Release Planning Tips

XPM Planning Process

In XPM, we plan on several different levels, from high-level to low. At the highest level, we create a project plan, composed of several release plans. Then, each week, we create an iteration plan based on the current release plan. If you consider stand-up meetings as planning sessions, you could say we plan each day as well.

The release plan is the core and probably the most important part of our planning process. In this article, I want to offer some tips for creating and updating release plans.

Release Plans

A release plan is a set of tasks required to complete a portion of a project. It's almost always focused on creating a set of deliverables. In architecture, we create a release plan for each project phase: schematics, design development, contract documents, etc. On a large project, we might create additional release plans for specific milestones, like the submitting a partially complete set of contract documents to a review agency.

In XPM, we represent each task by a task card. So a release plan is simply a stack of task cards, focused on producing a specific set of deliverables.

Project Plans

All the release plans for a project, taken together, comprise the project plan. In other words, each release plan is a subset of the project plan. The project plan includes a release plan for schematics, design development, etc.

Spreadsheets for Release Plans

A release plan is ultimately represented by a stack of task cards. The most efficient way to create a release plan is to list your tasks and time estimates in a spreadsheet, then use the mail-merge feature of your word processor to automatically generate the task cards.

We use spreadsheets only for the first set of task cards; that is, for each initial release plan. Team members create additional task cards by hand on an as-needed basis.

Some benefits of spreadsheet-generated task cards:

On the other hand, it does take some effort to set up the mail-merge feature, at least the first time or two. And, the only available color for cards is white. You have to manually add a highlight line across the top of each card if you want color.

Iteration Plans

Each week, we select a set of task cards for tasks we expect to complete that week. We call that set an iteration plan.

We usually select the cards from the current release plan, but we don't have to. We can take them from anywhere. In addition, for the iteration plan, we create new task cards for tasks we didn't think of earlier. We also create additional task cards by breaking a larger task into a set of subtasks. We then throw the original task card away.

Our objective when creating an iteration plan is to select just the number of tasks we expect to complete during that iteration, with maybe one or two extras in case we finish early.

Release Planning

Ideally, the release plan identifies every task that will be required to produce the set of items to be delivered. It includes tasks required to produce the drawings, specifications, reports, calculations, and other deliverables. It also includes tasks to organize, coordinate, print, and check them. It includes meetings we have to attend and research we must do. It includes every task we can think of. Creating a release plan can seem pretty overwhelming -- but it's not.

Creating a release plan is not difficult. Someone with experience can create a release plan for a medium-sized project in a few hours. How? By working at the appropriate level of detail, using common sense, and following the tips below.

When creating a release plan, remember this: The release plan is meant to be updated frequently; at least once every iteration. There's no need to get it right the first time.

Appropriate Level of Detail

Working at the appropriate level of detail means planning only to the level you can see. For example, you can usually see what's required next week more clearly than next month, so next week's plan can be more detailed than next month's plan. There's no need for next month's tasks to have the same level of detail as those for next week. Consider an architectural project. If you haven't begun detailing yet, you might guess that you'll need six window details. No need to go any further. If you're further along, you can specifically identify each detail required.

Appropriateness implies balance. We have to balance the need for detail and accuracy with what we can reasonably infer.

Release Plan Tips

Here are some additional tips for creating and updating a release plan. Some tips supplement others, so use judgment in applying them.

  1. Create the release plan as early as possible, before beginning any tasks. You need the release plan to help determine your scope of work, schedule, staffing levels, and other tasks.
  2. Focus on deliverables. Review your contract to see what's required. List all the required deliverables first. The list will help you generate the tasks required to create them.
  3. Add meeting tasks. Meetings with clients, review agencies, consultants and others. Include site visits and presentations. When you estimate time for meetings, add time for pre- and post- meeting tasks as well. You often have to prepare for meetings, travel to get there, and do other tasks afterward like reviewing meeting notes or following up on action items.
  4. Add implicit tasks required to complete the work. Things like quality control reviews, picking up redlines, code research, printing and deliveries.
  5. Plan only as far as you can see. Don't bother doing additional research yet. That can be done later.
  6. Think big picture. You can refine later.
  7. Unless it will add clarity, don't bother breaking down tasks yet. That can be done later.
  8. If you know something will be required, add a card. Otherwise guess, using reasonable judgment, at what might be required. For example, you think you'll have to make revisions to elevations, but you don't know how many times. Just guess, based on past experience.
  9. Write titles first. Add time estimates later. Things seem to go faster when you concentrate on one type of task at a time.
  10. Keep titles short. Sample titles: "draw elevations", "revise elevations", "write specifications", or for a more detailed release plan, "specs for concrete", "front-entry window details".
  11. Don't forget to add task cards for revisions, coordination, picking up redlines, and attending meetings, even if you expect to factor them out later. They'll give you a more accurate picture of your scope of work.
  12. Add short descriptions of tasks only if required. No need to add details at this point, unless there's something you might forget later.
  13. Add notes to show your reasoning. This will help later, when you break large tasks into smaller. For a card titled "draw wood window details", a note might read "6 types at 4 hours each = 24 hours".
  14. Don't aim for perfection. You'll be updating this release plan at least weekly, as you learn more about the work. You can revise incorrect assumptions then.
  15. List every reasonable thing you can think of. You'll forget some things, and include some unnecessary things, but don't worry. You'll refine the plan later. Errors tend to balance each other out.
  16. Use past XPM projects to get an idea of the types of tasks required. Use prior releases. Look at old task cards.
  17. Use the task lists here as checklists for creating release plans.
  18. Finally, expect to improve your speed and estimates with experience. You will get faster and better, quickly.

Release Planning Questions

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