Proper Scaling of Scrum and Dynamic Financial Forecasting


The purpose of this post is to summarize two very important and independent topics and then integrate them together, into a joint discussion.  The topics are:

  1. Moving from rigid annual budgets to rolling forecasts (super important! in agile/adaptive product development environments)
  2. Quality of scaling in agile product development, specifically Scrum

…and tying effective scaling of Scrum to dynamic financial forecasting.


Rigid Annual Budgets vs. Dynamic/Rolling-Wave Forecasting

Challenges presented by rigid annual budgets have been known for a long time.  For people that are new to the topic, a great way to stay on top of most recent research and publications, is to follow what is going at BBRT.org (Beyond Budgeting Round Table).  One of BBRT’s core team members – Bjarte Bogsnes, in his book “Implementing Beyond Budgeting: Unlocking the Performance Potential” (please, refer to the book’s highlights here),  clearly summarizes the problems with conventional, end-of-year rigid budgets. They are as follows:

  1. Budgets represent a retrospective look at past situation and conditions that may not be applicable in a future
  2. Assumptions made as a part of a budgeting process, even if somewhere accurate at the beginning, get quickly outdated
  3. Budgeting, in general, is very time-consuming process, and it adds additional, financial overhead to organizations
  4. Rigid budgets, can prevent important, value adding-activities, and often lead to fear of experimenting, researching and innovating (crucial for incremental development)
  5. Budget reports are frequently based on subjective metrics, as they take on the form of RAG statuses, with the latter, introducing additional errors and omissions (for details, please refer to Red, Yellow, Green or RYG/RAG Reports: How They Hide the Truth, by M. Levison and The Fallacy of Red, Amber, Green Reporting, by G. Gendel)
  6. Budgets, when used as a yardstick to assess individual performance, often lead to unethical behaviors (e.g. “churning & burning cash”at year-end to get as much or more next year) or other system-gaming activities

…The list of adverse effects caused by traditional budgeting is long…

On contrary, a rolling-wave forecast, respects the fact that environmental conditions are almost never static, and recognizes that if too much reliance is placed on prior years’ financial situation, it may lead to miscalculations.  Rolling-wave forecasts are based on frequent reassessment of a small handful of strong KPIs, as oppose to large number of weak KPIs, as frequently done in conventional budgeting..  The more frequently forecasts are being made, the higher chance that most relevant/reliable information will be used in assessments.  One good way to decide on cadence of rolling forecasts is to align them with meaningful business-driven events (e.g. merchandise shipments, production code deployments, etc.).  It is natural to assume that for incremental/iterative product development (e.g. Scrum), when production deployments are made frequently and in small batches, rolling-wave forecasting could be a concurrent financial process.  Short cycle time of market feedback could provide good guidance to future funding decisions.

It is worth noting that one of the key challenges that Scrum teams face today, is the “iron triangle” of conventional project management, with all three of its corners (time, scope, budget) being rigidly locked. And while the most common approach in Scrum is to make scope flexible, ‘clipping’ the budget corner brings additional advantage to teams.  Above all other benefits, rolling-wave forecasts address the problem described in #4 above, as they provide safety to those teams that want to innovate and experiment.

But what if there not one but many Scrum teams, each working on their own initiatives, running under different cadences (asynchronized sprints) and servicing different customers?  How many independent rolling-wave forecasts can one organization or department adopt before things become too complicated?  What is too much and where to draw a line?

Before we try to answer this question, let’s review what is frequently seen, when organizations attempt to scale scrum.

 

Proper Scaling vs. “Copy-Paste” Scaling

Let’s look at the following two situations: (1) more than one Scrum team, independently, doing their own Scrum and (2) more than one Scrum team, working synchronously, on the same product, for the same customer, sharing the same product backlog and domain knowledge.  The former case, is referred to as “Copy-Paste” Scrum, clearly described by Cesario Ramos. The latter case can be seen in skillful Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) adoptions. Here are some of the most classic characteristics of both scaling approaches:

(1) – “Copy-Paste” Scrum (2) – Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) 
  • Product definition is weak. Applications and components that don’t have strong customer alignment are treated as products
  • “Doing Scrum” efforts are often a result of trying to meet goals of agile transformation (some annual % goals must be met), set at enterprise level
  • Tight subsystem code ownership
  • Top-down, “command & control” governance, with little autonomy and self-management at team level
  • Importance of Scrum dynamics and its roles are viewed as secondary to existing organizational structure blueprints
  • Too many single-specialty experts and very few T-shaped workers
  • No meaningful HR changes to support Scrum team design
  • Simplified organizational design. Reduction of: silos, handovers, translation layers and  bureaucracy
  • Scrum is implemented by coordinated, feature-centric teams, working on  widely defined Product, for the same PO.
  •  Local Optimization by single specialists is eradicated
  • Scrum is a building block of IT organizational structure
  • Teams are collocated Multi-site development is used for multiple locations
  • Strong reliance of technical Mentoring and Communities of Practice
  • No subsystem code ownership
  • Reduction of “undone” work and “undone department”
  • Focus on Customer values
  • Strong support by Senior Leadership & intimate involvement of HR

Note: Please refer to Scaling Organizational Adaptiveness (a.k.a. “Agility”) with Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) for additional graphic illustration.

Based on the above, the following also becomes apparent:

In “copy-paste” Scrum, development efforts, marketing strategies and sales (ROI) are not treated as constituents of the same unified ecosystem.  In this scenario, it is almost impossible to fund teams by means of funding real, customer-centric products.  Why?  There are too many independent ad-hoc activities that take place and artifacts that are created.  There is no uniformed understanding of work size and complexity that is shared by all teams.  Estimation and forecasting made by each individual team is not understood by other teams.  Team stability (and subsequently, cost-per-team member) is low, as individuals are moved around from project to project and shared across many projects.  Further, with multiple teams reporting into different lines of management, there is a much higher chance of internal competition for budget.  By the same token, there is a low chance that a real paying customer would be able to step in and influence funding decisions for any given team: too many independent and competing requests are going on at the same time.

In organizations, where “copy-paste” Scrum is seen (and is often, mistakenly taken for scaled scrum, due to lack of education and expert-leadership), there is still strong preference for fake programs and fake portfolio management.  Under such conditions, unrelated activities and, subsequently, data/metrics (often fudged and RAG-ed) are collected from all over the organization and “stapled” together.   All this information rolls up to senior leadership, customers and sponsors.  Subsequently, what rolls down, is not dynamic funding of well-defined customer-centric, revenue-generating products, but rather rigid budgets for large portfolios and programs that are composed of loosely coupled working initiatives, performed by unrelated Scrum teams (secondary, to conventional departmental budgeting).  As rigid budgets cascade down from top, onto individual teams, they further solidify the “iron triangle” of conventional project management and hinder teams’ ability to do research, experimentation and adaptive planning.

On the other hand, in Large Scale Scrum, things are different:

  • When up-to-eight LeSS teams work synchronously, together (side-by-side), on the same widely-defined product (real), their shared understanding of work type and complexity (having certain scrum events together really helps!) is significantly better. As a result, when it comes to forecasting a completion of certain work (features), eight LeSS teams will do a better job than eight loosely coupled teams that work completely independently, on unrelated initiatives.
  • Since all LeSS teams work for the same customer (Product Owner), there is a much higher chance that they will develop a shared understanding of product vision and strategy, since they are getting it from an authentic source – and therefore will be able to do planning more effectively.
  • Having more direct correlation between development efforts LeSS teams (output, in the form of shared PSPI) and business impact (outcome, in the form of overall ROI), makes strategic decisions about funding much more thoughtful.  When real customers can directly sponsor product-centric development efforts, by getting real-time feedback from a market place and deciding on future strategy, they (customers) become much more interested in dynamic forecasting, as it allows them to invest into what makes most sense.  Dynamic forecasting of LeSS, allows to increase/decrease number of scrum teams involved in product development flexibly, by responding to increased/decreased market demands and/or product expansion/contraction.

Noteworthy that in LeSS Huge cases, when product breadth has outgrown capacity of a single Product Owner and requires work by more than eight teams, dynamic forecasting can still be a great approach for Product (overall) Owner and Area Product owners (APO): they can strategize funding of different product areas and make necessary timely adjustments to each area size/grown, as market conditions change.


Conclusion:

All of the above, as described in LeSS scenario, will decrease organizational dependency on fixed budgets, as there will be less interest in outdated financial information, in favor of flexibility, provided by rolling-wave forecasting that brings much closer together “the concept” (where value is built – teams) and “cash” (where, value is consumed – customers).

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