Adaptive Planning – Using a Backlog of Work

In order to respond to change, plans must be made so that they can be adjusted… and then they must be changed! The agile approach to this is to use adaptive planning with a backlog of work packages or tasks.

In order to create this backlog, an overall result or goal is divided up into work packages. For example, a large company may divide its work into projects where each project becomes a work package. On a smaller level, each project may be divided into work packages, each of which represents some value to the overall project goal (note, this is different from a traditional project work breakdown structure). A third example is in the creation of a book, each chapter may be a separate work package. A work backlog can contain anything that stakeholders consider even remotely relevant to their goals for this endeavor.

Next, work packages are prioritized and listed in strict decreasing priority in a backlog. In this backlog, no two packages have the same priority. Ideally, a single person is responsible for maintaining this backlog and determining the priority of work packages. Collective maintenance of this backlog can be a source of much extra work and even conflict. The person responsible for maintaining the backlog must be trusted to take all the stakeholders’ interests and produce a reasonable priority list.

Each iteration, the team collaborates with the stakeholders to choose some number of work packages to work on and complete. If the team does not think it can complete a work package in a single iteration, it should be broken into smaller packages (remember that iteration length is not flexible!). The team is responsible for committing to the work so they have the final say on how much work they can accomplish during an iteration. No other stakeholders should pressure the team to commit to more.

Inside each iteration, the team breaks the work packages into smaller tasks and prioritizes them. Based somewhat on task priority, individuals in the team choose tasks to accomplish and work on them. It is very important for team empowerment that tasks are neither defined nor assigned by people outside the team.

At the end of each iteration, the work accomplished is demonstrated to the stakeholders. Based on these demonstrations and the lessons learned by the team, the remaining work packages are re-prioritized. Packages in the backlog can be added, removed or changed at any time, but the team’s work can only be adjusted between iterations.

Using adaptive planning with a backlog in combination with iterative and incremental delivery enables the principle of responding to change. It is also a method to improve team empowerment and amplify learning.


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