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4 November 2014

A planning technique: Split team planning

When your team grows too big to have small conversations how do you include everyone in the planning process?

This is an idea I had for a team that has grown slightly larger than conversation size. It hasn't been field tested yet, but is an extension of what I have done before to reasonably good results. We will try it out soon and see how it goes. I am sharing it here in case someone else wants to experiment with the method. Let me know your thoughts.

What is the opportunity?
The situation is that the software development team has grown to about 11 people and when the team come together to plan their work, it comes down to a few people do most of the talking and several people end up sitting quietly through the sessions without getting much opportunity to contribute. It's a natural consequence of the team size. You can't have 11 people talking to each other at once; that's just too much talking.

The goal of this technique to to enable more engagement and contribution by team members, and potentially to get though more concurrent planing work in the limited time available. There are likely to be some consequences which feel like hard work. I'll cover these at the end.

First, break the team into small groups.  Aim for about 5 people in each group, so if you have 11 people that's two groups, if you have 14 that's three groups. Small groups make for richer conversations and fuller engagement from all participants.  Balance the groups so that they are as cross functional as possible, as well as balanced in terms of experience.

Secondly, brief the team of the goals ahead of the team for this meeting, and the way you are going to run it.

I am personally a fan of time boxing and iterating in planning discussions. I don't want to see problems solved in detail; I want to get an understanding of the size and type of job at hand, and develop some strategies or approaches for dealing with them.

My idea is to take the planning time, which will scale to the size of work in front of you, and break it into small rounds of maybe 16 minutes or even less. So a 90 minute planning session might look like this;
  1. Round 1: Break into teams and sit in groups together for the briefing
    • Briefing on business goals and constraints from the manager or equivalent person - 8 minutes
    • Q&A - 8 minutes
    • Reset expectations for planning session; what does success look like at the end of this meeting
  2. Round 2: Talk only
    • Teams discuss what the outcomes of the work will do for customers; how they will react to the change, how they will take advantage for their own goals - 
    • Discuss how the team might broadly approach the goal; try to think up three or more broad strategies for dealing with the work
  3. Round 3: Explore the strategies
    • Break down the strategies into parts, consider the outcomes, the risks and opportunities this approach could bring. Consider good ideas and insights from your less preferred approaches that you could migrate into your preferred approach.
  4. Round 4...n
    • Break down your approach into its parts
    • Prioritize, 
  5. Check
  6. Review risks and dependencies, and commit to follow up on them after the meeting.
Context will matter. How much certainty do you need or want up front? How well do you know your subject matter? How well do the team know each other? How well can you separate work into independent streams?

Anyway, these are some thoughts for you. I'd be interested to hear feedback.