Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Idea Backlog

While talking to some co-workers about Scrum, we discussed the initial part of the process: Preparation. This part of the process is one of the less detailed overall, most likely because of the various ways companies have to initiate and validate a project. Most of us had come from more structured development shops where the project initiation process was fairly laborious and usually did not include anyone outside of management until the project was already a go and timelines/details basically written in stone. So the question was how could some of the Scrum/Agile philosophies be implemented to make this a "better" process (Better is always a relative term).

Thinking about it later, I thought of how people have kept up what they call an "Idea Backlog" of things they think up but cannot immediately put the time into them to see them to fruition. I thought using TFS, Sharepoint, or some similar technology so that a company could create an Idea Backlog much like a Product Backlog to facilitate the submission, discussion, and initiation of project ideas.

My thought was that ANYONE would be able to post an item to this Idea Backlog from the highest member of management to the most junior developer. These backlog items would have a little bit of structure to make sure initial submissions were at least minimally fleshed out, but then people would post comments in response to the submitted idea.

So Employee A submits an idea that equipping the engineers that regularly inspect Company XYZ's Widgets in the field with a Tablet PC application would increase data accuracy and decrease time spent per inspection. Other employees would post comments, questions, etc. to help flesh out the idea such as: "What about a Tablet PC application would provide better accuracy and less entry time than a laptop or handheld?", "Does anyone know a formula for calculating the average cost per minute for an inspection currently and the average inspection time?"

Now the discussion is open and available to everyone instead of siloed to management. Input from any source could provide great value and address areas of the idea that may have not been covered if it had been decided by only a few select people.

Most companies want a bit more structured analysis when deciding to move forward with a project and they usually have some basic criteria and metrics they apply to a business case to judge how valuable it would be to an organization. For instance, the pencil pushers usually want to know what the Return On Investment (ROI) or Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) would be. On previous projects I have seen companies spend a good bit of time trying to calculate this up front and just like trying to capture all the requirements up front and predict strict timelines: it is rarely very accurate. But it is something to be addressed, so each Idea Backlog item can have an ROI (or TCO, etc.) metric applied to it by any employee. It could be as simple as a 1 to 5 rating: 1 being little ROI and 5 being substantial. Risks Analysis is another big thing I have seen companies dedicating effort to and this could be yet another metric to apply to an item in the Idea Backlog. There could be many more metrics, both standard ones for all ideas and then custom ones that are more specific to a particular idea.

These metrics would follow a convention of the lowest rating being the least valuable and the highest rating being the most valuable to the company. A report could easily show what the employees of the company think about the value of the items in the backlog. Items could then be sorted by the metrics and you start to get a prioritized list of ideas much like a Product Backlog. A go decision for a project is still most likely going to be up to a select few, but now the evaluation of the idea is much more open and collaborative. When the go decision is made, postings and comments to the Idea Backlog item would also most likely give birth to Product Backlog items to get the project started in its first Sprint.

I'd be interested to hear comments on this idea as I myself start to think more about it. As a big proponent of Team Foundation Server, I am going to try and implement something like what I have described above as a collection of custom work items and links. I will post more as I start to work on this.

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