XP Day London 09: Programme

After a lot of wrangling the almost-but-not-quite final programme for XP Day London is now available. Because of illness and other asynchronous distractions some of the presenters had to change at the last minute we still have to nail down one session, but this will be pretty much it.

This year we have a lot of excellent experience reports from a range of practitioners who've been doing exiting new things and some really outstanding keynotes.

Scheduling by value?

David Peterson has started a new blog on Kanban (and snaffled a very tasty URL for it). He presents this discussion of scheduling features into a development team. The case the David presents is related to a behaviour I sometimes see with inexperienced teams who's just had someone go learn Scrum. Comes the next planning meeting and this idea pops up that the backlog needs to be ordered by "business value" so that the "most valuable" features can be delivered earliest.

This can easily lead to some very nasty scenes where the Scrum Master demands that the Product Owner produce a "value" for each story—actually write a number on the card. The problem comes to a head when it turns out that the Product Owner not only doesn't know the value of the stories they are putting on the backlog, but they also have no way of finding out what they value of a story is. And this isn't because they are stupid, nor incompetent, nor malicious. It's because finding that value is far, far too difficult and time consuming an activity. And there's a good chance that any answer that came out of it would be so well hedged as to be meaningless.

Sometimes the Product Owner does know, or can find out at reasonable cost, a value for a story or feature. Being able to trade a new asset class probably can be valued. Changing a flow to give 10% high conversion probably can be valued. Improving a model to get 1% higher efficiency in the machines it's used to design can probably be valued. These valuations will be functions of time time and various other parameters. If you really have to, you could get a number of them that's valid today (and perhaps only today). David makes the point that even if you do know that number for a feature, scheduling the next one simply on the basis of highest value might not be the smartest move. There are other variables to consider.

There is a case to be made that within the context of a project value isn't the best figure of merit to use anyway, since someone should have made a go/no-go decision at some point that the planned budget and planned value seemed reasonable. That decision should be re-assessed frequently (far too little of this goes on) based on progress to date, and action taken if the actuals have come too far adrift, but in-between those times trying to optimise on value is perhaps not worth it.

Another option is to indeed demand (and obtain) those value numbers and then schedule work primarily on the basis of business value and dispense with effort estimates, so-called "naked planning". This has caused eyebrows to be raised. The underlying claim is that
value varies along an exponential scale while development costs vary along a linear scale. Therefore delivering the most valuable features trumps any consideration of whether or not the most valuable feature is cheap or easy to develop
whihc, if true of your environment, might give pause for though. How this interacts with the desire to schedule so as to maximise throughput at the bottleneck is an open question, for me at least.