Why your Agile adoption should pay for itself within the first Program Increment

This blog is written specifically written for those whose technology groups can readily be thought of as being composed of groups that are 40-75 in size, regardless of the current or anticipated level of SAFe adoption.


By learning Agile Product Management before shifting to a SAFe-like program increment planning event, groups can shorten the program increment being planned to 2-4 sprints instead of the normal 5-7. This results in savings from not having to refine 2-3 sprints. It also results in quicker realization of value by having a shorter release horizon. This more than makes up for the investment required to do this. Just as important, the additional focus enables easier management of proper work-in-process levels and results in teams being more efficient. If you are just learning to adopt SAFe, this is a great way to start. If you are already using SAFe, this can be a method of shortening the program increment and getting to be both more effective and efficient. If you  don’t want to use SAFe, product management with some Lean-Agile coaching can be used instead.


Focus on the work, not the framework

Learning Agile Product Management will encourage people to adopt a supportive framework. It doesn’t always work the other way around.

The goal is to speed up the delivery date of your first release and continue improving after it. 

Agile Product Management – The Key to Effective Agile

The intent of Agile Product Management is to identify the most valuable work to be done, focus on just that work, prepare it for the teams to work on and guide them in building the functionality needed in thin slices. This creates quick feedback, the ability to pivot & faster value realization. The goal is business agility–the quick realization of value predictably, sustainable &w/high quality. Product management creates clarity on what is most valuable for the organization to build while providing teams guidance in its implementation. By discovering & removing unnecessary scope & provding this slices of work, teams become focused on true value delivery while becoming more efficient. This enables dramatically shorter times from start to initial value delivery.

Many people are looking to improve their ability to deliver value by becoming Agile. When considering such an adoption, it is useful to consider the following current and additional costs.

  1. Dollar cost of new training/coaching
  2. People cost (their lost time) due to this training/coaching takes
  3. Added cost of delay of value realization that this training/coaching costs
  4. Resistance (if any) that people have to this training/coaching

Obviously, these costs must be offset by gains. In our view, these gains should be met before the end of the next program increment.

The trick to getting a return requires focusing on the actual Agile work required, not the framework that surrounds it:

  1. focusing on quick business value realization by identifying those scenarios that will result in the quickest return for the greatest value
  2. shortening the program increment length in order to return value more quickly
  3. training and coaching product managers and product owners how to identify, sequence and thinly slice the most valuable work to be done
  4. creating small slices of functionality with clear scope, requirements and acceptance criteria
  5. having teams align around manifesting business value quickly

The key is the focus on business agility – the quick realization of business value predictably, sustainably and with high quality. This can be readily done by guiding work through the use of minimum business increments (MBIs) to create a focus on the smallest pieces of work that will realize the greatest value. Having smaller pieces enables shorter program increments. Smaller is also easier to manage as reflected in Eli Goldratt’s (creater of Theory of Constraints) observation – “Often reducing batch size is all it takes to bring a system back into control.”

Using smaller batches and shortening the length of the increment has several advantages. First, it reduces the amount of planning required. Second, it enables the group to pivot based on the feedback learned in the shorter increment. But perhaps most importantly, it focuses the group on delivering quickly. While SAFe suggests to “develop on cadence and release on demand” most planning events tend to define releases. By focusing on the implementation of minimum business increments (MBIs), even if a release is held to the end of the program increment, it is more likely more value will be created even if unexpected delays occur. See more here.

Of course, an investment in training and coaching must be made. But it should not take more than a few days. The core skills are to:

  • know what to focus on so as to avoid overworking the development team
  • only have teams work on things of real importance
  • only refine the backlog for those things about to be built
  • communicate what is needed to the development team in a way that creates clear scope, clarity and acceptance criteria for what the customers really need

The two key elements here are the use of MBIs and Acceptance Test-Driven Development (ATDD). ATDD is mostly a collaborative method for product owners, developers and testers to define scope and clear requirements. Automation does not need to be included in ATDD although it can be a first step towards that. Unless you have an unlimited budget of time and money, it is best to focus on actual Agile skills. Midisze companies are usually better off improving their skills and creating or modifying a framework that suits their work instead of investing in a framework and then trying to figure out how to do Agile.

Running a Planning Event effectively

A planning event is about collaboration and dependency management in order to maximize the teams to work together to maximize business value. A focus on finishing MBIs, not merely getting everything done by the end of the increment must be manifested by all teams.

  1. having teams align around the business value of what is being planned
  2. focusing the planning event on realizing value, not merely getting the work done in the increment

See Running Effective Planning Events for more.

In Summary

Learning how to do Agile Product Management with ATDD improves both what you are working on and how you are working on it. By mixing ATDD into the blend, teams get great clarity on scope and acceptance criteria setting up further gains by enabling automating testing.  I am not claiming that Net Objectives does anything magical here. Anyone who can effectively train and coach in product management, ATDD and team-agility can do what we do. Just make sure that’s who you engage with. The trick is in getting training and coaching before the planning. You can get more details about a framework (if you are using one) while you are doing the work.

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