When I engage companies on larger agile transformation efforts, one of the critical first steps is to define the proper unit of focus for budgeting, planning, and team organization. In this blog post I overview the characteristics that I use for determining a proper unit of focus. In subsequent blog posts I will expand on several of these characteristics.
What is a Unit of Focus?
Unit of focus is simply a placeholder term that I use to refer to the work items that a company or organization should rally around for budgeting, planning, and team organization. Common unit-of-focus examples are projects, products, capabilities, value streams, journeys, etc.
Based on this description, answer this question for your organization, “What is your unit of focus?”
Projects (Not Recommended)
In many companies that I visit, projects are the standard unit of focus. A project often comes with an estimated cost, a predicted duration, some form of impact matrix that indicates which applications or systems will be touched by the project, and, by implication, which teams will need to be involved to design, develop, test, and deploy the project results. Of course, projects might also come with many other “documents” such as full project and risk plans, as well as any other artifacts necessary to clear the organization’s approval and funding hurdles.
Since applications/systems and teams might reside in different departments, each department needs to provide cost and duration estimates to understand the complete nature of the project.
Larger organizations will have many projects that collectively form that organization’s portfolio. I have visited organizations where the portfolio of work has contained many thousands of projects. Typically, the up-front budgeting and planning process is so burdensome and wasteful that it adds significant overhead to the completion of each and every project in the portfolio.
When I work with these companies, very often one of my first recommendations is to stop using projects as the unit of focus, and instead choose a different unit of focus.
Unit of Focus Overview
So if projects are not the best unit of focus for agile organizations, what is? To find out, let’s look first at the desired characteristics for an agile unit of focus, applicable to any organization. The following table summarizes my recommendations.
Single Identifiable Product Owner
In subsequent blog posts I will describe several of these characteristics in more detail.