Agile Development Teams: Plan or Be Planned For
Aristotle said, “Nature abhors a vacuum;” nothing can be empty. By contrast, your product group loves to see an empty road map because it is an opportunity to fill the map with their priorities. If your team is not planning for future releases, someone else will plan them for you.
This is the basis for one of my favorite sayings: “Plan or be planned for.” Many agile teams neglect long-term planning as it is thought of as a relic of waterfall development, but roadmap planning does not mean opening Microsoft Project and digging in with specific requirements and dates. Roadmap planning in agile is really a strategic communication document.
It allows your team to show when you estimate releasing high-level initiatives. Roadmaps should not include details such as bugs or specific requirements. Our teams use epics, which reflect major product initiatives. Mapping them out into the future is an excellent illustration of the long-term product strategy. We even map the epics to planned releases, allowing synchronization across the company.
At this point many agile purists will complain that what I am describing is waterfall, but that would only be true in an organization that did not accept the fact that all plans change. Flexibility is the key characteristic of agile, and any organization that fails to embrace this will eventually break its agile teams.
Agile only works when we have either fixed dates or fixed requirements—but not both. It is important to note that an epic is not a fixed set of requirements, but a high-level description of the product. The team will negotiate the product’s full set of functionality over the course of development. The actual user stories included in the release will have been part of the iterations where the product is refined to the satisfaction of the product owner. This process is decidedly not waterfall.
The most important aspect of this process is the fact that the team drives the roadmap. If the team does not take on this responsibility, then someone else will. All companies make strategic plans, and the worst-case scenario is having this plan dictated to the team. This would ultimately devolve into an ugly hybrid version of agile and waterfall, in which dates and requirements are imposed on the team, but the team still goes through the motions of doing iterations.
Agile is based on the classic pig-and-chicken cartoon; failing to create a roadmap will open the door to the chickens making commitments for the pigs. Teams must embrace the fact that strategic planning will happen and take ownership of the process.
The choice is simple: plan or be planned for.