Practical Software Estimation Measurement

Be SAFe: Using Top-down Estimation to Align Vision, Value, and Velocity in Your Organization

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Successful product development involves aligning the three V’s of corporate success – vision, value, and velocity. Organizations must establish a product development visionthat will help them achieve their goals. Their agile development teams must show valueby delivering products that meet this vision. Finally, these teams must be able to accurately plan and estimate velocity – the amount of work completed during a “sprint,” or specified period of development time -- and factors that could impede that velocity.

Unfortunately, these three V’s exist on different spheres in many organizations. Enterprises tend to be built in silos, with development teams and product owners on a foundational level, product management and system engineers on the next, and enterprise architects and portfolio managers at the top.

Disconnect and misalignment within this hierarchy can lead to inefficiencies and undermine agile development efforts. The point of agile is to be able to iterate product development at a faster and more efficient pace, in turn allowing teams to deliver consistent and maximum business value. That requires communication and teamwork amongst everyone involved in the product development process, including portfolio managers, product owners, solution managers, and more. But scaling agile within organizations can be very challenging -- in large part due to the hierarchies that are especially prevalent in larger enterprises.

Enter the SAFe zone

Fortunately, there’s the Scaled Agile Framework – SAFe. SAFe’s creators describe it as “an online, freely-revealed knowledge base of proven success patterns for implementing Lean-Agile IT, software and systems development at enterprise scale.”

SAFe is built on its own hierarchical structure comprised of four levels. There’s a top “Portfolio” level comprised of teams and individuals in charge of developing product strategy and investment funding. That’s followed by the “Value Stream,” which includes solution architects and engineers, solution managers, and others in charge of maintaining product visions, road maps, and more. There’s also a middle “Program” level consisting of development teams, stakeholders, and other resources devoted to delivering a continuous stream of incremental releases of value. Finally, there’s a foundational “Team” level that includes scrum masters, developers, product owners, and other “creators” directly involved in the product development, testing, and delivery processes.

SAFe’s nine guiding principles collectively tie back to a single goal: efficient production of better software that will add economic value to the business. Woven throughout the principles is language pertaining to empirical data being used to narrow the focus of a product’s development, cross-domain planning, and the like. The data supports iteration planning and portfolio-level forecasting, which are instrumental to being able to scale agile development.

The benefits of a top-down estimation framework

Top-down software estimation is all about planning and forecasting, and therefore provides an ideal framework for SAFe environments. Program managers can accurately measure the time and effort it will take to complete “epics” (large bodies of work that must be tackled as part of the development process), and, in turn, break those into smaller product features, capabilities, and “stories” (smaller tasks that comprise epics). They can gain valuable insight into the number of resources and skill sets required to complete a project efficiently and correctly, based on known capabilities and availability of resources. Estimation also supports the SAFe mandate for “better systems and software” by allowing teams to forecast product quality at every level of the SAFe framework.

Top-down estimation also provides teams with a holistic view of their entire development system, thereby allowing organizations to adhere to SAFe’s “apply systems thinking” principle. That principle states that “the value of a system passes through its connections” and that “continuous attention to those interfaces and interactions is vital.” By taking a top-down approach, enterprises can ensure that all of the connections, interfaces, and interactions within their own systems – i.e., the people, management, and processes that are involved in the production of a consumable product -- are efficiently and effectively working together.

There are a number of other different ways in which top-down estimation can be used to align the vision, value, and velocity that organizations desperately seek. Teams can gain a better understanding of the time, costs, and resources necessary to deliver backlogged, approved consumable systems, as well as yet-to-be-developed “big ideas.” They can quickly access data that can be used to ascertain potential risks and model alternative development scenarios as necessary. They can also account for the reality of the rate at which work becomes available and use historical productivity measures that incorporate the non-linear behavior of software development, which can help accurately estimate schedules and plan resources for agile projects.

Indeed, top-down estimation is extremely useful in visualizing staffing and resource demands for portfolios. A top-down approach provides organizations with an overview of portfolio staffing needs by both initiative and month, over the course of a specific period of time. The people in the top “Portfolio” level of the SAFe framework may have a certain spending rate and staffing capacity in mind, but that may not be in alignment with reality. Estimation allows everyone to see if the “as submitted” plan exceeds their organization’s current and near future capacity, and make adjustments as needed (by changing start dates, adjusting scope, etc.).

High-Level Staffing Analysis
Top-down estimation allows organizations to perform high-level staffing analysis and make adjustments based on budget and resource goals and limitations

Tools like SLIM-Estimate provide comprehensive top-down analysis that effectively complements the SAFe approach to scaling agile development. Teams at all levels of the hierarchy can gain valuable insight into the cost, time, and effort required to satisfy their requirements for creating a successful product in the most efficient way possible. That’s what SAFe is all about, and top-down estimation can help your organization achieve this directive.

To learn more about how these two approaches can work together effectively, I encourage you to check out this great webinar from QSM’s Laura Zuber. Along with offering specific examples, it provides a fantastic overview of the SAFe methodology and how top-down software estimation can work to scale agile development in larger enterprises.

In the meantime, is your company using SAFe? If so, are you supporting that methodology with estimation processes to effectively scale agile development in your organization? Let me know in the comments below.

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