This Thanksgiving – Give Thanks to Portfolio Management…
I have years of fond memories of Thanksgiving Dinner. As a child growing up outside of Buffalo, NY, we’d play downstairs while the parents prepared the meal upstairs. Then, when the time came, we helped set the table, schlepping food up and down the stairs. Finally, following some words of thanks, the entire family would eat, and then the adults would return upstairs, doing… well, adult stuff. But, of course, that adult stuff wasn’t our concern because we kids went back to goofing around, often outside if it wasn’t too cold.
As a father of four establishing new traditions with my own family and friends, I now know that the adults were doing the dishes, putting away leftovers, talking, and celebrating (usually) with a glass of wine, eventually rewarding everyone with dessert.
Little did I realize that these memories would so presciently predict one of the dominant dynamics in companies, programs, and teams across the Agile community.
“Kid” Work (fun) vs. “Adult” Work (enabling)
I am writing this post several weeks before Thanksgiving because after a few years I know the routine. My wife will be hard at work in the weeks leading up to the holiday. She may experiment a bit with recipes. She will purchase a pumpkin, not for show, but for pie (because she really does bake the pie from scratch, roasting the orange winter squash and all). She will purchase the proper sized turkey once she knows how many people will be coming for dinner.. She will plan our menu on Thursday and Friday and even part of Saturday.
For the most part, the kids are blissfully unaware of what’s happening. Oh sure, they know Thanksgiving is coming, and they’re already talking about the food they’ll eat (“Mom, are you going to make…”). But determining what we’re eating, when we’re going to eat it, and what happens when the meal is over is outside of their concern. And, to be honest, while I’m more aware of what’s happening to make Thanksgiving fantastic, the reality is that my wife just does what’s necessary so that we can enjoy our holiday.
And that’s just fine. My kids are great kids. When the time comes, even though we don’t have a basement here in the heart of Silicon Valley, they’ll set the table and clean up the dishes. I’ve tasted their cooking, and I’m pretty confident you’d agree that you’d also rather have my wife cook the meals. And she’d rather have the kids playing outside until she’s ready for them to help. For my part, I’ll join the family, helping out my wife when needed and maybe even the kids if they ask nicely.
Agile Teams are Downstairs
When you read much of the writing in the Agile community, you get the sense that most Agile teams want to be the kids at Thanksgiving dinner.
They want to focus on the “fun,” convinced that all that is needed is for “management” to give them resources (unfettered amounts of time, and, often in Silicon Valley, food) and let them alone. They’ll consume the resources and somehow produce great results.
They needn’t concern themselves with those pesky problems or challenging questions like how much the food costs (err, salaries and overhead), what we should purchase to create a complete meal (perhaps the solution whipped up by the agile teams does need sales, marketing, and customer care after all), or what should happen after Thanksgiving dinner is over (because we don’t want to be bothered with such annoying practices as building a market-driven roadmap so that we can serve our customers over time).
Nope. Just a good old Agile / Scrum teams having fun getting stuff done.
Portfolio Teams are Upstairs
Portfolio teams are the upstairs equivalent of the adults at Thanksgiving dinner. Their tasks include selecting Profit Stream™, epics, initiatives to fund (and to what degree), and choices about systems lifecycles and allocating resources: which teams should be working on what projects and why. In addition, portfolio teams are responsible for cleaning up failed experiments and products that are struggling to perform.
Done well, this enables work: The portfolio team doing their job well ensures that the turkey is defrosted and properly prepared. The portfolio team who abdicates their job makes the frantic call to the Thanksgiving hotline to ask how they can defrost and cook a Turkey in 5 hours.
Unlike the adults at Thanksgiving dinner who receive thanks from children whose parents demand modest displays of manners, the adults on the portfolio team are not only not thanked; they are vilified! They’re told that the hard decisions they make are “command and control,” as if every idea from every Agile team should be fully funded without such pesky and decidedly “un-fun” things like a Lean Business Case.
We Should Have Fun!
I’ve said in the past, “You’re not doing Scrum/Agile if you’re not having fun.” But in this case, the meaning of fun isn’t “silly.” Instead, it is about engagement, accomplishment, and making a difference. It is about the “fun” we experience when we get to “Done, Done” at the end of the Sprint, when we move the epic in our portfolio Kanban from “Implementing” to “Done”, or the deep satisfaction of knowing from our NPS (Net Promoter Scores) that we produced a product that really does help our customers accomplish their goals.
And yeah, that earns dessert or a round on the foosball table.
Climbing the Stairs
I’d like to think that we can do better. Even though, as a child, I didn’t fully comprehend how much work the adults were doing to prepare Thanksgiving dinner, the reality is children do not staff agile teams. And portfolio teams are not staffed by managers channeling their innermost Napoleonic desires.
Agile teams can realize that portfolio management is a necessary and needed function of a healthy company. They can, shockingly, even do more than just consume the resources they’re given and stop complaining when cherry pie, instead of pumpkin pie, is served for dessert. For example, they can embrace as partners the estimation process, realizing that reasonable estimates of work are needed so that the portfolio team can balance complex and typically competing demands. And they can stop complaining when their “pet project” is canceled because of more significant portfolio concerns.
Portfolio teams can also do their job better. Instead of surrendering their jobs in an Agile transformation and letting the teams try to figure things out, they can instead embrace their role as enablers of both the work that is to be done and how that work is done.
Portfolio teams can adopt more agile and inclusive approaches to their work, replacing projects with value streams and Portfolio Kanbans. They can stop treating Agile teams like children and involve them in the decision-making processes through Participatory Budgeting. They can share the guardrails and investment horizons they’ve developed to create a sustainable business.
And together, they can switch their focus from serving Thanksgiving dinner to serving products and services that better meet customer needs.
This year in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, while my wife is busy in the kitchen, I will be teaching Agile Product Management. Join me for this two-day interactive course and learn the mindset, skills, and tools to create successful solutions—from inception to retirement—using Agile techniques. And while it is unlikely that you will be able to convince me to share my wife’s pumpkin pie recipe, if you ask I’ll share a preview of our forthcoming book on Software Profit Streams™. Because we don’t want a single Thanksgiving Holiday. We want an endless stream of them.
Special thanks to Kert Peterson, CST, and Paul Peissner for feedback on the draft of this post. And if you need ideas on what to do with your kids while cooking Thanksgiving dinner, check out this post from Kristy’s Cottage.