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Don’t Organize Around Projects! Choose a Better Unit of Focus to Eliminate Waste & Increase Agility

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.

Characteristic

Description

Right Sized

  • Appropriately sized in a way to optimize approval, funding, and cost accounting overhead
  • Funding covers a meaningful (not too large, not too small) scope

Fiscal Control

  • Supports Product owner fiscal governance in the context of dynamic “budget” tradeoffs within the existing budget without having to seek permission, but with full transparency
  • Empowers Product owner to have full control of budget spend while being held accountable as a fiduciary of company’s money
  • Well-defined measurements against the unit-of-focus spend

Isolated

  • Minimal dependencies on other units of focus to complete in-unit work

Valuable

  • Work requests assigned within the unit of focus are recognizably valuable either to the consumer or to important internal or external stakeholders

Ring-fenced Staff

  • All the business and technical people needed to specify, design, build, test, and deploy features are assigned to the unit of focus (taking into account any required separation of duties)
  • One or more well-defined collection of teams (with named people) can be assigned to the unit of focus
  • Willing to shift resources to another unit of focus if business needs require it (preference is to move a whole team)

Cohesive Backlog

  • A long-lived backlog of work (e.g., epics, features, etc.) can be created and maintained
  • Items in the backlog have a natural affinity with one another

Single Identifiable Product Owner

  • A single, named individual can be identified and assigned on a full-time basis to be the owner of the unit of focus
  • Product owner is fully empowered to direct the resources in the unit of focus

In subsequent blog posts I will describe several of these characteristics in more detail.