The Cone-shaped Backlog

Here’s an approach I’ve found successful when helping teams ensure their backlog supports optionality, handles uncertainty and continuously adjusts so their goals and strategies are aligned to their vision.

A backlog should have these qualities

The backlog is made-up of backlog items. Each item represents a business goal, which when delivered by the team, will provide a beneficial outcome to the business and its customers/stakeholders.

Qualities of the backlog:

  • Easy to update by the product owner
  • Should be available to everyone in the business
  • Shows the backlog items for the next sprint
  • Conveys a vision of the future with a tangible path to the present
  • Reflects vagueness and options
    • If a distant backlog item is too vague to describe in words, consider drawing a picture, as shown in the photo below
  • Self-explanatory to anyone in the business

The cone-shaped

I often encourage teams to visualise the backlog in a cone-shape in this manner:

  • The neck of the cone shows the current sprint goals
  • The widest point of the cone shows the furthest goals which may be months or years from now.
  • The centre of the cone shows the goals for the intervening time periods. This area can be divided into sprints, months, quarters and half-year intervals.
Backlog visualised as a cone.

Reason for the cone-shape

  • It reflects the cone of uncertainty, where the further out the team considers, the less certain they are of the future environment.
  • The narrow neck of the cone reflects the fact the team can only sustainably deliver a small number of goals. Invariably there is more demand than the team can supply, so the team should gradually constrain the number of goals as the time nears the current sprint.
  • The further into the future, the more the team can consider a wide number of options. This optionality allows the team to consider many possibilities and scenarios without having to commit earlier than necessary. However, as time draws nearer, and as the cone gets narrower, the team will need to reduce the number of options based on the insights they have gathered.

Additional information which supports the backlog

As shown in the photo above, to enable continuous alignment across the business, there is additional information I advise teams to use:

  • Vision Statement: This is a short easy-to-understand statement which describes what the team intends to achieve. It’s written by the team, with their sponsor and stakeholders. The vision statement ensures alignment for the team, with those they serve and with those whom the team may rely upon.
  • Strategies: These are the current set of approaches the team have reasonable confidence in that if delivered successfully, will help fulfil the vision statement.
  • KPIs: These Key Performance Indicators are a small selection of measures which indicate whether the team’s strategies and sprint goals are achieving the team’s vision.
  • Epics start and end dates: Epics are goals which span more than one sprint. On the backlog, the likely start time of an epic is positioned with a blue post-it note; the likely end time is positioned with a pink post-it note.

Further Reading

Implementing Governance talk

Implementing Governance

Implement means to execute. Governance means to rule and control. This suggests implementing governance is a top-down deterministic approach to management. Such approaches are no longer fit-for-purpose.

Leaders and delivery teams should co-create approaches to ensure alignment and synchronisation. This talk is about collaborative approaches which support teams to deliver value.

Business Agility Talk

Increasing your organisation’s competitiveness

This Business Agility talk addresses how organisations can handle market pressure and opportunity. It covers:

  • Closing the gap between vision and execution
  • The ambidextrous organisation and portfolio management
  • Determining which initiatives provide a strategic fit with the vision
  • Mindset and ways of working
  • Reducing the delay between alignment effort, execution and ROI
  • Governance, execution and enablers.

Inter-team qualities for Business Agility

Business Agility is an enterprise-wide mechanism to rapidly sense, respond and deliver the right business initiatives that will benefit an organisation and its customers.

To increase business agility, an organisation needs to promote the qualities of collaboration, alignment and synchronisation amongst its teams and departments. This creates cohesion to the organisations strategic goals.

Governance processes should be built around these qualities since it affords individuals and teams a great degree of freedom to pursue the organisation’s goals and outcomes. It will also help close the gap between strategic direction and day-to-day team execution.

Consider scaling team frameworks such as Scrum to create ways of working that promote these qualities.

Collaboration

Regardless of background, seniority or specialism, teams and individuals from across the business should have the freedom to collaborate. Collaboration can extend beyond the business to include business partners and clients.

Managers should help the business to reorganise so that cross-functional teams of specialists, regardless of department, can work as single teams to rapidly experiment and deliver business outcomes.

Alignment

All individuals should understand and be aligned to the organisation’s mission, vision and strategic direction. Each team and department should have clarity of the business outcomes that are currently being sought.

Leaders should enthuse and align their colleagues; managers should create the environment and ways of working with their colleagues which reduces misalignment.

Synchronisation

Creating cross-functional and co-locate delivery teams can greatly improve business agility. However, despite this, often a single team cannot deliver products and services on their own. Often many teams need to be involved, which necessitates the synchronisation of effort across many teams.

To illustrate this Klaus Leopold gives a useful analogy which I’ve expressed as the following:

A customer wanting to have a letter written, where each team works independently by controlling a row of keys on a keyboard. Typing the letter would be uncoordinated, slow and frustrating.

To improve time to market, it’s inevitable that teams need to interact. So, rather than teams independently hitting their keys at speed, it’s better if each team slows down, coordinate and collectively hit the keys at the right time and sequence.

How I can help

This one-pager summarises how I can help organisations increase their competitiveness through better business alignment and outcomes.

Close the gap between strategic goals and execution

Where I’ve done this: FTSE 100 company transformation programme
What I did: With the leadership team, we co-created vision statements, which we mapped to strategies and KPIs. Set-up execution teams, with backlogs which were faithful to leaders’ direction. I helped ensure day-by-day alignment and execution against the strategies.

Create a high-level portfolio view of an organisation’s or department’s goals and activities

Where I’ve done this: UK Newspaper department
What I did: I facilitated a quarterly portfolio process which prioritised goals and dependencies. I used this as a mechanism to update the leadership team (including CIO), and involved them in guiding the execution teams’ alignment and trade-off decisions.

Help determine strategic fit with the organisation’s vision

Where I’ve done this: Directors and senior managers
What I did: I ran workshops to reaffirm the organisation’s vision (“where we want to be?”) and aligned it to a set of strategies (i.e. the competitive gameplan) to create a set of innovations and breakthrough ideas with execution teams.

evolve mindsets and ways of working to help deliver business outcomes

Where I’ve done this: FTSE 100 senior managers and teams
What I did: Often starting with training, I described the impediments typical of a traditional organisation which hampers innovation and competitiveness. I coached individuals to develop a business outcome focus. I introduced principles and ways of working based on agility.

Reduce the delay between alignment effort, execution and return-on-investment

Where I’ve done this: FTSE 100 senior managers and team leads
What I did: I highlighted where the lack of stakeholder buy-in resulted in delayed execution and delayed ROI. I created forums which allowed stakeholders to understand where they could remove impediments to increase execution and competitiveness.

Co-evolve governance process that promotes innovation and execution

Where I’ve done this: FTSE 100 transformation department
What I did: I co-created a governance structure that ensured individuals were constantly aligned, with collaboration and synchronisation across the department. Teams had the necessary authority to make decisions that promoted learning and execution.

Kick start delivery teams and align teams that require their support

Where I’ve done this: FTSE 100 transformation department
What I did: I worked with leaders to set-up cross-functional teams. Teams had the right skills and autonomy to ensure the least amount of delay. Other disciplines and processes were re-orientated to support the teams, such as governance for small frequent budget cycles.

Some of the organisations I’ve supported.

Elevator Pitch

In today’s rapidly changing world, organisations face increasing uncertainty, and greater potential to excel. In this context, to ensure organisations outlearns and out-competes the competition, I advise and support leaders to execute potentially fundamental improvements to their organisation.

As a Business Agility Consultant, I support leaders and departments to ensure the right investments help their organisation continuously adapt to changing customer demand.

In order to capitalise on market changes, I help leaders and teams determine and implement the right balance of activities, strategies and the best ways of executing. This enables new innovations, and it enables improvements to current operations, products & services.

Read more about my approach and check out my CV.

My ideal client

  • Household name organisation
  • In a competitive market
  • The leadership team has recognised the need to change, are willing to explore new opportunities and ways of working, and need my support to execute them
  • Opportunity to support business agility across the organisation, not exclusively technology
  • UK, Europe and North America, but would consider any global engagement
  • Competitive contract position or consultancy engagement