Dealing Project and Product Management Backlog using Agile

Knowing that project management and product management deal with the triple constraint (Scope, Budget and Timeline) differently, it is critically important that you plan what you will do when you are using agile to manage a project. Determining the priority of scope/ schedule/budget is important? This sounds easy but in real life it is often hard to make project sponsors commit to one thing. Do not commit on 2 at the same time.

We can manage scope schedule and budget on an agile project. There are fundamental differences between how project management and product management handle these aspects, we need to plan carefully what we will do when these paradigms clash. Being prepared will make it easier to manage the objections when they come, and they will come.

Managing Scope

Managing scope on an agile project is one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of agile project management. Agile practitioners will tell you that in agile, scope can change at any time. And this is true. One of the four values in the agile manifesto is,

 “Responding to change over following a plan.”

Responding to the changes in requirements from customer and market demands is the number one reason organizations adopt agile. When using agile to manage a project you will want to define a project and a product backlog. Then have a discussion with your project sponsors before the project work begins, if possible, and again throughout the life of the project, about the difference between the two.

The project backlog is the specific set of work that is required for the project. When that work is completed the project is completed.

The product backlog is the rest of the features that someday may be part of the product, but are not considered part of the project.

Be very clear with management what is in the project backlog vs. what is in the product backlog. And communicate that over and over again. When new features are identified, accept them happily; add them to the product backlog without objection. If the project leadership asks that they are included in the project, then use a change process to add them to the project. It may be as simple as an email approval but you need to get it in writing that the new feature is being added to the project and the subsequent impact that will have on the schedule and budget. This is not different than the traditional waterfall approach to managing scope, though likely it will be a leaner process.

One final word about scope management, is regarding product backlog reprioritization. It is possible that the product owner will want to reconfigure the product backlog, moving features in and/or out of the project and product backlogs. This is no different than managing new work as stated above. It is the job of project managers to make it clear the impact of the changes and to document them in as light weight of a process as possible. Note that it is NOT ok for the product owner to attempt to add or subtract work that is currently under development. This work has been selected by the product team. If a change to work in process is absolutely critical, (in Scrum) the iteration will be terminated and a new iteration planned. This encourages stability within the iteration by reducing “thrash”.

Manage Schedule and budget

These are handled similarly. You need to set clear limits on what then project budget is and the ongoing product or operational budget is. What the project schedule is and the ongoing product lifecycle schedule is. Then you need to communicate these clearly and often so that before long it is clearly inscribed in the project sponsor’s minds the difference between the two and they become the champions of the project product backlogs, schedules, and budgets.

Communication is a key to successful delivery

The third thing you need to do is to constantly communicate the boundary between the project and the product. Work closely with the product owner and make sure they clearly understand that boundary. Be very careful about your language, speak clearly about Projects vs Products. Keep a clean Product and Project backlog delineation. This really becomes where you as a project manager provide the most value. You help the company stay focused on the delivery of the project, within the context of the product.


Integrating Agile into a Waterfall World by Joseph Flahiff

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