This post is about backlog planning and the need for a single source of truth, given that data is sprinkled across many tools – which in many cases leads to businesses losing customers since critical deliveries are missed.
To-do or not to-do is something that comes up during every backlog planning review cycle. What seems like a coordination job combined with logical prioritization efforts, largely rides on a single assumption – everything is available at one common place to choose from. An expert coach in Agile transformation who has worked with several Fortune 500 customers shared the following: “At the beginning of every new coaching session, I ask the question to product owners – How many of you have missed critical deliveries to customers because one or more item slipped through the cracks? Every single time, there is a multiple show of hands.” This gave us enough reason to dig deeper into the topic and explore the root cause of this issue and the pathway to mitigate it by creating a single source of truth for backlog planning.
Yes, Tools Too Have Cons; They Are Called Data Silos
To facilitate various business functions and enable customer engagement, enterprises invest in multiple tools. Sales uses CRM tools to log customer feature requests, Operations uses ITSM tools to log service tickets, Engineering uses Agile project management tools to log backlog issues, bugs etc., and product and project managers track risks and juggle actions in offline or online spreadsheets. What this medley of tools does is create data silos. To this, add a factor of scale and right there the problem statement starts to appear. How can a product owner effectively and iteratively do backlog planning for a product release, if s/he must look across all these silos manually? No matter how detail oriented an individual or a process may be, human errors driven by business pressures lead to something falling through the cracks. By the time, someone realizes this, the Agile release train has already left the station. The result could be a dissatisfied customer that may churn away if a missed feature impacts their business critically.
Some work has already been done to minimize the effect of data silos. For example, service tickets are synchronized with project management tools using point-to-point plugins. However, these point solutions aren’t intelligent, cost-effective, easy to maintain or universally available to cut across all silos. Another pathway is where a business has invested a lot of bandwidth and money in writing their home-grown scripts/microservices to integrate across these data silos. However, the ROI on this approach is very low since the tools, data formats and processes are in constant flux, making it difficult to maintain these scripts and bring repeatability into the process. The solution lies in creating a single source of truth in a seamless, automated way to simplify backlog planning.
Can a Single Source of Truth Simplify Backlog Planning?
Consider a business as usual scenario where a product release is being planned and the product owner Joe is manually looking across different tools to get a sense of what should be on the radar for backlog planning. While Joe is assimilating this information, the various tools in play are continuously logging new information. As the planning activity begins, Joe starts dealing with prioritization challenges in terms of managing spillovers from earlier releases, critical defects, and new feature requests. Sales executives are talking to him to make sure their customers’ needs are met, whereas he is negotiating with engineering given their constraints on delivery capacity. This is an iterative cycle of give and take and somewhere along the way, Joe leaves behind a critical item on a spreadsheet. Now imagine, one of the salespersons calls Joe right before the release date to ensure that his customer’s request is going to be a part of the upcoming release. Joe realizes that it fell through the cracks during the planning cycle. Satisfaction for that customer was already trending down and now this is likely to make the customer walk away. But what if there was a system that could keep Joe informed in real time about all requests and issues at play, and automatically log everything into one common place for him to assess and plan his backlog?
Putting this in the context of what Joe faced earlier, it would imply that at any given point in time, even before triggering the planning cycle, Joe would have complete access and visibility into all issues in one unified backlog – a single source of truth. With this unified backlog, Joe can iteratively analyze and discuss all issues with stakeholders given the various constraints. Ultimately, Joe can digitally share what is/is not possible to include with stakeholders so customer expectations can be set up front. Joe can even automatically share status of changes during the release cycle so that salespeople are also well informed and can drive customer conversations accordingly. With informed decision making, using a single source of truth, ultimately Joe avoids a lot of surprises before a release is due.
The Crux of the Matter
To sum up, given the varied nature of business functions in an enterprise, multiple tools are required that result in inevitable data silos. These data silos make it hard for a product owner to perform iterative backlog planning and can result in issues falling through the cracks. Further, a missed critical issue or feature could result in a customer churning away. Nonetheless, the impact of these data silos can be mitigated by creating an automated, unified backlog that serves as the single source of truth. Streamlining the iterative backlog planning process through this approach, will improve efficiency, predictability and avoid chaos for all stakeholders. As customer expectations are managed on a timely basis, customer satisfaction and retention will be impacted positively.