Agile Enterprise Requirements Information Model (6a) – Subset for Portfolio Management: Strategic Product Themes

In this blog series, we’ve been describing a Lean, Scalable Requirements Information Model for the Agile Enterprise (AE RIM) suitable for extending the basic requirements practices of agility to the largest software enterprises (hundreds and thousands of agile practitioners). This model represents the requirements substrate for an even broader model, a model for implementing the basic organizational, process and requirements practices of an agile enterprise as represented in the Big Picture Blog Series. In this series, I’ve been collaborating with Juha-Markus Aalto, Director of Operational Development for Nokia S60 Software Unit, where a variant of the model is being developed and applied on a very large scale project.

To date, we’ve described the basic model, what’s lean and scalable about the model, the model subset for agile project teams, and the subset for agile programs, including an appropriate treatment for those critical Nonfunctional Requirements that govern so much of a systems behavior.

In these next two posts, we’ll address the last, and highest level of the model, how it applies to agile portfolio management, represented at the top of the big picture graphic below.

Big Picture with Portfolio Level Highlighted

Big Picture with Portfolio Level Highlighted

But first, let’s look at the basic model, with those remaining elements highlighted.

capture-model-with-epic-and-spt-highlihted1

(Note 1: the model has evolved and been expanded over the course of this series. The above reflects the current, basic model. We’ll provide an update, including the basic and expanded model in a near-future post.
Note 2: We also note that the model, which has a more specific, product context than the Big Picture uses “Strategic Product Theme” instead of the Big Pictures Investment Themes, but I haven’t decided whether or not to do anything about it yet.)

We see from the model that the portfolio elements are Strategic Product Theme and Epic. In this post, we’ll address the Strategic Product Theme.

Strategic Product Themes

Strategic Product Themes represent the set of initiatives which drive the enterprises investment in systems, products and applications. The set of Themes for an enterprise, (or more likely a business unit within an enterprise), establishes the relative investment objectives for the entity as the pie chart below illustrates:

Strategic Product Themes Portfolio Mix

Strategic Product Themes Portfolio Mix

These Themes drive the Vision for all product teams and new Epics are derived from this decision. While the derivation of these decisions is outside the scope of this blog series, the responsibility for these decisions lies with those who have fiduciary responsibilities to their stakeholders. In most enterprises, this happens at the business unit level based on annual or twice annual budgeting process, which in turn, determines the amount of funds available for each business unit to invest in development.

Within the business unit, the decisions are based on some combination of:

  1. Investment in existing product offerings – enhancements, support and maintenance
  2. Investment in new products and services – products that will enhance revenue and/or gain new market share in the current or near term budget period
  3. Investment in futures – product and service offerings that require investment today, but will not contribute to revenue until outlying years.

Balancing these investments is difficult and we should appreciate the enormous pressures and conflicting priorities that are constantly present to those who make these decisions for our enterprise. But make them they must or the enterprise will wander though time with an unfocused strategy. And we can all guess how that will work out.

The result of the decision process is a set of Themes – key product value propositions that provide marketplace differentiation and competitive advantage. Themes have a much longer life span that Epics, etc. and a set of Themes may be largely unchanged for up to a year or even more.

Communicating Strategic Product Themes

While determining the investment mix is no small feat, communicating the decision via Themes is fairly straightforward, as Themes are very high level and are easily represented in bullet form. For example, one could imagine the Google Gmail team deciding on the following Themes in some recent period:

  1. Introduce voice and video chat from within gmail
  2. Outlook integration
  3. Personalization
  4. Mail for Mobile 2.0
  5. Group chat from within mail

Why Investment Mix Rather than Backlog Priority?

As opposed to Epics, Features and Stories, Strategic Product Themes are not contained or represented in a Backlog (they are not “a kind of Backlog Item”) as the model shows.

capture-themes-are-not-backlog

The differences are subtle, but important.

  • Backlog Items are designed to be addressed in priority order. Strategic Product Themes are designed to be addressed on “a percentage of time to be made available basis.” For example, the lowest priority Story on an iteration backlog may not be addressed at all in the course of an iteration and yet the iteration could well be a success (meet its stated objectives and be accepted by the product owner). However, if the lowest priority (smallest investment mix) Strategic Product Theme is not addressed over time, the enterprise may ultimately fail in its mission as it is not making its actual investments based on the priorities it has decided.
  • Strategic Product Themes also do not share certain other Backlog Item behaviors. For example, as critical as they are, they are not generally testable, as their instantiation occurs first through Epics and then finally, via actual implementation in Features and Stories, which have the specificity necessary to be testable.
  • If the enterprise is focused, there are only a few Themes active at any one time, so they don’t require a backlog management tool (spreadsheet or agile project management tool) to capture and maintain them.

A Look Ahead

That concludes our discussion of Strategic Product Themes, which are the portfolio drivers that lead to the creation of Epics that directly affect the course of software development. In the next post we’ll (hopefully) conclude our current discussion series of the AE RIM with a discussion of Epics.

One thought on “Agile Enterprise Requirements Information Model (6a) – Subset for Portfolio Management: Strategic Product Themes

  1. This is a well defined way to guarantee progress on key strategic initiatives. The unfortunate reality though is that any approach requires tough decisions at the top. Otherwise, you quickly run into a situation where every strategic initiative gets only 5% focus when in reality the company should only have 2-3 strategic initiatives!

    The approach you layout is analogous to a set of divisions within a larger company that each have their own operating budget. If a set of “divisions” or “strategic themes” still rely on one ultimate accountable individual, you will likely still need a means to prioritize across strategic themes.

    Taking your approach, perhaps one can do this easily using a percentage range
    * Theme #1 50% (default)
    * Theme #2 25% (default)
    * Theme #3 10% (default)
    * Boost Pool 15%

    In above approach, you guarantee a minimum investment of 50%, 25% and 10% across your three key strategic themes.

    The boost pool can then be used to augment any given theme(s) based on a solid business case proposal (light weight – ideally just a quick conversation with key folks). Provided you have the ability to shift a few key resources while still adding rapid value vs. just ramp-up, you can leverage each release planning boundary to supplement as necessary based on changing forces / client demands, etc.!

    Nice post…

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