Management and the problem stream

Well, today was another day of sleeping, zoning, and having no brain for programming (and no willpower for that or exercise, which is even more frustrating), so you all get more musing about missions and work. Tomorrow, I will re-engage my normal schedule and turn the television off again, because seriously, two days of recovery should be enough even for a whole afternoon of meetings.

Perhaps the best concept in the scrum methodology for agile project management is the concept of the product backlog and the product owner. For those who aren't familiar, a scrum project has, as one of its inputs, a prioritized list of stories that the team will implement. During each planning session (generally between once a week and once a month), the development team estimates and takes from the front of the product backlog the top-priority stories that can be completed during that period of time. The product owner is responsible for building the list of pending development stories based on business needs and keeping them sorted in priority order so that the work of the team follows the goals of the larger organization. But the product owner does not get to say how difficult the stories are; the development team estimates the stories, and the product owner may change order based on those estimates (to do simpler things earlier, for example).

We've been doing scrum to some extent or another for quite some time now, and while there are a variety of things that I like about it, I think this is the best part. And I think it has very useful concepts for management in general.

The product backlog is effectively a problem stream of the sort that I talked about in my last couple of posts. It's a set of problems that need to be solved, that matter to other people. And, if the team is doing scrum properly, the problems are presented in a form that describe a complete unit of desired functionality with its requirements and constraints, but without assuming any sort of implementation. The problem is the domain of the product owner; the solution is the domain of the development team.

I am increasingly convinced that my quality of life at work, and that of many other people doing similar sorts of development and project work, would be drastically improved if managers considered this role the core of their jobs. (Ironically, at least in our initial experiences with scrum, it was quite rare for regular managers to be product owners; instead, individual line staff or project managers act as product owners. I think this speaks to how confused a lot of managers are about their roles in a technical development organization. This seems to be improving.) The core of the sort of work that I do is a combination of ongoing maintenance and solving new problems. Both of those can be viewed as a sequence of (possibly recurring) stories; I know this because that's largely how I do my own time management. Apart from HR and staffing, the core role of a manager is almost exactly what scrum calls "backlog grooming": communicating with everyone who has input into what their group is doing, finding out what their problems are, translating that into a list of things that the organization needs to have done, prioritizing them, breaking them into manageable chunks, ensuring they are fully specified and actionable (read: well-written stories), and communicating their completion back to other stakeholders (and then possibly iterating).

This lept out at me when I started thinking about our larger strategic vision. That strategic vision is a sort of product backlog: a set of development stories (or, in this case, epics that would be broken down into a large number of smaller stories). But most strategic plans have glaring flaws if they're evaluated by the standards of scrum product backlogs. They're normally written as marketing statements and aimed at the clients or customers rather than at the staff. From the staff perspective, they're often hopelessly vague, not concrete, actionable epics. Often, they are almost entirely composed of grand, conceptual epics that any scrum team would immediately reject as too large and nebulous to even discuss. And often they're undefined but still scheduled: statements that the organization will definitely complete some underspecified thing within the next year or two.

Scrum rightfully rejects any form of scheduling for unspecified stories and epics. Additional vagueness and sketchiness is tolerated the farther the story is from the current iteration, so they can be put into the future backlog, but scrum makes no guarantees about when they'll get done until they've been sized and you can apply a reasonable velocity estimate. If you want to put a date on something, you have to make it concrete. This is exactly the problem that I have with long-range strategic plans. We already know this about technology development: long-range strategic plans are feel-good guesses, half-truths, and lies that we tell other people because we're expected to do so, but which no one really believes. The chance that we can predict anything about the shape of projects and rate of delivery of those projects three years from now is laughable, and certainly none of the work that would be required to make real estimates has normally been done for those sorts of long-term strategic projects.

There are a lot of scrum advocates who would go farther than I in asking for a complete revolution of how technical projects are planned. I'm not sure how realistic that is, or how well the whole scrum process would work when rolling up work across dozens, if not hundreds, of scrum-sized teams. But in the specific area of the role of managers in a development organization, I think we could learn a lot from this product backlog concept. Right now, there is a constant tension between managers who feel like they need to provide some sort of visionary leadership and guidance (the cult of Steve Jobs) and line staff who feel like managers don't understand enough about specific technology to lead or guide anything. But if you ask a technical developer whether, instead, it would be useful for managers to provide a well-structured, priority-ordered, and clean problem stream from the larger organization so that the developer can trust the problem stream (and not have to go talk to everyone themselves) but have control over the choice of implementation within the described constraints, I think you would find a great deal of enthusiasm.

As a further bonus, scrum has a lot of advice about what that problem stream should look like. I think some of the story structuring is overblown (for example, I can't stand the story phrasing structures, the "AS A... I WANT TO... SO THAT..." shackles), but one thing it does correctly emphasize is the difference between problem and solution. The purpose of the story is to describe the outcome from the perspective of the person who will use the resulting technology. Describing the constraints on the solution, in terms of cost or integrations, is actively encouraged. Describing the implementation is verboten; it's up to the project team to choose the implementation that satisfies the constraints. If managers in general would pick up even that simple distinction, I think it would greatly improve the engagement, excitement, and joy that developers could take in their work.

There's very little that's more frustrating than to be given an interesting problem in the guise of a half-designed solution and be told that one is not permitted to apply any of one's expertise in elegance, robustness, or durability to replacing the half-baked partial solution. Or even be allowed to know the actual motivating problem, instead of the half-digested form that the manager is willing to pass on.

Posted: 2013-01-27 22:36 — Why no comments?

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2013-01-28