March 6, 2007

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Visual Technique for Prioritising Plans

A client of mine recently held a workshop on efficiency. 20 or so people from across the business were invited to see if they could identify barriers to the efficiency of software development teams, and to propose potential solutions.

After the workshop, a summary was emailed out to all the participants and other interested parties. In it, there were half a dozen problems that were identified as key barriers to efficiency. For each of those, two or three solutions were proposed. So what we had in front of us was a choice of about 15-20 possible ways to improve efficiency.

But where do we start? My potted theory of project planning is that you should do the most valuable, least risky things first. But identifying value and risk for something as complicated as software development team efficiency is no easy task.

I'd like to suggest a technique that I use, and it works for me, so maybe it'll work for you, too. Let's tackle a simpler example. Let's imagine that our goal is to get in shape. There are all sorts of things we could do to improve our fitness and tone our bodies, like running, or dieting, or eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, or making sure we eat a healthy breakfast every morning, or not eating anything too soon before we go to sleep at night. We may do all of these things, but could we do them all at once?

The first thing we need to do is identify all of our options. Realistically, what could we do to get in shape? Running a marathon every morning is probably out of the question for most of us, so that wouldn't be on our list, for example.

Once we have our list of choices, our next task is to figure out what the balance of risk and reward might be for each option. To do this, I find it helpful to write each choice down on a post-it note. Next, I choose a blank wall or whiteboard, and this will form a graph with impact going up (representing reward), and difficulty going across (representing risk). I then stick each post-it note where think it belongs on the graph. So an option that might have a big impact but will also be quite difficult to achieve would go in the top right-hand corner of the wall/board. An option that would make little impact, but would be very easy to do, belongs in the bottom left-hand corner.

A graph like this helps us to more clearly see the balance of risk and reward

I would then draw a line showing the balance of impact vs. difficulty. Above this line, we get more impact with less difficulty. For each option, we're interested in the distance from this line. The greater the positive distance (above the line), the better the potential reward for the risk. The lower the negative distance (below the line) it is, the bigger the risk for the reward.

The order in which we should tackle the options we have is found by sorting them in order, starting with the greatest positive distance from the line down to the lowest negative distance.

So the order in which I should tackle my plan to get in shape would be:

1. Get 8 hours' sleep
2. Have a healthy breakfast
3. Don't eat after 9pm
4. Quit booze
5. Quit smoking
6. Eat 5 portions of fruit and veg
7. Take up jogging
8. Go veggie

(I make no claims as to the actual real-world validity of this plan, by the way - just in case anybody was planning on following it!)

Hopefully you get the picture. It's a nice, touchy-feely and highly visual and tactile way of prioritising a plan. It works with any kind of plan, too. Just write down all the choices (e.g. use cases, SPI initiatives, training options etc) on post-it notes, stick 'em on a wall or whiteboard, draw you risk vs. reward line and you can just use your eyes to see how far they fall from the line.

One final tip, though: be clear about your goals, since they will dictate what the rewards are. It can be helpful to have a rough measure and a timescale in mind - e.g. waistline in inches for the above example - so you can ask yourself "what impact would having a healthy breakfast every morning have on my waistline after 6 months?". (The answer, sadly, is "not much", by the way...)
Posted 14 years, 6 months ago on March 6, 2007