Iron Triangle and release planning

  • I’m going to rant about the Iron Triangle… you can promise date or features, but not date and features. So, add features to your project, and you’ll lose time.
  • Subtract features, and you’ll probably only maintain time and still just meet your deadline, because work expands to fill the introduced gap. There is always more that really should be done. Add time to your project, and you’ll add features, but not as many as you think.
  • Of course, subtract time and you lose features. In my experience it’s utterly useless to talk about the resources edge of the triangle, because Brook’s Law… but hey, let’s go ahead. Add people, lose time and features. Subtract people, lose time and features.
  • Things can get weird though, because people are not frictionless spheres in a vacuum. Subtract the person who was a disruptive drag on productivity and you might turn a failing project into a success.
  • Iron Triangle concepts are pretty well understood in theory, but I don’t know that everyone grasps how they drive long term success and failure of a company’s product portfolio. To overly simplify complexity into a legible system: there’s 2 types of release: iteration & big bang.
  • Evolution or Revolution. Band-aid sculpting, or fire-and-sword. Iterations are the best, because you just deliver relentless improvement. Set times in stone, fit the features and tech debt around them.
  • This is ideal because you fit well into everyone else’s schedule, customers will find it easier to upgrade, and can usually go from vague promises to concrete realities in the time frames that management needs.
  • It’s non-ideal over the longest run though, because your project is not exciting and your resources are a political target. Iterative evolution doesn’t excite; rapid adaptation to a new paradigm excites.
  • And in a world where exciting new paradigms are getting promoted every week, there’s no lack of corporate raiders eyeballing your resources. If you’re going to iterate, you’d better make sure you’re making life easier for your adventurous colleagues trying to support new markets.
  • But what if you’re the one with a new paradigm to meet? Sometimes revolutionary products are the right answer and you’ve got to produce something new, working against the political headwind. Maybe you’re lucky enough to do it in a quiet skunkworks or stealth startup.
  • Most people don’t get the luxury of independent wealth devoted to exploring a new idea, and I wouldn’t bet on it. The Iron Triangle is a lot harder to deal with if you’re doing a big bang launch where you need support across the whole organization.
  • Because every use case and feature is hard to imagine, it’s another political football, and another threat surface for your project (as well as an opportunity for ultimate success!)
  • If you’re lucky, then you can turn this into an iteration process by constructing pre-release releases to friendly customers and internals. D’uh, Agile, Lean, amirite? Yeah, this is well-known and great for shipping working software. However lots of projects with these goals and methodologies never see the light of day, because this process is untenable without executive protection.
  • So, identify your sponsor early and don’t ever let them be surprised by the Iron Triangle. And here ends my rant.

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