From its outset, the agile methodology defied how teams operated for decades. Yet, the success realized within product and development organizations triggered an explosion of adoption. From rapid development, faster time to resolution, to improved communication and better product quality, there’s no debate: the benefits of agile are real and they are impactful.
What’s the primary focus of lean portfolio management?
Time and again, we’ve seen teams jamming like a well-oiled agile machine. But zooming out and looking at the bigger picture reveals a much different reality. Teams are only moving as fast as their leaders, and many of our leaders are still stuck in a world of waterfall execution and annual investment cycles. Some might wave their hand in their air and say it’s the team level that really matters – that’s where the work is being done. But what if I told you that football coach Joe Gibbs planned out every single play one year before a game? Before he knows the team makeup, and before he knows the mistakes or incidents that could change the course of the game? You would probably say that’s impossible. Sure, it’s a coach’s responsibility to have a plan, but it’s also a coach’s responsibility to be in sync with their team so they can revise plays and hit their goals.
The same could be said for agile at scale. We have teams of high performers, trained and operating with agility. Yet their managers still lead with comprehensive plans drafted ahead of the season. Disconnected from reality, these plans inevitably neglect the current state of the product, funding, unexpected incidents, and team changes. The next phase of agile asks our leaders to embrace agility, keeping a pulse on the reality of work execution. In doing so, management can ensure that the work delivered aligns to strategic initiatives and brings real value. Luckily for us, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to start this journey. The path has already been paved.
Agile for teams originated with a short but significant document we all know as the Agile Manifesto. It ignited monumental change by challenging the status quo, redefining team processes, and, most importantly, instituting a new culture. While Atlassian doesn’t claim any ownership of the concept of Lean Portfolio Management, we do believe it’s time to facilitate a similar, structured conversation around LPM principles.
Inspired by the Agile Manifesto and spearheaded by agile thought leaders, Tina Behers and Peter Keane, we present the Lean Portfolio Manifesto. At its essence, this document re-organizes exisiting agile principles and text, namely Denning and Hamel’s Hacking Management, industry groups such as Technology Business Management (TBM) and Beyond Budgeting, and wider business transformation contexts like Holacracy or New Ways of Working, we’ve identified the following core components:
The Lean Portfolio Manifesto
1. Tested assumptions over business cases
Full business cases are impressive bodies of work but they are laborious, drawn-out, and quickly go out of date. Instead of saying we know exactly what to build and what the customer wants in 6 months or a year from now, let’s start up the engine and test our assumptions. By funding small batches of work, we can 1. contain costs and 2. validate hypotheses in shorter time cycles. When a hypothesis is proved wrong, pivot your resources and allocate the remaining funds to efforts that potentially hold more valuable. In other words, cut your losses fast!
2. Safe-to-fail environment over office politics
When making a decision to pivot, one is consequently calling a hypothesis wrong and its surrounding work unprofitable. Too many agile transformations grind to a halt over office politics, with someone afraid to admit that the hypothesis was flawed. This encourages team members to stick to the status quo, sacrificing innovation. Changing this culture takes time and requires executive buy-in. Lean Portfolio teams can take the helm and work with the executive team to nurture a fail fast, fail forward culture.
3. Measurable outcomes over optimized output
Agile for teams was designed to optimize the quantity of work delivered—after all, output meant progress, and for some, output was the measure of success. But if that output bears no meaningful impact, then the work is in vain. Responsibility falls to the Portfolio to ensure the work moves the needle on business strategy, delivering concrete outcomes that substantiate value.
4. Continuous engagement over gated reviews
Scope-creep, risks, and impediments are the name of the game in development. Waiting for a gated review to re-route resources or cap work often increases the time to resolution and aggravates the health of the entire release. Lean portfolios should keep a pulse on items like work, risks, and costs so these obstacles can be contained, even avoided. When successful, this continual engagement will be the first step to empower continuous delivery.
While short, this Lean Portfolio Manifesto is packed with big, hairy challenges. Start by using this as a bedrock for conversations, then a guide for implementation. Ask the hard questions like, “Across people, processes, and tools, what will it take to drive continuous engagement?” and “What do we risk if we move to a safe-to-fail environment?”
We’ve seen it before; these conversations are difficult and change is painful. Yet, those companies that see fruit from these discussions aren’t afraid to dig in and evaluate the potential for more—more connectedness, more outcomes, and more innovation. Often, you’ll be surprised by the number of people ready to activate change for a better future. And if you find yourself on the fence, just try it in a small batch. Test your assumption.
What do you think of this manifesto relative to your experience with Lean Portfolio Management? Would you amend it or add supporting principles, as the Agile Manifesto has? Join the discussion with me in the Jira Align Community.