The EBER Project -- Backlog and Schedule and Phases Oh my!

So, let's talk a little bit more about the component parts of a major agile project like the EBER project. At the highest level, your project contains goals, plans, and deadlines. However, we now know more about how each of those things is handled.



Goals



The epics, stories, and tasks that you started creating become part of the backlog of work. A backlog is basically a stack-ranked list of things you need to do to meet your goals. So for example:

[EPIC] story
    task
    task
    task

So for my physical fitness epic, I might have the following stories and tasks

[Fit] I want to get additional regular exercise to increase strength and stamina
        Buy new running shoes
        Take the dog for a run instead of a walk
        Take a walk at lunch during the week
        Research three gym options in the area
        Update budget to account for gym membership
        Schedule gym visits in advance 3x per week
        Sign up for membership
        Pack a gym bag
        Get your ass to the gym

[Fit] I want to eat more vegetables and make sure I get my vitamins
        Buy fresh veggies each weekend
        Prep veggies in advance of the week
        Prepack vitamins to take to work to have with lunch
        Start dinner planning with a veggie dish
        Add a second vegetable whenever possible

Important note, you don't need to have everything planned out in your backlog in advance! No, that's the least agile way to go about it. Instead, you have a few things planned in detail (like my examples above) and then things get fuzzier as you go out in time.

[I know what's coming] I want to perform divination for my household monthly
[I know what's coming] I want to follow three industry journals / blogs

These may have tasks like setting aside time to do readings, deciding on a schedule of different types of divination, deciding which journals or blogs to follow, and subscribing to the ones that you decide on. But until I get to that story, I don't have to break it down.

Plans



In a classic project, you'd have a project charter that outlined your plans in detail. But we're doing an agile project, so it gets much simpler. First, if you have a long project, you may have different phases. For example, this winter, I'm focusing on physical fitness (because it's harder for me in the winter) and divination (because I have some open questions about what's coming that I'd like to get a bead on). So that's my first phase.

The rest is your basic agile cycle of the sprint, which I talked about before.


Much simpler and more flexible than a classic project plan... and definitely more effective for projects with a lot of uncertainty (which seems like everything in the world right now, doesn't it?). 


Because the agile model is cyclical, you don't need many hard deadlines. You simple size your stories so that you can finish it within the sprint. If you can't, you just break down your stories into smaller bits. But there will still be external drivers and deadlines, for example a special on gym membership that you need to take advantage of before the end of the next sprint. And if you have project phases, it's smart to have concurrent milestones. And finally, it's useful to make sure that, as you create your backlog, you know what it means to be successful. So gym 3x per week or readings every other Tuesday.

The best way to handle these deadlines is to put them right into your backlog. So I have a project phase this winter for fitness and divination. I simply need to decide which stories I'd like to accomplish in this phase. And if a particular story or task also has a deadline, I just note it. And for each story, I need to make sure I understand what it means to be successful and reflect that in the tasks. Because let me tell you from personal experience, paying for a gym membership isn't enough to get fit.

So I get that it looks like a lot of stuff you have to be tracking, but the great thing about agile is that everything is built into the backlog -- which is nothing more than a list of stories (with tasks as necessary). You can keep it on paper (and even some corporate software teams do that) or in a digital list.

Here's a sample backlog for the garage cleaning project:

Epic -- clean garage to use for home improvement projects -- Deadline: 15 Nov
(not a complex project, but a single epic to focus on)

I want to get rid of crap we don't need in order to make room
    Order shiny new cabinets -- sale through Oct
    Identify stuff to donate and put in car
    Identify stuff to go in house / laundry room
    Order a large trash container for the week -- 1 Oct
    Drop off stuff to donate
    Rip down old crappy shelves
    Get container -- 4 Oct
    Fill up the trash container with crappy shelves, extra construction material, and any crap we find
    Trash container pickup -- 11 Oct
I want to insulate the laundry room
    Buy insulation
    Install insulation

One note: if I have a lot of deadlines (like I do at work) I will create a deadline list that's just the items that are due in date order. That allows me to "see into the future" to determine what's coming that I need to work on.

Finally, here's my quick breakdown of the four types of tasks:

Events -- If it lasts a whole day or more and you can't schedule anything else... that's an event. The key to tracking events is advanced visibility. Events are the only things that I actually track in multiple places (something I usually try to avoid). I note them on my Outlook calendar at work, our home calendars, and on a vis-a-vis annual wall calendar.

Appointments -- An activity that includes a start and end time (duration), affects availability, and needs a reminder. These are tracked on the same electronic calendars as above. No double-tracking required. A date book -- or datebook area in your bullet journal -- is a perfectly acceptable paper solution.

Todos -- An activity with a rough timeframe (today, this morning, this week, etc), no duration, doesn't affect availability, usually repeats, needs a reminder. They don't really fit into a calendar slot like an appointment because they don't have a specific start time. But they do have a rough time they need to be completed by. They typically repeat and are infrequent enough that a reminder is necessary. There are a host of tools and apps that work great for this kind of stuff -- pick one that works for your platforms and allows you to get an email, txt, or phone reminder when they are due. If you prefer paper, then putting them in a side column in your date book works.

Tasks -- An activity with no timeframe, unknown duration, no auto-repeat, and no reminder. If you make a list of all the small tasks you need to do to accomplish a big goal, there will be a ton of things you have to crank through. But while they may all have to be completed by a certain date, they don't each have to be completed on a particular date. This is the key difference from a todo. For tracking these the best tool is a good old fashioned checklist. Many of the todo-type tools and apps will also allow you to create checklists that don't have dates attached. Outliners are great for fast and flexible capture and it what I use at work. And for paper, nothing beats a notebook or bullet journal where you write down everything you need to do and then check or strike them off.

I find that group efforts (like at work) require more events and appointments where personal efforts usually need more todos and tasks.

For the EBER project, I'm currently identifying stories for the first phase, and also starting on the first stories (don't wait to start until you plan everything!).

Comments

  1. I found myself reading this twice, and then three times, to be sure I understood. I think that one of the biggest challenges that I have these days, is that I'm doing a lot of small Tasks (usually related to sewing, which is now apparently my job), but that I have a lot of Toastmasters-related Appointments that turn into Events (usually because a lot of other people make them Todos, rather than Appointments... funny how that works in volunteer work.)

    Increasingly, though, I can't do both Toastmasters Events, and keep humming away on Todos and Tasks for my work. It makes for an interesting disconnect, especially since lots of people want to nominate me for a big Toastmasters-related post for next year. I'll have to think about what it is that I really want to do. That's the vision and mission stuff, of course, from earlier in this EBER project.

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    Replies
    1. Is also a great example of why it's good to treat different kinds of tasks differently.

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