The critical best practice is to subdivide portfolio resource allocation into three separate competitions, one for each horizon, each having its own dedicated pool of resources, not to be shared with any of the others.
—Geoffrey Moore, Escape Velocity
Investment Themes Abstract
Investment themes reflect how the portfolio allocates budget to the release trains that implement the portfolio business strategy. Each theme and train, is a compelling, longer-term initiative intended to ultimately differentiate an enterprise from its competitors.
Investment themes differ from epics and features in that they are not prioritized backlog items. Instead, investment themes are considered as a “capacity allocation” in that each train gets the amount of resource implied by the budget. Trains run concurrently and have equal priority, though some may reflect a smaller part of the overall budget. In this way, smaller but still important initiatives get the attention and budget protection they deserve. This assures the enterprise behavior is true to its strategy, and that it is not short-changing big or small initiatives to the point of compromising its ability to execute the agreed-to strategy required to achieve longer-term financial goals.
One such theme is different; the Portfolio Backlog Investment Theme reflects the capacity allocation reserved for those business and architectural epics that help create the more holistic, comprehensive solutions, which are contained in the Portfolio Backlog.
In Portfolio Vision, we provide a comprehensive overview of the highest-level business strategy constructs in SAFe. The Portfolio Vision reflects the business drivers behind each of the Value Streams, which are represented by Investment Themes, which ultimately allocate budget and resources in accordance with the strategic intent. Figure 1 illustrates the role that investment themes play in identifying and funding new development.
Each investment theme is bound to a release train and describes and funds a key value proposition intended to provide marketplace differentiation and competitive advantage. Each represents a purposeful, known, and measurable ongoing investment in one or more systems, products, or applications that the teams are developing. Figure 2 illustrates one such example (from ASR [Ref 1], Chapter 23.).
As implied by the themes in Figure 2, investment themes are fairly long lived, and it is common for an investment theme to deliver value for years.
Investment Themes Drive Release Trains
Since investment themes are indeed long lived, they lend themselves extremely well to the continuous flow-based Agile Release Trains of SAFe. In this way, there is no need for the delays and overhead of starting and stopping “projects”, rather the value stream is funded at approved levels as long as necessary. Figure 1 showed each release train as an individual investment theme, thereby establishing a current operating budget, and implied resources and resource constraints, for each train in the portfolio.
The Portfolio Backlog Investment Theme
In addition to the agile release trains, Figure 1 illustrates an additional, investment theme, one that represents the portfolio backlog of Business and Architecture Epics. Driven by broader market feedback, business opportunities, mergers and acquisitions, etc., the Portfolio Backlog Investment Theme is used to prioritize initiatives that have made their way through the lightweight business cases, WSJF prioritization mechanisms and decision authority of the Business Epic Kanban and Architectural Epic Kanban systems. With respect to budgeting, each new initiative may be funded individually by allocating additional resources to the affected release trains. Alternately, trains just assume some capacity allocation for these initiatives, knowing that they may occasionally trump other priorities in their local backlog.
 Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley, 2011.
Last update: 03 February, 2014
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