Disciplined Agile Program Management: A Goal Driven Approach

This posting, the latest in a series focused on a disciplined agile approach to program management, overviews the activities associated with program management. The Disciplined Agile (DA) framework promotes an adaptive, context-sensitive strategy.  The framework does this via its goal-driven approach that indicates the process factors you need to consider, a range of techniques or strategies for you to address each process factor, and the advantages and disadvantages of each technique.  In this blog we present the goal diagram for the Program Management process blade and overview its process factors.

The following process goal diagram overviews the potential activities associated with disciplined agile program management.

Disciplined Agile Program Management

The process factors that you need to consider for program management are:

  1. Allocate work. Work items must be allocated to delivery teams, or to open source efforts in the case of programs which include internal open source components, throughout the lifecycle.  The type of work and the focus of the sub-team are the primary determinants of how work is allocated.  However, team capacity and load balancing concerns, for example a team has run out of work or a team currently has too much work, will also be considered when allocating new work.  Work allocation is the responsibility of your product owners although team capacity planning and monitoring is typically performed by the program manager and team leads.  Regardless, these activities should be performed collaboratively by the available people at the time.
  2. Prioritize work.  The work performed by the teams – including new requirements and fixing defects – needs to be prioritized.  There are several ways to prioritize the work, such as by business value, by risk, by severity (in the case of production defects), or by weighted shortest job first (wsjf) to name a few strategies.  Prioritization is an ongoing activity throughout the lifecycle and is the responsibility of your product owners.
  3. Plan program.  Traditional programs are often planned on an annual or even ad-hoc basis.  Agile programs, at least the disciplined ones. tend to be planning on a rolling wave basis.
  4. Organize teams.  There are three common strategies for how you can organize delivery teams within a program – feature teams, component teams, and internal open source – each of which has advantages and disadvantages.  In addition to delivery teams, in a large program you are likely to find the need for leadership teams – the Product Owner team, the Architecture Owner team, and the Product Delivery/Management team – made up of the product owners, architecture owners, and team leads from the delivery teams respectively.  These leadership teams are responsible for work/requirements coordination, technical coordination, and management coordination within the program respectively.
  5. Coordinate teams.  There are several ways that the sub-teams can coordinate with one another.  For example they could choose to have cross-team coordination meetings (also called a Scrum of Scrums (SoS)); they could visualize the work through task boards, team dashboards, and other information radiators such as a modeling wall; they could choose to have “big room” planning sessions where all team members are involved or “small room” agile modeling sessions where a subset of people are involved; or even traditional (or agile) checkpoint meetings.  All of these strategies have their advantages and disadvantages, and all can be applied by the various types of teams mentioned earlier.
  6. Coordinate schedules.  There are several strategies that a program can adopt to coordinate the schedules between sub teams.  The easiest conceptually, although often hardest to implement in practice, is to have all sub-teams on the same cadence (e.g. every sub-team has a two week iteration).  This is what both SAFe and LeSS prescribe.  Another option is to have multiplier cadences where the schedules of sub-teams align every so often.  For example, we once worked with a large program where some sub-teams had a one-week iteration, some had a two-week iteration, and a few had a four-week iteration.  We’ve also seen another team where sub-teams had one, two, or three week iterations that provided alignment of iteration endings every six weeks.  Most common, although rarely discussed, is for sub-teams to have disparate cadences.  This is guaranteed to occur when teams are following different lifecycles (remember, the DA framework supports several).  For example, when some sub-teams are following the Scrum-based agile/basic lifecycle that has iterations, yet other sub-teams are following the lean or continuous delivery lifecycles that have no iterations, then you have an alignment challenge.  Or if you have sub-teams adopting any iteration length they like (we’ve seen some programs with sub-teams with two, three, four and sometimes even five week iteration lengths) then they also in effect have disparate cadences.
  7. Schedule solution releases.  Programs need to schedule their own releases, in accordance to your organization’s release management strategy, which involves coordination between the sub-teams.  When the cadences of the sub-teams are (reasonably) aligned then it is easier to coordinate production releases.  For example, when all sub-teams have two-week iterations (or at least the sub-teams with iterations do) then they could potentially release into production every two weeks.  In the case of multiplier cadences, there is the potential to release into production each time the iteration endings align.
  8. Negotiate functional dependencies.  An important responsibility of the Product Owner team is to manage the functional dependencies between the work being performed by various sub-teams.  There are strategies to manage dependencies between two agile sub-teams, between an agile sub-team and a lean sub-team, and even between an agile/lean sub-team and a traditional sub-team (this isn’t ideal, but sometimes happens).
  9. Negotiate technical dependencies.  Similarly, an important responsibility of the Architecture Owner team is to work through technical dependencies within the solution being developed by the program.
  10. Govern the program.  The program must be governed, both internally within the program itself while still operating under the aegis of your organization’s overall IT governance strategy.  Program-level metrics, particularly those tracking the progress of sub-teams and the quality being delivered, are vital to successful coordination within the program.  Sub-teams should also be working to common conventions, ideally those of the organization but in some cases specific to the program itself (perhaps your solution is pioneering a new user interface look-and-feel or new data storage conventions).  Programs, because of their size and because they are usually higher risk, often have more rigorous reporting requirements for senior management so as to provide greater transparency to them.  The implication is that a program’s dashboard often has a more robust collection of measures on display.

How Scaling Affects Program Management

Although program management primarily addresses the team size scaling factor, your tailoring decisions will still be affected by the other scaling factors:

  1. Geographic distribution.  Chances are very good that large teams will also be geographically distributed in some way.  There are two flavors of this: Are teams geographically distributed (e.g. in different physical locations) and are people within a team geographically dispersed (e.g. people are working in cubes, on different floors, in different buildings, or from home)?  Both add risk. Coordination within the program becomes more difficult the more distributed the teams are, and more difficult within teams the more distributed the people are.  Distribution hits the leadership (the product owner team, the architecture owner team, and the team lead/product delivery) teams particuarly hard because members should be located with their delivery sub-teams but also need to work regularly with their counterparts located elsewhere.  The implication is that the team may require more sophisticated tooling to enable collaboration and more importantly be prepared to invest in travel regularly to foster better communication between disparate locations.  Furthermore, when your stakeholders are geographically distributed it may require your Product Owners to get support from agile Business Analysts in the various locations to help elicit requirements from them.
  2. Compliance.  Compliance, either regulatory compliance required by law or self-imposed compliance (i.e. CMMI-compliancy), will definitely have an effect on your approach to program management.  In fact, the larger the program the more likely it is to fall under regulatory compliance due to the greater risk involved. Regulatory compliance generally requires greater governance both within the program and outwards facing as well.  Under some regulations your coordination efforts will require proof that they occurred, such as some form of meeting minutes that capture who was involved, the decisions made (if any), and action items taken by people.  Compliancy may also motivate more sophisticated approaches to capturing requirements by your Product Owners and to documenting technical concerns by your Architecture Owners.
  3. Organizational distribution. The larger the team, the more likely you are to involve contractors, consultants, or even to outsource portions of the work.  When external organizations are involved the Program Manager will likely be involved it the contract management effort, which in turn may require assistance by the team leads.
  4. Technical complexity.  The larger the team, the more likely it is that they are taking on greater technical complexity.  Or, another way to look at it, greater complexity often motivates the creation of larger teams to deal with that complexity.  Greater technical complexity will motivate greater attention to architecture and design, thereby motivating more regular collaboration of the Architecture Owners.
  5. Domain complexity.  Similarly, team size and domain complexity tend to go hand-in-hand.  Greater domain complexity will require the Product Owners to work in a more sophisticated manner and may even motivate them to get support from agile Business Analysts (or junior Product Owners as the case may be).

Concluding Thoughts

In some ways “program coordination” is a more accurate term than “program management.”  Unfortunately “program management” is a far more common term within the IT community so we have decided to stick with it.

Our next blog posting in this series will describe the workflow of program management with other key IT activities such as portfolio management, enterprise architecture, and IT delivery teams.


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