Achieve Absolute Transparency With Portfolio Kanban

BY ALEXANDER NOVKOV ON NOVEMBER 6, 2017

Having process transparency is a key element for the successful execution of any plan that involves people working together. Although product management is no exception, some leaders fail to recognize that.

One of the most common mistakes for product managers to make concerning transparency is that they fail to connect the dots between the product roadmap and the tasks that their team needs to execute to produce the intended deliverables.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Specifically, solving any transparency issues has become easier than ever with the help of the Lean methodology and the Portfolio Kanban method.

Here’s how applying Portfolio Kanban can solve the work transparency issues and how to connect your roadmap to the smallest tasks of your team.

The Transparency Problem in Product Management

Does your team have access to your roadmap? Is every person aware of how their work contributes to the successful development of your product? Are you aware of how far the team is from delivering the next user story?

All of these questions bite into a single problem – lack of process transparency at the product level.

As a manager, you are responsible for identifying the right course for your product. Although this gives you a lot of power, sharing it with your team is crucial because they are the people who will be pulling your product in the desired direction.

It is not uncommon for a product manager to keep the roadmap out of their team’s sight and discuss it mainly with major stakeholders like upper management and the executive suite. As a result, the people responsible for executing it receive a number of assignments that need to be processed, but no clear idea of what the value of their work will be or how their efforts will contribute to the well-being of the company. This can lead to little or no engagement and lack of motivation to perform on top of their game.

Lack of transparency is an issue for the manager as well. Delivering the planned user stories on time largely depends on the efficiency of all those who work on the product. When there is no transparency on a product’s progress, the product manager is often preoccupied with putting out fires and keeping the team fixed on complying with the roadmap.

Last but not least, a lack of transparency harms the way a team collaborates. Leading a product team is dynamic. There are usually a few teams that are responsible for the successful execution of product strategy (e.g. development, quality assurance, marketing, etc.) that need to work together.

If there is no transparency over the whole production process, effective collaboration is difficult. Quality assurance will get the deliverables that need to be tested in the last possible moment, and marketing will have little time to prepare adequate promotion. All of these problems will eventually reflect on the product and ultimately on your job as a product manager.

Team Kanban Partly Solves the Problem

Over the last few years, establishing and sustaining an environment of transparency has become less difficult. There is hardly a product manager who hasn’t heard of Lean, Agile, Scrum or Kanban.

The popularity of these methods has increased rapidly and there is a good reason for this: they are relatively simple to implement and can bring positive change very quickly.

In terms of transparency, the Kanban method has proved to be a favored method among innovative managers for visualizing work.

Although it is fantastic on a small scale (e.g. team level, project level), some think the effect of Kanban is difficult to sustain at a company or even a product level. This is largely because there is no evident connection between the tasks that are visualized on the team’s board, the larger initiatives run by mid-managers, and the product roadmap that is usually laid down on a document somewhere out of sight.

As a result, when your team becomes adept with Kanban and all parts of your projects start moving even faster, it becomes a real challenge to get the bigger picture and figure out the actual state of affairs.

Introducing Portfolio Kanban

The Portfolio Kanban method is a lesser-known approach to one of the most distinguishable tools of the Lean methodology. Developed specifically for applying Kanban on a grand scale, the portfolio approach can help you sustain transparency across all levels of product management.

In most aspects, Portfolio Kanban is very similar to Team Kanban. All fundamental principles, like visualizing the workflow and limiting work in progress, are valid in Portfolio Kanban. The main difference is that, in Portfolio Kanban, the cards represent initiatives and projects, not just tasks. In addition, it allows you to break down large initiatives with more transparency thanks to a system of card relations that are applicable across all levels of a hierarchy.

The most simple classification is the parent-child relationship. In short, when you have large initiatives, you should break them down to a few layers of smaller assignments and link them to the initiatives as children. When all children are completed, the portfolio initiative will be completed as well.

For each layer, you should have a dedicated Kanban board(s) and as tasks are completed at the lower levels, you should update the status of the cards on the top Portfolio board.

Here is how a typical initiative breakdown looks like in Portfolio Kanban:

Mindtheproduct1.png

The goal is to connect scattered tasks under the umbrellas of projects and initiatives.

Because of the card relations, Portfolio Kanban is extremely suitable for running a transparent product roadmap.

Applying a Portfolio Kanban Roadmap

The product roadmap in Kanban is similar to a Kanban board but has a great focus on the requested section.

MindTheProduct2.png

According to your needs, you should place as many requested columns on your roadmap board (e.g. (to be developed) this month, 3 months, 6 months, etc.) as you need. Afterward, pull all the planned work according the capacity of your team.

The roadmap should be the top Portfolio board (if you are not applying Portfolio Kanban on an organization level). When your team is ready to take on the next challenge from the roadmap, you should break down the initiative. Afterward, place the assignments on the next level of portfolio boards and create the appropriate links.

From there, the respective process owners can proceed with a further breakdown of the initiatives until the smallest tasks are placed on the Team Kanban board. As a result, you will be able to see the progress of every single project and initiative.

The Portfolio Kanban roadmap is great because it is visible to anyone and maintaining it can remove the need for status reports. These are slow to generate and often the information they contain is already outdated by the time they are delivered.

If you are a fan of digital Kanban then finding a tool that supports Portfolio Kanban will save you plenty of time updating each level of the portfolio boards. This way as soon as a Team Kanban card is moved, each Portfolio parent card will be updated as well, ensuring maximum transparency and real-time updates.

Implementing Portfolio Kanban in product management will, I believe, help you to achieve unparalleled transparency of your process and keep your team aligned with the company’s goals. Every person will understand how their work contributes to the common well-being and you will a have a clear vision of how your team is progressing with their assignments.

Alexander Novkov

About ALEXANDER NOVKOV

Alex Novkov is the content lead of Kanbanize, a company developing Lean management software. Seasoned Kanban practitioner, Alex enjoys writing about everything concerning productivity and professional development. He has dedicated his time to educating the world how to be more efficient. Alex aims to empower people to spend less time doing what they have to and more time on what they want to.

  • Nowadays, it’s transparency or nothing, really. If you don’t go transparent, someone else will and someone esle will empower their team more. Our saturated and competitive economy leaves no space for practices of 19th century.

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