Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Management by Monopoly Money

I work with a lot of different teams, and almost all of them have some concept of a backlog. Basically, it's a list in some approximation of priority that the team works from. How they pull off the backlog and how stuff moves around the backlog varies a bit, but that's the basic idea.

One of the frustrations with this kind of backlog management is that certain things get short shrift. The person who owns the backlog has - through no fault of their own - certain biases. Often, it's whoever shouts loudest or most recently, or things that relate to that person's background get priority (e.g., an ex-IT guy will prioritize technical debt and deployment/monitoring items, while an ex-sales person will prioritize customer and sales requests). This leads to fun conversations and ideas like, "well, 10% of our stories should be paying down technical debt," or "every fifth story should be a customer request." In theory this works well. In practice, things aren't nearly that smooth.  In practice, sometimes things come up and we skip our customer story in favor of a strategic priority, or we don't hit our technical debt goal.

There's another way.

Yup, Monopoly money!

It sounds silly, but bear with me. When we make statements like, "10% of our time should be on technical debt", we're talking about a budget. So let's use budgeting tools - money.

Here's how it works:

  1. The product owner and management work to set a budget. It usually is as simple as agreeing that sales gets 25%, product management gets 50%, engineering gets 25%.
  2. Set a total budget amount that reflects the total amount of work you expect the team to accomplish.
  3. The representative from each group gets monopoly money according to their proportion of the budget. Usually it's a dollar a point (or $10 a point, if you're feeling rich).
  4. As you create the backlog, each group spends their money. When they're out, they're out.
Try to keep your budget over a fairly short period of time - a few sprints, or no more than a quarter. That way there's a reset opportunity before anything gets too skewed.

This turns fun very quickly. By providing money, you're creating an economy. The IT guy will trade away some of his money in exchange for getting it back from marketing next quarter, for example. Or two groups will band together to outspend everyone and push a feature they don't want onto the backlog. It also makes the process very concrete. There's no stretching or remembering. There's just how much money each group has left.

Making abstract work concrete and sticking to a budget.... now that's worth a shot. Give it a try.

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