Side Stepping Landmines: Managing Risk With Sprint Futurespectives

Risks Are Landmines

Risk and project issues are one of the roots of poor project performance. There are three areas that we measure regarding the success or failure of a project; these three areas are what we call in project management, the triple constraint. The triple constraint consists of scope, budget, and time.

The interactions of these three areas are a lot like Newton’s third law of motion. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Was there a decision to increase the scope? You’ll likely need more time and money. Has there been a cut to the project’s budget? There most likely needs to be a cut to the scope. Has the schedule been crashed and we need to get to market in two months instead of the planned six? Better give me more money and be prepared to cut some of that scope down to a “minimal viable product.” I think you get the idea.

The triple constraint consists of scope, budget, and time. The interaction of these three areas are a lot like Newton’s third law of motion. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This is why scrum is so effective. It allows for business agility via quick decision making from the Product Owner and iterative delivery of working software from the team. Scrum deals with actions effecting the triple constraint rather well. Project issues concerning the budget or schedule can quickly be addressed by everyone and the Product Owner can assess the business impact to make a decision that usually concerns scope.

However, when a team starts off on a new project that has a medium to high amount of risk and uncertainty, I recommend allowing teams the time to mull over possible risks and to perform some pre-planning. Otherwise, the project can blow up in their face or decisions will be made for them by the changed environment. We address this with risk planning — we don’t send our soldiers into a battlefield knowing land mines exist. So how can scrum teams plan for risk?

Risks are landmines. Some we know about. Some we don’t. Creating a plan to navigate and manage the consequences of a triggered mine is the only way to help us navigate a minefield responsibly.

Conduct A Futurespective

Thinking ahead and talking can help, but writing down potential risks and plans to address them is even better. This is the point of the “Futurespective;” To conduct risk planning at the start of a project or product enhancement and to give the team some time to do some planning before stepping on a potential minefield. It’s an activity outside of the typical scrum events and because of that, it should not be done before each iteration. Instead, it should be done provided select circumstances:

  • Just before beginning a new effort (i.e. Sprint Zero);
  • Just before a critical milestone (i.e. a new feature release to Production);
  • A significant change to a project constraint is anticipated (i.e. change to schedule, scope, budget, or quality). 

Just Before A New Effort – The Sprint Zero As A Futurespective

The Sprint Zero is an activity I’ve seen successful teams use when they conclude one effort and move to another. There is no such thing as multi-tasking and that is why we should frown upon teams who work on multiple projects at once. What they’re really doing is engaging in “task-switching” or inefficient “serial-tasking.” Instead, we encourage the team to wrap up a product feature and release it to production for general use before moving onto another product.

The Sprint Zero is the time between efforts that allows teams to assess what the new project or product enhancement is. If they’re cracking open the code for an existing product to add a new feature set, they should be allowed up to two weeks depending on the complexity of the code. For older, more monolithic applications, carrying large amounts of technical debt, I’d recommend no time-box on this activity. Let the team take their time getting familiar with the product, the code, and documentation (if it exists or is up to date). If there is no documentation, stress the importance to managers that they should not be rushed into starting the project until they are ready. Let the team decide when they’re ready to begin and use common sense.

If the team is about to spin up a new project and create a new product from the ground up, there should already be a product backlog and roadmap ready for them to review. The Sprint Zero is a great opportunity for the team to familiarize themselves with the backlog, Product Owner, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), and stakeholders of the new product. The team should be conducting working sessions to create better acceptance criteria for user stories, sketching wireframes, and getting a better understanding of what they are going to build. Encourage them to seek continual feedback on their wireframes and designs. Make it an iterative activity. Teams may also take some time to engage in training if they will be developing in a newer development framework. Again, exercise common sense and decide on a reasonable time-box before kicking off the project.

Just Before A Critical Milestone – Release Planning As A Futurespective

Usually a sprint or two before releasing a larger feature, the team should have a handle on the stability of their product. Testers have been giving Developers feedback on the quality of their code via Integration & Performance Testing and of course, Bugs. The Product Owner is busy preparing, coordinating, or wrapping up User Acceptance Testing (UAT).  The Scrum Master is busy assisting everyone with Impediments and UAT. It can be chaotic or running smoothly… sometimes too smoothly…but, maybe I’m just naturally pessimistic?

I find this is a great opportunity to use the time normally allocated for a Retrospective as a way to plan for risk and get everyone together for the release plan. Of course, the need for this will eventually disappear as practices become better and code is pushed into production more rapidly via continual integration and continual deployment, however, I recognize that it can take a while to get to this point.

The need for this will eventually disappear as practices become better and code is pushed into production more rapidly via continual integration and continual deployment.

There are multiple ways to conduct a Futurespective and each one could use their own article. However, it’s a good idea to invite the Product Owner and SMEs to this event. To be concise, I’ll give you the meat and potatoes of what makes a good Futurespective.

  1. Identification of plausible risks regarding the release
  2. Statement of assumptions about the release
  3. Statement of the issues currently occurring (problems & challenges the team is experiencing).
  4. Identification of dependencies effecting the release (technical or cross-team dependencies the team or organization has). 
  5. Written mitigation plans that is developed by the team and Product Owner.
  6. Assignments/Owners for each plan (“if risk 2 is realized, who is the person responsible for leading the plan?”). 

A Significant Change To A Project Constraint

When a business priority changes and the project’s budget, schedule, or scope, is effected, the Product Owner may decide to stop the iteration and cancel the sprint. The Product Owner should call the team together and appraise them of the situation and call on the team for advice. Ultimately, the Product Owner will likely make some tough decision about cuts to the product scope. The Product Owner should use her Subject Matter Experts, stakeholders, and Delivery Team to make the most informed decision possible. It’s a great opportunity for everyone to brainstorm with the Product Owner about the best way to continue moving forward and exercise business agility.

Prioritizing the Product Backlog and refining user stories that were in the “freezer” takes a lot of effort and planning. Schedule as many backlog grooming sessions as needed and run a Futurespective before proceeding.

Thanks for taking the time to read and I hope you found it useful. I’d love to hear your thoughts on risk management or any experience you’ve had with Futurespectives. If you’d like to have a discussion, leave a comment below or contact me. I’d love to connect on social media as well!

Photo Credit: Pixabay

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Jeremy is an IT Professional with the State of Nevada. Previously, he was a mental health counselor and a Navy Veteran. He holds a bachelors degree in Psychology and Information Systems and is currently working on his Masters in Information Systems at the University of Nevada - Reno. Follow him on Twitter.

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