Thursday, October 1, 2009

Agile Project Management

Got this question recently.
"Any suggestions on PM tools that meet the following considerations

1) Planning

2) Estimating

3) Tracking (allowing both PM input and developer input)

4) Reporting

5) Support both Agile and Waterfall projects

6) Releases

7) Bug fixes (probably just another type of backlog)"

Agile PM requires far less planning than you're used to.

1. A "backlog" which is best done on a spreadsheet.

2. Daily standup meetings which last no more than 15 minutes at the absolute longest.

And that's about it.

Let's look at these expectations in some detail. This is important because Agile PM is a wrenching change from waterfall PM.


There are two levels of detail in planning. The top level is the overall backlog. This is based on the "complete requirements" (hahaha, as if such a thing exists). You have an initial planning effort to decompose the "requirements" into a workable sequence of deliverables and sprints to build those deliverables. Don't over-plan -- things will change. Don't invest 120 man-hours of effort into a plan that the customer will invalidated with their first change request. Just decompose into something workable. Spend only a few days on this.

The most important thing is to prioritize. The backlog must always be kept in priority order. The most important things to do next are at the top of the backlog. At the end of every sprint, you review the priorities and change them so that the next thing you do is the absolutely most valuable thing you can do. At any time, you can stop work, and you have done something of significant value. At any time, you can review the next few sprints and describe precisely how valuable those sprints will be.

The micro level of detail is the next few deliverables. No more than four to six. Don't over-plan. Review the deliverables in the backlog, correcting, expanding, combining and refining as necessary to create something that will be of value. List the sprints to build those deliverables. Try to keep each sprint in the four week range. This is really hard to do at first, but after a while you develop a rhythm based on features to be built and skills of the team. You don't know enough going in, so don't over-plan. After the first few sprints you'll learn a lot about the business problem, the technology and the team.


Rule 1: don't. Rule 2: the estimate is merely the burn rate (cost per sprint) times the number of sprints. Each sprint involves the whole team building something that *could* be put into production. A team of 5 with 4 week sprints is a cost of 5*40*4 (800 man-hours).

Each sprint, therefore, has a cost of 800 man-hours. Period. The overall project has S sprints. If the project runs more than a year, stop. Stop. The first year is all you can rationally estimate this way. Future years are just random numbers. 5*40*50 = 10,000 man-hours.

Details don't matter because each customer change will invalidate all of your carefully planned schedules. Just use sprints and simple multiplies. It's *more* accurate since it reflects the actual level of unknowns.

What about "total cost"? First, define "total". When the project starts is the "complete requirements" (hahahaha, as if such a thing actually exists). Then, with each customer change, this changes. Further, half the requirements are merely "nice-to-haves". Since they're merely nice, they're low priority -- at the bottom of the backlog.

Since each sprint creates something deliverable, you can draw a line under any sprint, call it "done" and call that the "total cost". Any sprint. Any. There are as many different total costs as there are sprints, and all of them are right.


I don't know what this is. I assume it's "tracking progress of tasks against a plan". Since the tasks are not planned at a low level of detail, there's nothing to "track".

You have a daily stand-up. People commit to do something that day. The next day you find out if they finished or didn't finish. This isn't a "tool thing". It's a conversation. Done in under 15 minutes.

Two things can happen during this brief conversation.

- Things are progressing as hoped. The sprint will include all hoped-for features.

- Things are not progressing as hoped. The sprint may not include some feature, or will include an incomplete implementation. The sprint will never have bugs -- quality is not sacrificial. Features are sacrificial.

There's no management intervention possible. The sprint will have what it will have. Nothing can change that. More people won't help. Technology changes won't help. Design changes won't help. You're mid-sprint. You can only finish the sprint.

AFTER the sprint is over, and you've updated the backlog and fixed the priorities, you might want to consider design changes or technology changes.


What? To Whom? Each sprint is a deliverable. The report is "Done".

The backlog is a shared document that the users "own" and you use to assure that the next sprint is the next most important thing to do.

Support both Agile and Waterfall projects

Not possible. Incompatible at a fundamental level. You can't do both with one tool because you don't use tools for Agile projects. You just use spreadsheets.


Some sprints are release sprints. They're no different (from a management perspective) than development sprints. This is just CM.

Bug fixes

Probably just another type of backlog. Correct.


  1. Very interesting and very realistic approach.

    The only thing problematic for me is how to deal with the clients to define the cost. Usually my clients want to know how much the development will cost at the beginning for all their "original" requirements (not necessarely the real ones)?

  2. agile methodology can be a real pain where project management is involved. Yes agile documentation is alot easier to produce, but it also means it is harder to cost as well as to ensure the entirety comes together and get's delivered on time.


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