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Scheduled Backlog - Prioritization through Categorization

Not all projects should be managed the same way. Some require a more rigid approach to planning and execution, while others demand an iterative and flexible approach to delivering work. The “Agile vs. Waterfall battle” is finally coming to an end with vast majority of companies that have tried both, stating that they need a hybrid approach. Stream Theory attempts to fill that need by providing a set of tools that leverage best practices from multiple methodologies and frameworks.

A Scheduled Backlog concept is an example of such a tool. During the phase of Continuous Improvement (see The Rhythm of Change blog post) individual business units and teams focus on “local improvements” such as process improvements, training, documentation updates, system upgrades and so on. Such initiatives have a relatively small interdependency with other teams. When compared to a major transformation, like a merger, an ERP system implementation, a product line overhaul, and similar enterprise-wide projects, the need for cross-project coordination is lower and, therefore, needs a different management solution. In my opinion, Agile framework is ideal for Continuous Improvement projects, although some customizations should be added for increased efficiency.

An example of such customization is a simple categorization of projects into four groups:

1. Maintenance Projects – "keep the lights on”

2. External Quality Improvement Projects – address Client Experience (CX)

3. Internal Quality Improvement Projects – address Employee Experience (EX)

4. Growth Projects

This action allows to prioritize projects based on the fundamental need of an organization at a particular period in time. It forces us to ask ‘why’ we are doing a particular project. Categories help set short-term organizational goals. We should start asking ourselves during the annual budgeting process how we want to change as a company during the next year and how that change fits into a longer horizon. Is it time to grow and are we ready for it? Do we have major employee experience needs that must be addressed right away? Does client experience need transformation? Is everything equally important or do we have areas that need more attention? This grouping of projects provides an initial project prioritization filter.

The next step is to implement a Quarterly Executive Sprint where senior leadership will be deciding how to divide up project resources for the upcoming quarter. Ideally, one or two categories will get majority of resources so that overall multitasking is reduced and projects deliver measurable value faster.

Such project categorization allows us to look at the company as a whole, improving our long-term planning capabilities. This information helps us reduce unnecessary variation from untimely and erroneous business decisions, significantly increasing Agile development team throughput. Instead, changes will be embraced on a more detailed, more creative level, exactly where Agile meant for it to be. This simple grouping will create enterprise alignment. The result will yield a change rhythm and will allow us to connect daily tasks with the overall company goal.

To make this process successful, however, additional actions are needed. We need to deal with projects that span across multiple quarters and should be broken down into smaller deliverables that can be completed in a single Quarterly Sprint. Such initiatives should be closer to the top of the priority rank as they represent a critical path of the overall company change.

When prioritizing among projects in the same category, for example Maintenance, other considerations need to be made. Various technical, contractual, compliance requirements impact the decision and do depend on the specifics of each situation. The output of this step should be a list of the most critical deliverables that should be worked on in the next quarter.

Further prioritization needs to take team capacity and velocity into consideration. Focused execution that minimizes multitasking across several projects is encouraged by many management frameworks, including Agile and Theory of Constraints. This creates a need to plan value delivery in a single Quarterly Sprint in a more sequential manner, which drives priority decisions at a more detailed, execution level. The end result of such planning exercise is a clear picture of what deliverables teams will be working on in the next three months and in what approximate sequence.

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