Product Backlog – driving Scrum

We all know what at the heart of a well run Scrum Project there will always be a Product Backlog.  So when we started working on the Practical Scrum method creating one was a high priority.  We wanted to support you with great Scrum practice and also give you flexibility.  That could be a difficult challenge but by using a spreadsheet backlog we have managed it.  So if you are new to Scrum you can use our provided Product Backlog.  And if you already have a well proven popular template, just simply swap your in.  You get this flexibility because the method is templates and changes are easy.  Hence no need for database recoding if you want to add a field or change a calc.

Product Backlog features

First of all we have made the backlog focus around stories.  Because these feel natural and are easy for everyone to understand.  The backlog has space to explain the story and also a field for storing a link to an expanded story.  Because sometimes that extra detail is really useful.  Each story goes through an assessment phase including effort estimation

This is your product backlog of unassigned stories. The template supports both entire product and sprint levels in the one file which makes it easy to rejig and move stories when sprint planning.  Each sprint consists of your chosen set of stories with a resource pool and timescale for delivery.

product backlog; scrum; burndown chart; free

Now your sprint is up and running.  So each day you will be updating the template.  You will be estimating the remaining work needed to complete the planned activities.  The Product backlog template rolls these estimates up to produce your burndown chart.  The template also creates the other stats you need to monitor progress.

As the Product Backlog is a spreadsheet editing will be familiar.  You also won’t need internet access to work on the file.

Getting your free Product Backlog tool

Practical Scrum including the free Product backlog tool is available for use by anyone on our Community Edition tool.  This will be launched in the next few days and available here to download for free.  Customers of our commercial tools can also add on Practical scrum for free from their user accounts.

If you can’t wait to get your hands on the Product backlog why not take a look at the video on You tube here.  Of course you could email us and we might be convinced to give you pre-release access.

Practical scrum – fitting your corporate frame

So in the last post we talked about Scrum and how it delivers well in dynamic situations.  Scrums focus on getting the best possible product with the resources provided is what makes it good.  However this and other aspects of Scrum can make it  less popular to your management.  So at PROJECT in a box we have developed Practical Scrum.  This will help you get the best of Scrum and keep your management happy at the same time.

Practical Scrum; Scrum

Pure Scrum often doesn’t sit well in an organisation context

Generic Scrum has a number of less popular aspects from a corporate perspective, here are the key ones:

  • Before the project starts there is no sense of sanction and approval
  • Business cases and benefits assessments are not always used
  • Minimal documentation is seen as a positive
  • Traditional project controls are not always used
  • Comparable reporting and portfolio management is more difficult

Practical Scrum ticks all the boxes

So lets look through these and see how the new Practical Scrum method helps address these.

Our Practical Scrum method starts with a launch process.  This additional process is used to set up the project and establish confidence .  Upon receipt of a Mandate the Product Owner would lead the creation of a Business case and Benefits statement.  The team would also prepare normal project controls like risk and issue registers and schedules.  Having taken the project through this Launch the organisation can be confident the project is viable.

The team will also be able to report on their progress in-line with the organisations norms.  Without the consistent  controls types like plan, risks, issues, benefits it is hard to fit Scrum projects in with other projects in the portfolio.  This will raise confidence about these projects from within the PMO. Because the PMO will have real time access to latest data and be able to compare and combine Scrum and non-scrum projects.

If the project looks like it might be failing, it will be possible to stop it early.  A clear business case and benefits statement allows such choices to be transparent.  Without clear benefits to test the project against it could grind on delivering the best it could with the resources even though that end product was overall not going to deliver enough benefits to justify it.  The organisation can then decide to finish or reassign the resources to other projects which may deliver higher benefit outcomes.

Practical Scrum is yours for free

Anyone can use the Practical Scrum method for free.  Simply download our free Community Edition tool and use it alongside the other available methods.  Our commercial customers can also add this method to their existing library of methods for free.  You can then use it to create and run as many projects as you want.  You can use it for free forever.

To see Practical Scrum in operation have a look at our latest YouTube video here.  In the next few days all Community Edition downloads and patches will contain Practical Scrum.

Scrum – Introduction and overview

Scrum is a methodology for delivering a project.  It is an agile approach to projects, and to be clear agile means light of foot, not light on documents.  You might like to use it when your project has some degree of uncertainty in it.  Thats because like other agile methods Scrum helps you find your way to an optimal solution as the project develops.

Scrum vs traditional projects

In a ‘traditional’ project we should plan significantly upfront to try and fix the time, cost, quality/scope.  We would then try to deliver what we had planned.  If circumstances change you revise your plans and that can lead to pausing or reworking deliverables.   Also because the project usually doesn’t come together until the end, once started you have to keep going.  That approach can result in overruns in time and cost to get a usable deliverable.

scrum, scrum methodology, scrum vs traditional, time cost quality, time cost scope

Scrum takes a completely different approach to the project life-cycle.  You instead aim to fix the time and cost only. Your focus is now to use those fixed resources to get the best possible scope/quality.  In essence we prepare a wish list for the project and we breakdown the end product into bite sized elements.  You then rank each of these for importance and support with minimal documentation.  This is called the Product Breakdown and is at the heart of the methodology.  Rather than planning the whole project you pick a group of the most important aspects.  This is your Sprint Backlog and the aspects are delivered as a ‘Sprint’.  Each sprint must produce a usable product, even if it is only a prototype.  Once the first sprint is complete you move on to the next one in turn.

Scrum and Sprints

Your sprints will be between one week minimum and one month maximum in duration and in essence are a mini project.  Each Sprint starts with a Sprint planning meeting to plan how to deliver that Sprint backlog.  Your sprint has a portion of the time and cost( resource) of the project allocated to it.  Each working day starts with a ‘Daily Scrum’ where the entire team meet to review their work and tweak plans.  These daily scrums are brief and the review of work done/remaining feeds the ‘Burndown Chart’.

Your Burndown chart is a quick guide to how you are progressing on the Sprint.  If your Sprint is behind burn you might drop a lower priority activity back to the Product backlog.  If your Sprint is ahead you may promote an activity from Product Backlog into the sprint.  You never let a sprint over or under run its time and cost/resource budget.

At the end of the Sprint you hold Review and Retrospective meetings.  Your Sprint Review looks at the work done and feeds back information including estimates into the product breakdown.  Your Sprint Retrospective looks at how Scrum is being used and any possible improvements.

Scrum Roles

There are three key roles on a scrum project they work together for the success of the project.

Product Owner – There is just one product owner and they own the Product backlog and priority decisions within it.  The Product Owner may of course take input from others but they are the ultimate arbiter of decisions.

Team member – Usually between five and ten team members to allow for simple and good communications.  Team members undertake the work and own the estimates for the product breakdown activities.  They contribute to all the sprint meetings.

Scrum Master – There is one scrum master and they are neither Product owner nor one of the Team member roll sharing.  The Scrum Master is responsible for maintaining good scrum practices on the project.

More about Scrum

Hopefully you like what you hear about scrum, it is certainly a popular approach in the IT sector and gaining traction in other areas too.  In particular where flexibility is important.  So with the increasing way that change is the only constant, scrum becomes increasingly applicable in other areas.

You can read more about the methodology in the free guide provided by the originators.

practical scrum, scrum methodology

Soon you will be able to try it for yourself with the new Practical Scrum methodology we are launching.  This will be available across the full range of our products from free Community Edition through to Live Edition.

Customise your RAID log

So often we hear users saying how project software tools have set ways of doing things.  The sort of annoying restrictions that prevent them from matching their required policies.  We know that although most teams have similar approaches to risk and issue management, there are still differences to handle.  That is why Planner gives you control over these things.  So whether you are using it in RAID log, risk or Issue Register mode, you can set the lists.

RAID log, Risk or Issue Register or just a Plan?  Your choice

We have talked before in these posts about how Planner supports you with risks, issues and tasks.  You are in control about which of these you choose for each Planner file.  So you can have one .spn file as a RAID log if you want combining risks, issues, action and decisions.  You can then also have a separate .spn file as a schedule/plan only if you want.  Of course you can also have all three in the same file which is very popular for smaller/simpler projects.  All this is possible because Planner allows you to choose the data types used in each file.  When you are setting up your own method this gives you flexibility about who you allow to update each type of data.  Once you have made your choices you can even lock this with the password protection.

RAID log;risk and issue register customisation

Customising the content of your Registers or RAID log

Whilst most organisations have roughly the same approach to risk and issue management there are always subtle differences.  They might calculate risk ratings or group their issues differently.  Planner handles all this allowing you to make the following changes:

  • Risk category groupings
  • Risk rating calculation
  • Colour bands for risk ratings
  • Issue types
  • Issue Priorities
  • Total status choices for plan, risk and issues
  • Risk and Issue status entries and colours
  • Response types and statuses

RAID log; customization or risk register and issue register

Of course our standard Planner templates are not password protected so you can adjust these to fit your needs.  However when thinking about setting them up to support consistent collection of data across an organisation you are likely to want to lock them.  When you adjust the .spn files in your method like this and password protect them you can be confident you are collecting consistent data from all your projects.  That will really help you with reporting and analysis and growing your maturity ratings.

Getting hold of Planner to improve your RAID logs

Planner is totally free and always will be. You can use it forever both personally and in corporate situations, in fact many organisations have adopted it as their default planning tool.

Simply sign up here to download your copy today.  You can see this customisation in action in the latest Planner Masterclass video here on our You Tube channel.

Planner using calendars instead of Gantts

We all know how important planning is to a successful project.  Therefore even for small projects it is always good to have a plan.  Planner is about as easy as it gets when it comes to planning tools.  However still some users cannot read the simple gantt charts produced.  We put the Planner Calendars feature in to help address this and it has been proving very popular.

Planner calendars instead of Gantt Chart

You simply select the calendar tab in Planner to see all your tasks showing on the calendar display.  You can easily see which day the task starts on and finishes on.  Each task will also be coloured in-line with the instructions in the current view, so Milestones are usually black, tasks red etc.  Your Planner calendar display can either monthly and weekly.  So if you have lots of tasks on a particular day it makes it easier to see them.  You simply click on the task to open and edit or read it. Planner also gives you some information on hover if you want it.

When you are working in Planner the calendar display can also show the risk and issue responses from the same Planner file.

Planner Calendars

Planner calendars exported to Outlook

As well as using the Planner calendars directly in the tool you can also export them as an .ics file.  You can then use this .ics file to load the task info into Outlook.  You do this by simply dragging the .ics file onto the Outlook Calendar tab.  Of course because of the Views in Planner it is possible to create .ics files with different sets of data in them.  you can therefore create the tasks for Supplier A, rather than all suppliers.  This calendars functionality is unrivalled for many Planning tools and incredible for a free planning tool like Planner.

planner calendars; outlook integration

Find out how to use Planner calendars

We have prepared a video walk through of this which you can see here in YouTube.

Of course you can  download Planner from here for free and use it for as long as you wish.

This forms a part of our set of Planner Masterclasses:

1 – Project Analysis, 2 – Reporting, 3 – Calendars

 

 

Free project reporting – Planner does it again

For most organisations project reporting seems like a huge challenge.  Often they spent lots of time and money on systems to try and make it work.  But in practice they could be missing a simple hack to fix it.  And even better that solution could be free.  So how do they get free project reporting and improvements in quality at the same time?  Their answer is rather simple, Planner.

Free project reporting

As you will have seen in previous posts Planner is great at collecting information about Plans, tasks, costs, risks, issues and changes.  We also looked in the last blog post at how views can give project analysis outputs.  You can use all this in producing your free project reporting.  Planner gives you two ways of producing the reports, either standard to print or manual.

Lets look at standard to print first.  Here you use the print options form to choose which content you want and also to set style. You can choose the mix you want of tasks, risks, issues and calendar and milestones timelines.  Using your current view in each area those data blocks will be packaged into a document for printing.  Or of course you might choose to print to PDF instead.  This approach is quick and hassle free but limits the report to one block of each type.

If you use the manual approach,  you can assemble your own report in Word or Excel with as many sections/blocks as you want.  This will take you a bit longer but give you the same sort of outputs  for free that our commercial users obtain.  Choose your preferred view in the data area and then right click to copy as either image or data table.  You can then simply paste where you want in your report.  With this you can change view and copy paste again.  Thus you can have many different types of analysis in the same report, just like commercial customers get.

free project reporting; project management reports

Our helpful Planner masterclass video takes you through all of this.  You can see it here on You Tube or on this site here.

Free project reporting forever

Planner is free and it isn’t a trial.  And because it is a product you download and install on your laptop once you have it you can continue to use it forever.  Your reports will look much better and those dangerous quality errors will have been eliminated.  So why not share these benefits with your colleagues, you could all be using Planner to deliver better project reports.

You can sign up for your free Planner download here.

Project analysis – free and powerful

Whether your project is big or small, simple or complex you will still need to monitor it.  Of course your first challenge will have been to plan it and to set up the project controls.  Then you will have had to keep these controls updated with current information.  That all sounds quite daunting but Planner is your perfect companion for this.  As well as Planner doing all this it also includes Project Analysis capabilities for free.

Planner – perfect for your project controls

Planner provides you with a tool for preparing your project plan.  Unlike MS project it gives you just the core planning features used on the majority of projects.  Your tasks can be scheduled and grouped into summaries, they can also have predecessors.  You can also use the cost model if you want to set fixed and resource costs for tasks.  You can use Planner  to collect your risk, issue and change data as well.

project analysis;planner; free project controls; free project planning

Having all of this to hand in one file makes your task easier when it comes to updating these.  Many users keep the data collection quite simple, just showing % complete or notes and status changes for risks and issues.  Some users go a lot further with their monitoring.  These users will often also collect actual costs and manage formal responses to risks, issues and changes.  Planner provides you with the ability to do as much or as little as you like here.

Planner – perfect for your project analysis

We don’t just provide Planner to collect the data, we also include a great project analysis capability within it too.  You can use ‘views’ to get project analysis results quickly and consistently.  You can either use the pre-saved views for common analysis or create your own custom ones.  Your choice of view determines the data you see in the analysis and also how it is shown.

The filters within your chosen view are powerful and allow compounding of rules.  So you can look easily for things like overdue tasks or unresourced activities within your plan.  You can use the same approaches on your risk and issue registers.  Here people often look for top five not closed risks or any open issues not recently updated.

project analysis; overdue tasks; free planning tool

When you can do these sort of project analysis quickly it can save you lots of time and also save you from nasty surprises!

Project analysis is free

Planner which includes all this is free.  Just sign up here to download it and get started.  We have also prepared a video covering how this all works.  You can see it on YouTube here, or here on this site.

Bespoke method for your projects

Standards such as PRINCE2 are important in establishing a good process for your projects.  Many of you find it helpful to use a published standard.  When you adopt an existing standard you get all the benefits of the authors experience and research.  You can also usually get support with training courses, books and other aids easily.  However using a standard isn’t always the best choice.  When you think about how we all do different projects and in such varied contexts, perhaps a bespoke method could be better?

I’m not suggesting a radical tearing up of best practice and a return to black arts.  However I am saying that context is vital.  You need to make sure the method you use gives you the best chance of successful delivery.  In my experience that means taking the best practice the works for you and mixing it with the language and practices of your organisation.  Hopefully you have a fairly mature organisation who has already done this.  If you don’t, then your challenge is certainly harder and you should start light and grow.

Building a bespoke method for your Project Management

Few project management solutions support methodology at all, and most of those that do have a single fixed approach.  Of course that makes it difficult to have customised methods and a family approach with different methods for each type of project.  Luckily for you PROJECT in a box isn’t that restrictive.  Not only do we offer the widest range of standard methods off the shelf (14).  But you can also customise them or create a bespoke method to match your needs.

bespoke method; perfect project templates

This ability has been a long term capability of the commercial editions of the tool.  You can see videos about using Method Manager to create your bespoke method here and on YouTube  We have further enhanced this with the release of .piabx files.  Using this new file type you have much better control over the text type templates than you would using Word.  You can get the background and see .piabx in action here on YouTube.

So you can take control of .piabx files we are also making a .piabx designer tool available.  With this you can customise our existing templates or create your own, giving you total control over the process.  So you can easily convert your existing PM process into a PIAB method.  Or you can start with one of our existing PM method templates and evolve it into your perfect bespoke method.  Again we have provided a video into to that here and on YouTube.

 

Project methodology expertise

These days it seems like everyone knows the importance of project methodology.  But it wasn’t always like that.

I have been helping organisations with their project methodologies for over twenty years now.  And in the early days it was much too common to hear PMs fighting against common process.  Old hand PMs would often refer to project management as a black art.  Viewing everything from their narrow perspective they would say processes hamstrung them and were bureaucratic.  Actually to be fair I still pick up that view today from time to time.  Although now perhaps it is more often an internal monologue as the jury seems to have come down fairly (and rightly) on the side of process.

The benefits of Project Methodology

In maturity frameworks like P3M3, project methodology is a cornerstone capability.  Having, and of course following, a project methodology provides such a good foundation for best practice.  Most importantly it brings consistency to the actions and steps of the team.  The shared understanding of the steps to be followed raises quality and reduces delays and costs.  The use of common terms likewise makes for gains through all aspects of a project.  Thus by having an appropriate method you also improve your risk and issue management, planning and other aspects.

I often think though that many people miss some of the most beneficial aspects of having a good project method.  These are as follows:

  • You can steadily evolve your method to give you the sort of changes which stick.  The sensible organisations start light keeping the culture change impacts as low as possible. Once project teams accept the method you can then evolve it to gradually to include new elements.
  • You can use a well tuned method to actually give flexibility.  Even in the most routine of organisations a single one size fits all approach to project methodology rarely works. You can instead have a family of methods with a consistent set of core content.  You can then adjust each method in the family to the needs of a particular type of project.
  • If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it.  Once you can see what project teams should be doing it is much easier to see who is failing and which teams need your help.

Twenty years of Project methodology excellence

I have now been working in this area for twenty years and with every new customer I learn something new.  The landscape is constantly changing and evolving and will continue to do so.

Developing sound systems of project management excellence

Early in my career I was working at AEA Technology not long after privatisation.  I was the site engineer for a badly failed project which at the time felt terrible but which taught me so much.  Over the next two years I was Secretary of an internal Project management task force.  Working across the organisation we did lots to change the culture and improve the approach to projects.  We took a different approach to PRINCE2, which was launched around this same time and developed a scaled method.  Instead we had three types of projects with a shared core set of materials and an assessment checklist.  We also developed a competence framework which showed expectations for the roles on each project type.  Training and mentoring supported project teams in adoption, as did an on-line resource manual.  Our work here was innovative at the time, although has since become quite the norm.

project methodology

The APM awarded me the Sir Monty Finniston award in 1999 for this work.  At that time the award was given for ‘developing the art and science of project management’, it is now a lifetime achievement award.

The PROJECT in a box years

So when in 2005 we launched PROJECT in a box to help people use PRINCE2, it is no surprise we made the system flexible.  This ability to support multiple methods has proven to be very popular with users.  Some customers use our off the shelf pre-scaled nStep project methodology, which of course now boast 20 years of experience in their development.  Other customers use the tools to host their own in-house methods or standards like PRINCE2 and Praxis.  All customers however benefit from our experience, advice and help in this area.

And you can too! Our free Community Edition tool provides a range of different Project methodologies that you can use free forever.  You just need to sign up to try it for yourself.

Better project templates

Most organisations rely on a set of project templates to help the PM get off on the right foot.  These templates provide consistency and also help with compliance against method or quality needs.  Because MS Office is in such common use these project templates are most often in Word, Excel or Powerpoint formats.  We have also used these file formats for the project templates we provide in our methods.  However over time we have begun to introduce more specialist formats e.g. using .spn instead of excel for plans and registers.  Word has always been the workhorse of project templates though, both for us and other providers.

Even though most templates are in word it still has a number of issues when used in a PPM application:

  • you need to use word or another app to edit the file;
  • the read only flag only alerts you not to edit when you try to save your viewed file;
  • with complex word templates such as PIDs can be difficult to find your way to a particular section;
  • you can only inject content blocks up to 140chars;
  • you cannot export content blocks for use elsewhere.

When you want slick and efficient operation in a structured environment these issues can hold you back.

.piabx setting a new standard in project templates

We have developed the new .piabx file format to raise the bar in terms of what can be done with project templates.

Firstly you can set up your .piabx templates to match the information you want to collect for your project.  You can use sections of text or a more intricate layout of items, dates, numbers etc and also even tables.  Your templates can also have style control, headers, footers and logos for IP and QA compliance.  These templates can also receive and display blocks of content sent from the system.  The sent content can be of any size and therefore support meaningful project descriptions etc.  You are also able to identify content that you want to save from your templates into the system to show in reports etc or to inject into other templates.

project templates

Your users can view, print and even edit these project templates from our browser interface.  Your content is therefore much more likely to be kept up to date.  And of course with the system permissions settings and retaining audit trail and versions you continue to have great control.  Your .piabx files are always provided read-only, unless actually checked out.  This prevents a real problem that word files have, when users edit viewed files.  It happens because word only advises the file is read-only when you try to save it.

project templates

So you can share your .piabx files with anyone you want we have also provided a .piabx viewer application.  Using this people with no access to the main application can be sent .piabx files and can view or even edit them.  This enables you to mirror the way you often work with existing word project templates.

project templates

Want to know more about these new project templates?

The launch of our new version 5.1 includes two versions of our nStep project management methods.  One set with traditional word templates and one with .piabx templates so you can compare and see what you think.  Our Beta test customers loved the live edit and navigation aspects of .piabx and we are sure you will feel the same.

You can see this in action on our release video here on YouTube.  If you are an existing LiveEdition, Enterprise Edition or Small Team Edition customer you can upgrade at your convenience.  If you want to know more just get in contact and we would be delighted to show you via web meeting.