“If you don’t know where you going, any road will take you there” – The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland
This quote from Alice in Wonderland is very insightful, and I have quoted it many times when talking about strategies and plans. In this case I want to use this as an illustration for a way an Agile project will surely fail. If you don’t know what the goal line is for a specific release or sprint, you have no means to understand how you are traveling and whether you are on the right track. I have seen many teams post great velocities in their first couple of sprints, but when asked whether they can achieve the release goal they have no idea. This is painful and leads to a lot of anxiety for the team and stakeholders.
How does this happen? I believe that this is due to the fact that in Agile we don’t want to spend too much time planning and estimating too much to the future and hence start kicking off projects really quickly. We do this with just the first one or two sprints worth of stories ready for implementation and then we keep grooming the backlog. This is great, but if you choose to do so, I think you need to spend a little bit of extra time to give the team a final goal. You don’t need to have all the stories for the release, after all we want to be flexible in Agile, but you should have some idea of the things you need to deliver. This can be stories, themes, epics, features or whatever you choose. At this stage you should do a quick estimation to provide the overall scope for the release and a goal line that the team can use in their burn-up graphs (read more on reporting here). You can then track changes to the goal line if epics require more stories than expected or if any new scope is introduced. This allows the team to have meaningful discussions with the product owner and the stakeholders about required changes to the release. If you don’t have such a goal line, you could get a shock surprise towards the end of your release and surprises are not something we want with Agile delivery.
The one caveat is if you work in a project that truly does not know what the scope is or the scope is undefined. What you can do in those cases is either work in a Kanban style or with an assumed target velocity. If you work in Kanban you only ever have to worry about the first few items in your backlog and set expectations with your stakeholders on how long they will take and then do the same for the next set of stories on a regular cadence. This requires a lot of trust between the team, product owner and stakeholders. Alternatively you can set yourself a certain target velocity and just work towards that and fill the velocity with stories that are getting groomed on an ongoing basis.