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Lean & Agile Portfolio Management

I've been working as an Agile consultant for almost 7 years now. Many organisations in an attempt to become more Agile look for improvements at team level. It is not uncommon to see that most effort goes into Agile way of working at team level. Scrum is by far the most widely adopted framework by teams(regardless of how well it is implemented ).

Now lets zoom into an organisation that uses Scrum at team level:

Team adopts Scrum hence they have roles(accountabilities according to the new Scrum guide). They start maintaining a Product Backlog, they have time-boxed Sprints which is usually 2 weeks. Each Sprint starts with a Sprint Planning during which Scrum team creates a plan for the Sprint (called Sprint Backlog). Let's give a pause here.

What - The Problem: Sprint Backlog is supposed to include all the necessary work for the Sprint and help teams to create focus. It limits the work a Scrum Team forecasts. This works for some teams but many Scrum Teams struggle to say "no"to the upcoming work and end up with Sprint backlogs with multiple initiatives hence Capacity is distributed. 2020 Scrum guide attempts to fix this with Product Goal. Teams are supposed to strive to reach to one goal at a time. This might work but not for most teams who are not really working in a Product Environment and more importantly are expected to serve multiple customers/businesses. Frameworks do not fix problems people do.

Why does this happen ? Why can't Product Goal mechanism or Scrum values (Focus in particular) can not fix the problem. Primary reason is Scrum Teams are not empowered by the organisation to take portfolio decisions. It is hard for them to kill, transform a project in some way, rank/order or park projects.

So What - Impact: Scrum becomes a container of events rather than a framework for adaptability.

People start disliking it cause it may turn into a micromanagement tool. It doesn't serve its main purpose: Agility. People get frustrated due to multitasking, parallel work. They don't feel ownership, project mindset detach them from why they are really doing that project. Mismatch between the Scrum/Agile theory and its application creates mistrust. Business results change minimally; lead times, throughputs hardly improve.

What now - Solution: :

So empowering teams to make decisions is one of the best solutions but this is a bigger step for many organisations. They may not feel comfortable yet to delegate the full power yet. There is a solution to that. You can start managing your portfolio using Agile & Lean principles. Using Kanban, limiting work at portfolio level, making bold and faster decisions, agilizing funding and budgeting are things you can consider.

This is a blog post I wanted to write to increase awareness on Agile organisations about there is something thye have to do if they are in a similar situation as I described above. Agile transformations take place in many levels and portfolio should not be left out. This is in fact one of the areas you can even start your Agile journey. I believe organisations can boost their Agility with proper portfolio management without even touching teams. This doesn't mean team level changes are unnecessary or less important. Many organisations suffer from unlimited work that start prematurely which increase over burden on teams/people (one of the 3 categories of waste).

In summary, as an Agile consultant these days I see portfolio management as a key action in becoming a more Agile organisation. Team level changes alone will not take you far and have to be supported with portfolio Agility. Portfolio management requires effort and commitment hence it is not a plug and play thing but if you do it you will reap its benefits. If you are starting an Agile transformation consider revising your portfolio management and look for things that you can improve to support teams.

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