October 24, 2020

Better Quarterly Plannings

Let's face it: most engineering organizations struggle with quarterly and annual planning. As engineers and engineering leaders, we dread the weeks when it's time to go through it again. Some companies struggle because of how long the planning process takes, or how counterproductive may seem compared to larger goals; others find it challenging to wade through the internal politics.

We can do better than this. This article provides a framework for engineering and product teams to reduce the inherent friction involved with planning, as well as the time required to complete planning cycles.

Common Pain Points

First, let's examine some of the pain points your organization might experience during planning. The following are mentioned frequently :

  • The process takes too much time. Depending on the organization and its competing priorities, it can take several weeks.
  • Even if planning takes several weeks, it can still feel rushed because numerous sync meetings are involved. This is especially true when there are internal or external dependencies, like a front-end team depending on a back-end service.
  • Projects can rarely fit into a single quarter, and most of them span several.
  • Too many projects may run parallel because a product has multiple priorities. This can leave teams without a sense of ownership as they jump between projects.

The Proposal

In the article Playbook for Running Sprints, I characterized sprints as efficient, but only if:

  • The team always works on the most important stories.
  • There is a healthy feedback culture among team members.
  • There is at least a rough idea when things might be completed.

Regarding prioritization: "The backlog is a semi-prioritized list of things that the team eventually wants to work on. Stories in the backlog may never get picked up, depending on priorities."

Wouldn't it be great if we used a similar approach to quarterly plannings?

The idea is to replace quarterly plannings with an organization-wide Kanban board and on-demand meetings as needed.

To illustrate the idea, consider the Kanban board below:

Better Quarterly Plannings Kanban Board

The backlog column represents ideas that the product or engineering leadership want the team to complete. Ideally, this list of epics is semi-prioritized, meaning that the top items are already in order of importance.

Epics are moved to the planning column when teams commit to delivering them. This is the phase when the internal and external dependencies that exist between teams are resolved. Ideally, you create epics in a way that invites collaboration between the least amount of dependencies.

The In progress column represents the epics that teams are actively working on.

Done are the epics that you shipped to production.

Before putting this planning proposal into practice, be sure to state the rules and responsibilities clearly, as in:

  • Who can add ideas to the backlog? Starting with PMs and EMs might be a good start to expand on later.
  • What are the requirements for epics to be added to the backlog? Consider requiring at least a one-page design document or a rule about minimum lengths. Also try to limit the epics' size for a shorter feedback loop on proposal planning and the business impact of delivered epics.
  • Who can expedite epics and stop in-progress ones? Business priorities can shift suddenly when something unforeseen happens, like COVID-19 or a new regulatory requirement. As stopping in-progress work results in quite some churn, this decision shouldn't be made lightly.
  • Who and how frequently should we meet to review backlog items? Depending on the size of your organization, these meetings could include engineering leaders and product stakeholders.

This is not an exhaustive list of things to consider when changing how quarterly planning is done in your organization, but examples of typical considerations.

The idea is to adopt a Kanban-like planning methodology for long-term planning, so teams can pull in epics whenever they are ready, without a fixed quarterly planning cadence. By following this proposal, you can reduce the number and length of planning meetings, not to mention the year’s worth of epics in the backlog that will give your teams a better sense of what's coming next.

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Gergely Nemeth profile picture
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My name is Gergely, and this is where I write about engineering management and open-source.
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