On The Nature Of Portfolios - Portfolio Kanban - Alternative Scenarios

On The Nature Of Portfolios

“Always show your working out!” was the mantra of my maths teacher in senior school. This series of blog posts “On the Nature of Lean Portfolios” is an exploration of Lean Portfolios. It is the thought processes running through my mind, exploring the possibilities so that I understand why things are happening rather than just doing those things blindly. It is not intended to be a fait-accompli presentation of the solutions within Lean Portfolios but an exploration of the Problems to understand whether the solutions make sense. There are no guarantees that these discussions are correct, but I am hopeful that the journey of exploration itself will prove educational as things are learnt on the way.

Epic Lifecycle

Epics have a lifecycle, they don’t magically appear fully formed. There is work to be done to progressively elaborate a business case and if the Epic is approved then there is further work to progress the Epic through implementation.

Previous posts have explored the progresses of an Epic through a normal lifecycle and the decisions that affect that lifecycle. In this post we’ll explore some of the alternative scenarios that might be encountered during an Epic’s lifecycle and explain how the decisions fit within the context of the Portfolio Kanban.

There is an accompanying video available here.

The Portfolio Kanban – Alternative Scenarios

Bad Ideas

Back to the funnel. Here’s another Idea. This one is a “Chocolate Teapot”1. Do you think Chocolate Teapots align with our corporate strategy?

The Director Of Innovation and Parties needs to spot these “Chocolate Teapots” with their Expert Instinct and Route them to Trash can in the corner.

Don’t waste time evaluating ideas that aren’t contributing to the corporate strategy.

Small Ideas

Another idea from the funnel; small but valuable. A weeks worth of effort for a team at most.

What do we do with it? Do we run it through our Epic Approvals process?

It might cost more, both in time and money, to develop a business case for it than it would to just do it.

Anything that isn’t an Epic but is still valuable should be routed towards the backlog of a Train or Team and let their prioritisation mechanics take care of it.

Trains and Teams always need some capacity reserved for both their own work and these little ideas we need them to pursue.

If they are 100% dedicated to Epics then problems will eventually arise because there’s no room to do the little bits that need to be done both their own internal work as well as these small external requests.


Another small idea…

And another, and another, and another. All from the same Stakeholder.

What’s going on?

The stakeholder has seen that small items go straight to Teams. If they pre-slice their big idea into tiny bits then they will be sent straight to teams thereby avoiding the complexity and scrutiny of the Epic approvals process!

Our Director Of Innovations and Parties need to be on the lookout for people trying to cheat the system.

This is a big idea and we should reform the parts and process it like the Epic it is.

Why was the stakeholder trying to cheat the system?

Well, maybe this idea is a little bit out there.

“Delivery of Sea Containers by Drone”

Does anyone even want this?

Lean-Startup anyone?

The way that Lean-Startup is presented within the SAFe material; you’d be forgiven for thinking that MVP’s are releases with features in them; but if you go back to Eric Ries’ book then MVPs are just experiments.

Some of those experiments might be “paper based” rather than physical development.

As part of the analysis for this Epic maybe the Epic Owner should run some experiments to see if anyone actually wants “Delivery Of Sea Containers by Drone”

Work going up and out rather than down towards the engineering teams. Perhaps place an advert, at minimal cost, and see if anyone responds to it.

Well, what do you know? Someone clicked on it and wants a container delivered.

Can it be done though? Who could tell us whether this is technically feasible?

Our engineers. We’re going to have to send work down.

It is perfectly allowable for Epic Owners to negotiate work into Train backlogs prior to the Epic being approved; especially if they need engineering input on Prototypes or Analysis which will influence the decision that Lean Portfolio Management have to make. However; the requests are taking capacity from already approved work.

How do you stop an Epic Owner cheating the system and trying to get an Epic done as a series of Enablers?

The Horizons Guardrails.

These Enablers are consuming the capacity allocated to Horizon 3, Evaluating ideas or Horizon 2 Emerging ideas; thus preserving the majority of capacity which tends to be allocated to Horizon 1 which is all about keeping the current, core business going and which the majority of approved Epics are likely to draw upon.

The engineers reckon that “Delivery of Sea Containers by Drone” can be done if the Drone is made up of 3 twin rotor CH-47 Chinook Helicopters strapped together.

Off for approval then!

Lean Portfolio Management are having second thoughts…

Is the populace really ready for the dark shadows of sea containers passing overhead?

Maybe let the public get used to drones overhead first.

This is where the parking lot comes in.

It’s a holding place for ideas whose time hasn’t yet come, or where there’s no capacity or budget available to deliver them.

The item can’t go into the backlog because if it were in the backlog then Trains would be looking to the Epic and would start trying to work on it; also we don’t want to send it to trash because we think we want to pursue it at some point in the imminent future; hence the need for the Parking Lot as a holding place.

We don’t want to lose the effort that’s gone into building the Business Case so we’ll park it for a while and re-asses it again later.

Be sensible; if anything is parked for too long a period of time then the question needs to be asked “is it ever going to get done?” The parking lot, like the funnel and backlog are one of those areas where the staff facilitating the Portfolio Kanban need to ensure the irrelevant work isn’t cluttering it up.

Time passes.

The populace has become conditioned to drones overhead.

Time to reconsider “Delivery of Sea Containers by Drone”.

We’ll need to revisit the numbers.

They need updating because time has passed, our company has moved on, as has the world outside. The effort involved will have changed, the benefits will have changed, those figures could up, they could go down.

Lean Portfolio Management say no.

After a strategic review; the core business strategy has changed and Deliveries are no longer part of that core business strategy.

The Epic goes to trash.

What do you do now?

Have a party!

A party? But the work’s been cancelled!

Yes, a party!

That poor Epic Owner who’s just spent the last few weeks of their life building a business case that has been thrown out by the Lean Portfolio Management; they’re going to need cheering up.

The work they did; it wasn’t waste. That work has saved the company from spending potentially millions on developing the wrong thing and given the company space to pursue other better ideas.

A little bit of those millions that have just been saved can be used to cheer up that poor Epic Owner with a little party.

Whilst we do make a bit of a joke about the Director Of Innovations and Parties; don’t underestimate the psychology. This is a human driven system and we need to look after those humans driving it. What may seem like an individual failure is actually a success at the corporate level; scientific method at work a No answer is as important as a Yes answer because it tells you what not to do!

Scientific method turns failures into wins; and because we are lean the “perceived” waste of building the Lean Business Case; it wasn’t that much in real monetary terms. The cost of the “wasted” business case pales into insignificance compared with an engineering department wasting time and money by doing the wrong thing.

Exploring Options

One last idea.

This idea has options. There are different ways that it could be handled.

Our options today are Buy, Build or Merge with a company that’s built it before.

This is the Portfolio that we’re talking about; they should have sufficient money and empowerment for these sort of options.

We should build a business case for each of the options to allow the Lean Portfolio Management to make an informed decision.

Obviously, two of those options aren’t going to be chosen, therefore these business cases want to be very lean. Each option will have a different business case, different strengths, different weaknesses.

We should highlight our preferred option to Lean Portfolio Management. Does anyone have a way of prioritising them?


The Epic owner is another of those Experts from the Blink book; they probably have a preferred option in mind driven by their gut instinct. When the WSJF is being run be mean to the preferred option; underestimated the benefits, overestimate the effort. Not massively but err on the side of caution. Be nice to the non-preferred options, overestimate the benefits, underestimate the effort, again not massively but err on the side of optimism.

The preferred option “Merge” wins. However because we were mean to it, and nice to the non-preferred options, it’s harder to argue that bias was involved.

The set can be presented to the Lean Portfolio Management group allowing them to make an informed decision.

Lean Portfolio Management chooses Merge; the Epic can proceed.

Mergers and Acquisitions; that’s not for an Engineering Team. The Epic Owner is going to need to negotiate work onto the backlog of the Legal Department.

Whilst SAFe’s focus is on managing Epics for Development Value Streams; real-world Portfolios often have to deal with governance of Epics that aren’t in the Engineering space.

That is the Portfolio Kanban. Over the last two posts the decisions that influence the life-cycle of an Epic have been explored.

The funnel needs active management and ideas that don’t belong at the Portfolio level should be sent on to an appropriate destination; One of the 3 T’s, Train, Team, sometimes Trash.

The Portfolio can utilises the techniques of Lean-Startup and a Set Based Approach for Options and this post has described how they can be realised within the Portfolio Kanban

The Portfolio Kanban is a lot more dynamic than the training slides show.

Next Steps

The next blog will look at the set of meetings that facilitate the running of the Portfolio.

#1 An English turn of phrase meaning “not useful”; think about what would happen when you put boiling water into a chocolate teapot!

Contact Us