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Product/Portfolio planning is a key activity for the Agile Product Manager, which usually consists of planning and management of existing product sets, as well as defining new products for the portfolio. This kind of product/portfolio planning needs the product manager to develop a roadmap in collaboration with her stakeholders that consists of new upcoming products and also updates to existing products based on the their current status. The roadmap thus enables identifying strategic future releases and simultaneously drives planning for tactical development. This discipline of Agile Product Portfolio management is relatively new and continually evolving: Product Managers are still figuring out best ways to create such roadmaps that will satisfy the executive audience looking at the portfolio to align strategic objectives while helping to balance the demands of resources consumed by project teams in sprints. 

Correct prioritization of the product’s feature set, and planning a proper release that will address the executive strategy, are serious challenges for the product managers and agile project teams. Lack of fast feedback, inability to change course direction based on new priorities, and reluctance to gather inputs from multiple stakeholders can throw the team off track quite easily. To deal with this, on a recent client project we started using a tiered approach to develop and execute the roadmap in which everyone’s voice is heard.

  1. Identification
  2. Prioritization
  3. Exploration
  4. Confirmation.

#1 Identification

This is the phase where business stakeholders brainstorm and define the business goals for the portfolio. The initial tensions between different stakeholders about getting their projects in the priority list are overcome during this identification process, as the business and technology stakeholders come into close contact with the product owner (portfolio/product manager). Based on the initial round of discussions and evaluations every project idea (for new products as well as updates to existing ones) is assigned a priority ranking.

Key Outputs: A ranked product roadmap with high level business visions and goals outlined for the highest priority projects and features. Also included are initial definitions of targeted user roles, initial workflow for prioritized product(s).

At the client company, the business stakeholders during this phase conceptualize the need of a product to enhance their digital presence and drive corporate strategy. Primary business goals are defined and initial user flows are identified. 

#2 Prioritization

During this phase the whole team is normally brought into the roadmapping process. A quick kick-off is arranged to make the team aware of the roadmapping process. Based on priority inputs from the product owner, the team evaluates the project ideas and generated epic backlogs to provide initial “order of magnitude” estimates (estimating in T-Shirt sizes). The risks are identified and assumptions are laid out. It is at this stage the product manager reassesses the risks, estimates, and potential business values. This reassessment results in revised priorities for one or more projects, through collaboration with the other stakeholders.

Key Outputs: An initial backlog of epics that have been prioritized by the business owners in collaboration with the team and the product owner. The backlog is supported by initial coarse-grain estimates, and lists of risks and assumptions to make sure that everyone understands the work scope.

At the client company, all of these (re)prioritization activities are incorporated as part of the regular sprint work, so that the entire project team has more visibility into the potential pipeline of work and can provide quick feedback to the product owners on the ‘current’ state of the backlog and team capacity. Also first draft of user workflows and wireframes are created to aid in estimation. 

#3 Exploration

At this stage, the risks get well defined as the team performs early technical spikes for integration touch points. Refined estimates are available as user attributes and user interface workflows are defined to the next level of detail. This results in a tentative release plan based on the current sprint backlog and team capacity.

Key Outputs: A new version of the story backlog with refined granular level estimates and risk lists and a draft of the release plan.

At the client company, this phase is used to share the initial release plan with the teams for feedback. Also the outputs of the technical spikes are shared with the product owner to make them aware of the potential technology choices.

#4 Confirmation

This is the phase when the business stakeholders review all the available information (business value, risks, estimates, product definition, and suggested release plan) to reach a Go or No-Go decision. It is the responsibility of the Product Owner along with the team to refine the release timelines and resource scheduling based on the decisions taken.

Key Outputs: The approved project backlog is the main output of this phase, which drives a formalized release plan owned by the team and the product/portfolio owner.

At the client company, if the project is a Go, the portfolio owner refines the release timelines and resource scheduling. If the project is a No-Go, the portfolio owner puts the project back into hibernation for reconsideration at a later time.

In Summary

All four phases described above are interrelated and interdependent, each drawing input from the one before and providing output back to refine the decision making process at this stage. Constant feedback, collaboration, free exchange of information and artifacts, and a centralized dashboard are among the key factors that make these phases work seamlessly across multiple sprints and release cycles.

Apart from improving team morale by enabling all team members to have an involved stake in the product’s growth, the advantages of collaborative roadmapping include:

  • Rapid portfolio management: Usually portfolio planning is a slow process as portfolio decisions are slower and more deliberate - involving a broad range of inputs from multiple stakeholders - and more impactful than product level decisions. However, agile product roadmaps are created and maintained iteratively with close collaboration between the stakeholders and project teams, hence portfolio planning progresses rapidly.
  • Ability to change roadmap direction: Agile portfolio management offers the flexibility to frequently update the roadmap based on close feedback and strong collaboration from the agile teams and the stakeholders. The product roadmap can undergo updates at any time during the release cycles; current project status, change in future financial projections, change in prioritization by the stakeholders, or a new legal requirement can be factored into the roadmap. Each of the phases provides enough information to the stakeholders to change their priorities based on reality checks.
  • Knowledge sharing: The goal of each of the phases overlaps with the next one; they are not water tight containers of activities guarded by gatekeepers, but rather collaborative, feedback-based time boxes geared to moving forward in the project selection process. At this client company, these logical phases not only provided our team with the perspective of the overall road map and the proverbial ‘big’ picture from a business value view point, they also enabled our understanding of the nature of the potential work, and the risks attached, during early analysis and estimation processes.

A modified excerpt from an article originally published here