Product Definition in Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) – Part 2

2 May 2020

This blog is part of a series of previews from my upcoming book Coaching Agile Organisations

In the first part of this blog series, I explained how to identify the organizational elements to include in your product definition. In this blog, I explain how you can refine your product definition to organize into effective cross-functional teams.

Some elements are more equal than others.

Below you can see a simplified view of the organizational elements at one of my customers.

We discovered that some organizational elements are required more than others to develop product features. The more often a particular element is required, the stronger the dependency. We visualised the strength of the dependencies with a heat map—see the figure below for a anonymised simplified example. 

The y-axis shows product features. The x-axis shows the organizational elements. A green area indicates an element that is needed to deliver the feature.

The elements that heat up the most indicate the strength of the dependency—these are the hotspots. Note that the WEB element is needed in 28% of the time to develop product features, the APP 20% of the time, while Legal is required only 7%.

NOTE: Avoid focusing too much on the percentages, this is not an exact science but rather a guide to help you move forward. Next to percentages I also successfully used different scales to estimate the strength of the dependencies like: Seldom, Now and Then, Frequent.

When all the teams can pick up any work that comes in and deliver it completely to done, you have maximum adaptability. That would mean that each team has the skills to cover the whole heat map. Unfortunately, this was not the case for us. There were just too many technologies and domain knowledge for the teams to comprehend. Also, there is value in team specialisation. The solution was for teams to specialise in the customer domain first, and then to learn about the other product domains as needed.

Learning can take many months or even years, and in the meantime, we needed to determine how to start. Which organisational elements should the teams cover first and which shall we add later? This decision depends upon the strength and type of the dependencies.

Find the balance between adaptability and speed 

When a team can work on all components but only one feature, a team covers a complete row, as drawn in the figure below. Such a team has no external dependencies; hence they probably deliver fast. On the other hand, when a team covers all features but only one component, a team covers a complete column in the heatmap. Such a team can work on all feature-parts; hence they can adapt to all work that comes in, but cannot deliver end-to-end. 

Therefore, the size of the heat map area that a team covers strongly determines its

  • feature delivery speed
  • flexibility to pick up work from the product backlog.

Our challenge was to find the optimal balance between speed and adaptability in our 11 team context, and that depended upon several variables:

  • The teams’ cognitive capacity. When teams specialise in a customer domain they can still work on customer features without needing to understand the other customer domains of the product.
  • The type of dependencies between the elements. This helps the teams determine which organizational elements to cover first and which later.

Specialise in the Customer Domain

Our product was a large insurance system. We used interviews and questionnaires to determine where users spend most of their time when using the product. It turned out that there were a couple of main groups of users. (For this blog, I just use the 2 groups Claims and Evaluation. and call them red and yellow.) Some users mostly used the red-colored features—red area— while the other group primarily used the yellow-colored features—yellow area. The orange features are used by both sets of users—they overlap or intersect both red and yellow areas. 

The red and yellow areas let the teams specialize in a customer domain—see Requirement Areas in LeSS (less.works) and Value Area Scrum pattern (scrumbook.org). This reduces the cognitive demand on the teams.

The next step was to find the most significant heat map area that the teams could cover. 

The type of dependencies between the elements

We used the following rules to decide which elements to include from the beginning and which to add later.

  • Rule 1 – Contain reciprocal dependencies within one Value Area: The work of one team is input for another team and vice-versa, and there is uncertainty about how to accomplish the task, which makes frequent alignment necessary
  • Rule 2 – Ensure sequential dependencies between Value Areas with iterative planning: A team is dependent upon the work done by another team. Applicable to work with low uncertainty and predictable work.
  • Rule 3 – Manage pooled dependencies across Teams and Value Areas with simple coordination rules: For example, the sharing of a single test environment, or dependency of a person with a scarce skill.

Below you can see an example result for the red Value Area.

The Web, App, Siebel, Portal components are used often together and their interdependencies are reciprocal. The teams in the red area decided that they woud need to cover at least these elements.

Furthermore, you can see that the area has a pooled interdependency with Legal, and that it is a relatively strong dependency. of 14% The weakest interdependency is with Sales Force. We choose not to include Sales Force initially and only add it when the teams mastered the other elements. Legal was also not included because it was a pooled dependency.

The yellow Value Area below has a different set of dependencies.

The teams decided that they needed to cover at least the APP, Sales Force, Siebel and WEB components

For this area, Legal is not needed at all. And there is a weak sequential dependency on Portal. We decided to not include Portal in the first step. In the exceptional case that a feature needed a change in Portal the teams would coordinate with the red-area to get it done. We also used these as opportunities to learn more about Portal.

How to handle the features in the intersecting orange area? A solution is to decide based on the feature itself.

For example, F10 could be picked up by either the red or yellow area. F18 require only APP and can be picked up by the yellow area. The only complicated feature is F11. It requires Sales Force and Portal which neither the red or yellow area possess. So, how to handle this one? Well…., remember the golden rule of Scrum Mastership: “Always ask the team.”

Final Result

The product definition includes all elements, but we choose to not include Legal skills in any of the teams from the start. Why? Because it is a pooled and weak dependency. Also, the teams felt they were not yet able to cover more skills right from the start. Instead, Legal became the next activity to include in their Definition Of Done.

In the unfrequent case when a feature requiring Legal skills would appear on top of the Product Backlog, we would plan for that by working together with Legal in refinement events and during the Sprint.

At Sprint Planning, the team that selected that feature would then coordinate to work together with someone from Legal to get the feature done. Preferably, the Legal person(s) would also use the opportunity to teach the team so that they understood a little bit more about Legal at the end of the Sprint. When a team keeps selecting to work on features with a Legal part, eventually they learn enough to add Legal to their Definition Of Done. Bas Vodde calls this accidental specialization.

NOTE Not all teams need to know everything about all element in the Product Definition right from the start. Teams can have their own speciality as long as all teams as a group can pick up all element from the top of the Product Backlog.

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