someone from the program or product management team actually enter each suggestion into a queue rather than allowing anyone to create cards directly.
The card attributes you choose should primarily be configured to handle different levels of analysis and evaluation.

As a guide, try to keep things simple and only require the submitter to include the information needed for each upcoming step rather than trying to capture everything at once. For more detailed information, incorporate the ability to associate supporting documents to card via links and/or file attachments.

Here are some example ideation card attributes. You will need to determine what works best for your ideation process:
Figure 6 – Sample Ideation Card

For continuous process improvement, you should be reviewing and refining your overall process, the board columns, and the card attributes on a periodic basis; think ‘agile retrospectives’.

Another important aspect, is to have a product owner to manage the Ideation Backlog/Queue. The product owner is responsible to groom the queue, ensure appropriate information is included for each card, merge duplicates, remove obsolete items, and prioritize which items should be reviewed next. The product owner will move cards they wish to work on into the In-Initial Evaluation Prep column. During this time, they may need to go back to the submitter for additional information or clarification. Once an idea has all of the appropriate information, the product owner will move the card into the Ready for Initial Evaluation column.
Now that you understand the basic Kanban board flow, let’s look at a process that involves three sets of activities.

Stage 2: Validate

Figure 7 – Kanban Columns for Validation - Click Image to Zoom.

Initial Evaluation
Once a card is in the Ready for Initial Evaluation column as a result of our idea capture process, the product owner or someone designated from Portfolio or Program Management can decide when to schedule this item for review. Note that the Ready for Initial Evaluation column is technically, the backlog (To-Do) for the Evaluation section of the Kanban board. Any card that shows up in this column is a signal to the owner of this queue to do something.

It’s recommend that you have specific periodic days each month or each quarter for this initial review. E.g. The third Tuesday of every month. The person, who scheduled the item, should pull those cards into the In-Initial-Evaluation column of the Kanban board, the week or month that that the review is expected to occur. This gives the reviewers a head-up on what items are coming up.

The first evaluation should be more of a discussion rather than a formal presentation, with the goal to determine if the idea has promise and is worth evaluating further.

Appropriate management, business stakeholders and tech leads should be invited to this session. The meeting should probably be no more than 1-2 hours, but this is entirely dependent on your process. Over time, you will get a sense as to how many cards can be scheduled for one evaluation session and you can set a work in process limit for the In-Initial-Evaluation column.

Your initial evaluation should result in one of three paths:
  1. Rejected - The idea is not feasible, may not be appropriate for the business, or may already be addressed by an initiative in-flight.
  2. Fast-tracked - The idea is clearly feasible, in alignment with company strategy, its business value is obvious, and is small enough that it could move directly to a team’s feature or story backlog.
  3. Portfolio/Program Governance Required -The idea seems feasible, in alignment with company strategy, there is potential business value, but its complexity requires a deeper analysis for further assessment to validate this.
If you determine that the idea is not worth pursuing or is already being addressed the idea is rejected; the rejection reason should be documented on the card and moved directly to the Rejected column of the Kanban board.

If an idea’s value is obvious and small enough, it can be fast-tracked to project preparation, where requirements can be cleaned up, outstanding questions answered, and an implementation team assigned so that it can be added to that team’s feature or story backlog. Document the fast-track reason on the card, and move it to the Ready for Project Setup column.

Examples of fast-tracking might be application cosmetic and/or content changes, minor feature requests, and minor process changes. If it’s not obvious, consider sending it thru the full evaluation process, you can always re-route it back to project setup via fast-tracking.

One approach to determine fast-tracked items is to use the number of teams involved or impacted by the suggestion. If it requires two or less implementation teams, it can be fast-tracked and go directly to Ready for Project Setup, three or more teams may require the full portfolio/program management evaluation and analysis process.

When an idea requires further portfolio or program evaluation and analysis, the reason should be documented within the card, and the card moved to the Ready for Business Case Development column of the Kanban board.

A great feature of many online Kanban tools, is that they can also serve as a workflow application.
Cards can have tasks associated to them within each activity and tasks can be assigned to people. Once a card moves to Business Case Development for example, a task can then be assigned to the submitter of the idea, the product manager impacted by the idea, or an appropriate stakeholder, to create the business case deliverables for this item.

Identifying which tasks are performed during each activity ensures the process is followed, all appropriate information is gathered when needed, provides real-time status, and an audit trail. You may still consider maintaining a simplified physical board somewhere so that anyone can see it a glance what is going on during the ideation process.

By this point, you should have a basic understanding what ideation is, how Kanban can be used for Portfolio and Program Management ideation to, serve as a process guide for stakeholders, how Kanban tools like VersionOne and Atlassian’s Jira can be used for workflow management, how Kanban boards provide visibility into the current state of work, and finally how to use Kanban to prevent the loss of valuable ideas.

In Part II of this three part series on Agile Portfolio & Program Management, we'll discuss the next step in the validation process,  learn how to create a 1-page business case, and how to incorporate organizational oversight into the process while still encouraging organizational agility.

I’d love to get your feedback, hear about your ideation experiences, or or anything agile.
In the meantime, keep those ideas coming!

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