Friday, June 3, 2011

How to Plan in Agile

Planning is an essential activity for anything and when it comes to project execution, a good plan gives right direction for the execution of the work. Some questions that comes to me when teams follow agile approach:
" How much planning to do", "Should we do estimation in agile", "Should we assign work to the team member level", "Who all should get involved in the planning" etc.
In my opinion the focus in Agile team should be more towards value driven approach than a plan oriented approach. The focus and direction should be towards iterative and incremental development.

Following are some suggestions for doing overall planning in agile team. In this context I am considering a slightly bigger project (3000 person month). For smaller projects the context and the related activity can be decided accordingly. These need to be considered as only suggestions and not a prescription. During my Consultancy to various teams I have come across such similar questions, so this post. In this I would be only covering the steps and key activities.

Step 1- Project Charter and Vision : The overall vision and objective of the project is decided. Some of the activities which are conducted as part of this are as follows:
• The key features required for the customer is decided. Here the features may be at a very high level. It may not be at an implementation level.
• Some overall level estimation is done. Here the question comes that which estimation techniques can be used. The best is to use Team Velocity based approach. But I have seen that some team faces issues in deciding the team velocity due to reasons like either no historical information available, different team members, not able to identify the ideal story etc. It is even okay to estimate based on effort, lines of code, function point etc. The important point here is to be pragmatic and using a collaborative approach for estimation.
• Based on the work estimation the release dates are decided. In a typical project there can be more than 1 release. The Release Milestones are decided as part of this step.

Step 2- Release Plan : The next step is to have the Release plan in place. A Release comprises of more than 1 Iteration. To come up with the Release Plan following are some of the important activities done:
• Release planning meeting is done where all the team members attend. Before the meeting the Business Analyst / Requirement Analyst provides overview of the User Stories that are going to be taken up. The attempt should be to ensure that all the members are at the same page for doing the feature estimation.
• The overall estimation is being done keeping following key activities in mind : requirement analysis, architecture design, design analysis (if any), coding, test coding, infrastructure preparation, automation infrastructure readiness, training , testing, customer level test etc.
• The Project manager or Scrum master should give enough importance for team training, readiness of the automation, continuous integration, and competency of team. Without good preparation in this direction it may be very difficult during actual project execution.
• Sometimes the project team needs to give commitment to the client about the release dates after the release planning meeting. There may be cases where some of the user stories are not clear. How to give commitment is a challenge which most of the teams faces. While there is no right answer to this, some suggestions - we can plan for some buffer based on our experience and past history. We can make the client intimated about buffer and we can deliver the project early if we are able to do so. Please note there is a difference between Buffer and Padding. Padding (giving some additional effort for each user story level without any basis and not making it known) is wrong and it should not be done. It is like Gold Plating. Buffer is planned to ensure that any risks can be handled due to wrong customer priority, not clear story / technical readiness etc and it is intimated to the customer in advance.
• Based on the amount of work planned, the dates of Iterations are planned. The thumb rule is to keep the iteration fixed for 2 weeks and put the prioritized user stories in each of the iterations.
• The prioritization of the stories are done based on the following (in the order of priority)- customer priority, technical readiness, internal project dynamics and others.
• SCRUM is a very good management framework that can be used for the team structure and following scrum and scrum of scrum teams. This gives very good way of the project management and governance.
• Release Retrospective shall be conducted at the end of each release.

Step 3- Iteration Plan and tracking : The next step is to have the Iteration plan in place. Iteration comprises of stories that are executed and each story has a list of key tasks that are performed to realize the user story. Following are some key aspects:
• Iteration Planning Meeting is conducted where there is an overview given by the business analyst about the user stories being taken up.
• Planning Poker Method can be used for estimation. Refer to book by Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn.
• If team is not comfortable with velocity based approach then either effort or LOC based approach can be used. It is always good to have a parallel usage of Velocity for the team transitioning into agile way of estimating and over a period we can make our estimation better by using only Velocity based approach.
• User Story level estimation is being done keeping following aspects in mind- story analysis, story design, coding, test coding, TDD approach, local build , continuous integration, testing, release etc.
• Ensuring the “Done “ criteria at each story level is very important. Teams can decide the common process or criteria how a story can be considered as “Done”
• Daily SCRUM meetings should be conducted for ensuring that all team members are in sync with each other’s work and there is a collective ownership.
• At the end of each Iteration Review / Sprint Review should be conducted and the feedback should be included to make the product better. It is always better that the customer or the customer representative is available during the review.
• Sprint retrospective is conducted at the end of each iteration.

Agile Project Management and the planning should be value based and the focus should be to remove the non valued added activities continuously and focus on the value that can be delivered to the customer ,always.


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