How fresh is your backlog?

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

Do you struggle with an overwhelming backlog?

Do you count the number of product backlog items in your backlog in tens? hundred? or thousands?

Does your backlog contain many stories which have been there for months, if not years, and yet never raise to the top of the backlog?

Is your success judged on your ability to do the backlog?

Backlogs were a good idea when they were introduced a bit over 20 years ago but today many teams slaves to the backlog – see my posts on the Tyranny of the backlog and Purpose over backlog. One of the benefits I’ve called out for OKRs is the ability to move away from backlog driven development (BLDD).

In Succeeding with OKRs in Agile I ask suggest you either need to prioritise your backlog over OKRs (in which case OKRs are derived from the backlog you intend to do) or OKRs over backlog (in which case OKRs are derived from strategy and the backlog plays a supporting role.) In my podcast with Jenny Herald earlier this year I even say “Let OKRs drive… nuke the backlog.”

Filipe Albero Pomar recently shared his backlog freshness blog which I think is great. Freshness is a great way to think about the state of the backlog that separates the size of the backlog from the relevance of the backlog.

Filipe’s idea is simply to talk about the backlog in terms of freshness – you have a fresh backlog if your backlog items are fresh: written recently, relate to current opportunities, problems and things people currently want.

And of course, the opposite of fresh: stale, stories that have been sitting in the backlog for months, even years, stories that relate to yesterday’s problems and project, stories which people wanted last year. The existence a big backlog of stale stories means the team is seen to be not delivering, the end-date is far off because people still expect all the work to be done.

Filipe suggests backlog freshness can be measured:

1. Set a cut-off date

2. Categorise stories as fresh or stale: fresh stories have been written since the cut-off date, those which are older are stale

3. Calculate freshness as a percentage of fresh from the total: if 25 stories out of 60 have been written in the last month then the backlog is 41% fresh, and 59% stale

Thats a useful metric, I think we can do better, look at the graphic above. I group backlog items into age groups and graphed them. For completeness I added a line to indicate average story age. Clearly this backlog is not fresh – nearly half the stories are over a year old.

I like the idea of graphing backlog freshness because it is easy to understand and makes an impact. In the graph above I’ve categorised backlog items into age groups and added an average line. Clearly this is not a fresh backlog. Whether this is the way to demonstrate backlog freshness I’m not sure – I’m playing with a histogram and quartile ranges.

With some clients I’ve thought of the backlog like a mortgage. There is the principle (the existing backlog), the interest rate (the growth rate of the backlog) and the monthly repayments (stories reaching done). Unfortunately when you do this you sometimes find the mortgage will not be paid for many years, and perhaps never. (Don’t worry about estimating the size of stories, for this sort of analysis the number of stories will get you started, and if your backlog is measured in hundreds of items the small will offset the large.)

I’d love to talk more about this and experiment with some ideas, I think it could be a very useful way of thinking about the backlog.


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Scrum or OKRs, which comes first?

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

“Hello Allan , I followed a few of your seminars on OKRs and I am reading your book.  I do have one question. I will start a transformation soon. The company has the ambition to move to Scrum and also OKRs; Do you have any advise on where to start? OKRs first or SCRUM first.  Thank you a lot !”

This question appeared in my mailbox – or rather my LinkedIn box – a few weeks ago and I thought other readers might be interested in my answer.

My answer is: do both together.

That will sound ambitious if you see Scrum and OKRs as distinct things but I don’t, to me they are synergistic and can be viewed as one change. In the process I see the opportunity to create a simpler form of agile, or simpler version of Scrum if you prefer. Let me describe.

The Scrum Master role remains pretty much the same as regular Scrum. The main change is that in addition to facilitating planning meetings and sprint retrospectives the Scrum Master will additionally facilitate OKR setting sessions and OKR retrospectives at the end of the cycle. They will want to ensure the OKRs are known by everyone and people reference to them during sprints.

Similarly the Product Owner role remains pretty much the same with the additional need for the PO to lead thinking on what OKRs to set. This means the Product Owner needs to do more horizon scanning, talk to more stakeholders and prepare to set objectives that will last several sprints rather than just one at a time.

Simplification comes in that there is no need to build up and administer a product backlog. Set the OKRs, then go straight into a planning meeting and ask “How do we make progress against this OKR?”. Write the stories you need to do that. Use the OKRs as a just-in-time story generator. If you generate stories you cannot do this sprint then put them in a product backlog for the next planning meeting.

In the next planning meeting review progress and ask yourself again: “what do we need to do to make progress on these OKRs?”. It might be that you have some stories from last time to work with, if not write some more. OKRs in effect become the Sprint Goal and you generate the stories from there. (If you are using a Product Goal as well then reference that when setting the OKRs at the start of the cycle.)

Estimation is reduced because you have fewer stories in play and in the backlog. If you want you can use story points and velocity to determine if the sprint is full or you can just ask the team “Is that enough work to keep us busy?” and “Do we have space for more?”

If you want a more sophisticated system then get the stories out on the table, put them in the order they are likely to be done, then go from top to bottom asking “On a scale of 1 to 10, What are the chances we will get this story done in this sprint? – where 1 is unlikely and 10 is almost certainly.” If the probability is below 8 you probably take action, break the story down, reorder the work order or just accept that you probably won’t do everything you would like to.

In the longer term you can count the stories done to build up a record of capacity.

I would aim to do end of sprint demonstrations and better still release to live. The OKR may not be complete but the stories in the sprint can start delivering value early. As usual keep quality high, aim for zero bugs and automate everything that needs testing.

If you are new to both Scrum and OKRs then I would probably run one week sprints and a six or eight-week OKR cycle the first time. Do a retrospective at the end of the OKR cycle, after that you might move to two-week sprints and 12 week OKR cycles but keep an open mind and decide what works for you.

All the way through keep delivering benefit to customers, hitting OKRs is icing on the cake, and there are no prizes for doing perfect Scrum.

I’d like to think I outlined this recipe in Succeeding with OKRs in Agile but I suspect I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. Increasingly I’m seeing OKRs as a means of stripping agile back and simplifying it.


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The Excess Strategic WIP problem

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

Try pouring a bottle of milk into a glass with milk already in it. You have a choice: stop or tidy up the mess afterwards. That is my work-in-progress (WIP) analogy, if you try and do too much – no mater how much you want to do it – you will end up with a mess.

Agile folk are well versed in the problems created by too much WIP and how to deal with it – check out the Stockless Production video if you want to see. In the last six months I’ve been seeing a particular variant on this problem with I’ve come to label the Excess Strategic WIP problem.

In the latest report the manager told me how the team completed a great quarter with 3 priorities – set via OKRs. The senior management team were so impressed they asked for 19 priorities in the next period.

Right now I don’t have a “paint by numbers” solution, fixing this problem is more involved. I’m starting to understand it and I’ll make some suggestions later. Ultimately this a failure of leadership to say “No”. That failure is itself rooted in a failure of leadership to appreciate what is happening on the ground and what doing the worker are up against: the number of strategic initiatives or the amount of business as usual.

In a team it is easy to spot excess WIP using a visual system like a whiteboard or card system. When you track work like this you see an awful lot of work sitting in the “in progress” column. Typically there is more work than people on the team and the work isn’t moving. Some of the work may be actively marked as blocked but more likely most of it is nominally being worked on.

It can’t all be worked on at the same time because despite having two eyes, two hands, and two sides of a brain human’s can only really do one thing at a time – even new parents. I label this work “WHIP” – work hopefully in progress. While it is, in theory, being worked on, most of it is just sitting there waiting for a multi-tasking (i.e. time slicing) person to come back to it.

The good news is when you can see the WHIP you are half way to solving the problem: there are well known solutions. Accept less work, impose work in progress limits, sequence work by adding queues to the board, educate people to work on one thing until it is done, etc. Once you can see the work you have a feedback mechanism, you can take action and, thanks to the feedback mechanism, watch it reduce.

But Strategic WIP is more difficult. Strategic WIP is the stuff the organization decides in really important, the stuff the most senior leadership decides should be happening. The Excess Strategic WIP Problem occurs when those strategic priorities are greater than the organisation’s ability to deliver on them.

While some of this work may be transactional (“Build a Mega Widget”) much of it is transformational (“Adopt Agile working”, “Increase diversity”, “Tighten security”). Such things involve changing the way other work is done: changing the processes, changing the criteria, increasing awareness. The feedback cycle is long but to get started people need to devote time: attend training, arrange kick-off meetings, discuss approaches with consultants/coaches, etc.

In one case I saw this year the organization has, for years, been asked to do more than it is resourced to do. While a few months of such a mismatch might have been manageable the cumulative effect has been to create organizational debt and demoralised staff.

The second case I saw isn’t a result of under resourcing, if anything that organization has too much – money, people and perhaps equipment then they know what to do with. But because their management model resembles a sponge it is impossible to know when the organization has taken on too much. While some pockets were overworked I’m sure other pockets were idle.

In both these cases “lean” was a dirty word. Both organizations had been subject to lean programmes that had stripped out “waste” but, from what I could see, removing that waste had created both organizational debt and demoralised staff. Having removed “spare” staff those left were juggling. Staff didn’t have time for “agile” and their diaries had no space for daily essentials let alone another change programme.

The third case came to light when discussing OKRs. The company had a successful quarter were they focused on a few objectives that success seems to have bred the next failure when the organization requested many objectives.

Actually, this case brought it home: taking on too many, or being given too many, OKRs. I’ve heard of teams tackling too many OKRs so many times in the last year. (In fact, I should name this “Excess OKRs Problem”. This occurs whenever you have more OKRs than you can count on one hand. Don’t tell me your team is big enough to do so, check out Focus is not divisible so limit you OKRs.)

In a way, the Excess OKRs Problem is better than the Excess Strategic WIP Problem because you can see it. One can say “OK company, you have asked us to deliver 15 OKRs here, we need to sit down and talk about this.” Like visualising your work in progress excess OKRs is a thing you can identify and address, it is the reason to talk.

(Note: unlike User Stories which should always be small, OKRs should never be small. OKRs should be big, meaningful and preferably strategic. No team can take on 16 meaningful OKRs, even 5 is too many.)

One of the problems with excess Strategic WIP is that it can be difficult to see, there are different teams involved and in different places. Conflicting priorities are hidden. People on the ground may see problems but the senior people – the people creating the WIP – are too far removed. Those people may not want to hear people saying “You are asking too much”. They may have too much riding on getting multiple work streams done. They may be deaf to the cry of pain when people say “too much.” They may have too big an ego to accept that what they are asking for is a problem. And it may be politically unacceptable.

“Political” is an important word here: several of the cases I’ve heard of, and some of those example above, are Government agencies.

Because excess strategic WIP is difficult to see it is difficult to build a feedback loop and difficult to take action. How do you know when the problem is too much WHIP and when people are “crying wolf” ? – which in itself implies a problem of trust and maybe a belief that “everyone is lazy, we need to push harder.”

By its nature “strategy” is big, which means that the feedback cycles are long and the problems of excess strategic WIP take time to play out. What is a WIP problem looks like another failed strategy.

While I would like to think OKRs can help with this situation – because they force teams and organizations to take stock of what they are working on – they may be making things worse because OKRs include an ambition agenda. Teams are encouraged to “shoot for the moon” and build “10x solutions”. There is good logic here: if one aims for a “10x solution” (i.e. a solution 10 times better than the status quo) and falls short the “failure” may still be “better” (e.g. “5x”) than if one had aimed for a “2x solution” and succeeded.

Ambition with OKRs should not be about doing more OKRs, rather ambition is within the OKRs, a challenge that makes you approach it differently. One can draw a line here between having one OKR which aims for “10x” and having 10 OKRs but I suspect the subtlety will be lost on someone asking for “more than you think you can do.”

So whats is the solution?

I’m not sure there is a silver bullet but I would want to … make the problem visible, perhaps a portfolio level kanban board. I would want to build a feedback loop so I could measure change. I would want to show the strategic people the visualisation.

Management education has a part to play too. I can believe many senior managers would benefit from understand what WIP is, the problems excess WIP can cause, the way excess WIP plays out on a day-to-day basis and how it effects people’s working lives. And perhaps most of all, address trust and the belief that “we just need to push harder.”

That might also mean some of the Lean waste lessons and OKR ambition lessons need to be revisited.


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Return of the sprint goal? (Infographic)

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

Most of the sprint goals I’ve ever seen are rubbish. Pretty much “do the random collection of stuff we’ve decided already.” Such goals are meaningless – save time by skipping them.

If a team adopts OKRs then I really hope they move towards more goal based working, in which case the sprint goal starts to have meaning again – although maybe the OKR replaces the sprint goal?

Either way, I see an opportunity to move away from backlog driven development (BLDD) and towards a more purposeful style of working. So it was interesting a few weeks ago when Gareth Davies from Parabol (online meeting exercises and such) sent me over this infographic and a link to a blog on Sprint goals. Food for thought.


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How I write books (my new book)

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

Regular readers will know I write books – quite a few by now, it gets embarrassing.

Being an author is a great conversation starter, when people hear you’ve written a book or two they want to know more – everyone seems to have a dream of writing their own book. It also means that people seek me out to ask my advice about a book they are writing, or thinking about writing.

So, I’ve started to write down all the advice I give to people in a new book – How I write books.

I’m following my usual pattern so you can buy early versions on LeanPub now – I released it last week and it immediately sold a few copies. As usual at this stage everything is in a state of flux; spelling, punctuation, grammar and all that jazz will be fixed later. Of course, anyone buying now will get free updates as they become available all the way to the final version.

If you do buy, then please let me know what you think.


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The only thing you can do wrong, and the opposite of agile

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

The only thing you can do wrong in agile is to work the same way you did 3 months ago.

Corollary: The opposite of agile is static.

“The only thing you can do wrong” is born out of two things: my belief that agile is all about learning and putting learning into action.

Second, the proliferation of “agile tests” – maturity models, things like the Nokia Scrum test and the mental models in our own minds which condemn teams . Failing these tests means you label the team something like “Agile in name only”, “ScumBut” or “ScrummerFall”. I’ve seen my own share of these teams but honestly, I don’t care. Motivation to change a bigger issue, as long a the team are trying to improve its just a question of time – you might be “AINO” but if you keep trying you will become “Kick-ass agile.” (Plus, as an agile consultant these teams are potential clients, send them to me!)

If you are learning and attempting to act on that learning you will make some false moves, you will need to undo some changes but over time you will move forward.

You need to learn in three domains: Solution domain – the tools and technology you use to craft solutions and systems; Application or problem domain – understanding the problem/opportunity you are trying to solve/exploit, understanding what customers’ need and what the market will pay for. (I tend to think of this as the demand side); and the Process domain – the way you work, your processes and practices, the most obvious place were “agile” fits in.

The boundaries between these domains are fluid you need a learning culture in all three.

More recently I realised that “the only thing you can do wrong” has a corollary:

        The opposite of agile is static, not learning and not changing

20 years ago agile advocates invented Waterfall to be the enemy – sure the cascade model, à la Royce, was industry standard but nobody, NOBODY, called it Waterfall – believe me, I’m old enough to remember first hand. Agile was described by reference to what agile was not, and that not was named “waterfall.”

But that is wrong.

The secret is in the words: Agile implies movement and action.

Not moving is called Static, so the opposite of agile is static.

Once you accept agile means movement and change the next question is: how fast?

Rather than agile tests and “agile maturity models” we should be to measuring the speed of change and the speed of improvement: how fast are the team learning and acting on that learning? how successful are they at that?

When I floated this suggestion on LinkedIn a few days ago a few people pushed back. One argument was that I was advocating “change for change’s sake”. I’m not. You are free to not change, you are free to not change if you wish, all I’m saying is don’t call that agile, ‘cos its not, that is static.

Not changing is static, and static is not agile.

Now maybe static is the right thing for you. If your team can repeat their way of working, if they are predictable, and if the team and stakeholders are content then then change! Embrace static.

I’m doubtful such a static position is anything other than a short term Stable Intermediate Form. Static implies a stable environment, one in which at all forces are in equilibrium: nobody is asking for faster delivery, nobody is changing their ask, nobody is complaining about technical debt, overwork, predictability and so on. If people are not complaining then celebrate, you are living the dream! Just don’t call it agile.

“Finished” software is static because nobody changes it. Software ages because it stays unchanged while the world around it changes.

A second argument was that constant change was not good for people. Now I’m not arguing for constant big change, or constant top-down change. In my mind agile change is largely incremental – sure sometimes you need a big change but most of the changes are small.

I also challenge the assumption that change is top-down and that change is done to people. In my experience when those doing the work are enrolled in the change process, when they can see the potential benefits then it is a different matter. In my experience “change resistance” is more likely “resistance to being changed.”

Finally, “last 3 months”. That time frame comes from my intuition, it is a period long enough to see if change has happened without demanding that the team are never repeating themselves. I imagine the team moving from one Stable Intermediate Form to another Stable Intermediate Form over those 3 months. Feel free to suggest another time frame but if you think 3 months is not long enough to see change then how long? 4 months? 6 months? 12 months?


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User Stories by Example: certifcate added to the free courses

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

A couple of months ago I made my online User Stories by Example tutorial series free. One client suggested that the series would benefit from a certificate at the end. Good idea, I’m always open to suggestions.

So, I’ve added a new tutorial to the series: exam and certificate – rather than just give a certificate of attendance to anyone who plays the videos I’ve set a little test. There is a bank of questions which are randomly selected and should cover the five areas of the tutorials. Score over 60% on the test and you get a certificate which lists the key topics covered.

I’ve set a small fee for this, once you have paid you have 21 days to do the exam and you can sit the exam as many times as you like.

As always, if you have any suggestions or other feedback please let me know. And if you have any ideas for new questions send them over, I’d love to increase the question pool.


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