Tag Archives: electronic tools

The Perfect Agile Tool – 12 Key Features

The Perfect Agile Tool doesn’t yet exist.  In my training and consulting work, I often have strong words to say about electronic tools.  Most of the tools out there are really bad.  Unfortunately, JIRA, the most common tool, is also the worst that I know of.  (Actually, the only tool worse than JIRA for an Agile team is MS Project – which is just plain evil).  Some Agile tools do a bit better, but most fall far short of a good physical task board (information radiator).  I am often asked to evaluate and / or partner with tool vendors to “bless” their products.  Here is what I am looking for before I will consider an outright endorsement of such a tool.

Features for a Perfect Agile Tool

This list is roughly organized in order of features which do show up in some tools to those which I have never seen or heard of in tools.

1. Skeumorphism: Cards and Wall

The tool should display the current work of an Agile team in a way that is immediately recognizable as a set of note cards or PostIt’s on a physical wall.  This includes colours, sizes, etc.  Most people will type to enter data so fonts should be chosen to mimic hand-printed letters.  Every aspect of the display should remind people of the physical analogue of the tool.

2. Live Update

As team members are using the tool, all updates that they make should be visible as immediate updates to all the other team members including typing, moving cards around, etc.  There is no off-line mode for the tool.  In fact, if the tool is not receiving live updates, it should be clearly disabled so that the team member knows there is a problem with the information they have displayed.

3. Simple or No Access Control

Most Agile methods strongly de-emphaisize or even disallow traditional roles and encourage self-organizing teams.  This means that fine-grained access control to different features of the tool should be eschewed in favour of extremely simple access control: everyone can do anything with the tool.  (It actually helps if there is no “undo” feature, just like there’s no easy way to erase Sharpie written on a note card.)

4. Infinite Zoom In/Out

When you are using cards on a wall, it is easy to see the whole wall or to get up close and see even very fine details on a single note card.  Although it does not have to be literally infinite, the wide and tight zoom levels in the tool should be at least a few orders of magnitude difference.  As well, the zoom feature should be extremely easy to use, similar perhaps to the way that Google Maps functions.  Among all the other features I mention, this is one of the top three in importance for the perfect Agile tool.

5. Touch Device Compatible

This seems like a super-obvious feature in this day and age of tablets, smart phones and touch-screen laptops.  And it would take the cards on the wall metaphor just that extra little way.  But very few tools are actually easy to use on touch devices.  Dragging cards around and pinch to zoom are the obvious aspects of this feature.  But nice finger-drawing features would also be a big plus (see below)!

6. Size Limit on Cards

For techies, this one is extremely counter-intuitive: limit the amount of information that can be stored on a “card” by the size of the card.  It shouldn’t be possible to attach documents, screen shots, and tons of meta-data to a single card.  Agile methods encourage time-boxing (e.g. Sprints), work-boxing (e.g. Work-in-Process limits), and space-boxing (e.g. team rooms).  This principle of putting boundaries around an environment should apply to the information stored on a card.  Information-boxing forces us to be succinct and to prefer face-to-face communication over written communication.  Among all the other features I mention, this is one of the top three in importance for the perfect Agile tool.

7. Minimal Meta-Data

Information-boxing also applies to meta-data.  Cards should not be associated with users in the system.  Cards should not have lots of numerical information.   Cards should not have associations with other cards such as parent-child or container-contained.  Cards should not store “state” information except in extremely limited ways.  At most, the electronic tool could store a card ID, card creation and removal time-stamps, and an association with either an Agile team or a product or project.

8. Overlapping Cards

Almost every electronic tool for Agile teams puts cards in columns.  Get rid of the columns, and allow cards to overlap.  If there is any “modal” behaviour in the tool, it would be to allow a team member to select and view a small collection of cards by de-overlapping them temporarily.  Overlapping allows the creation of visually interesting and useful relationships between cards.  Cards can be used to demarcate columns or groupings without enforcing strict in/out membership in a process step.

9. Rotatable, Foldable, Rip-able Cards

Increase the fidelity of the metaphor with physical cards on a wall.  Rotation, folding and ripping are all useful idioms for creating distinct visual cues in physical cards.  For example, one team might rotate cards 45 degrees to indicate that work is blocked on that card.  Or another team might fold a dog-ear on a card to indicate it is in-progress.  Or another team might rip cards to show they are complete.  The flexibility of physical cards needs to be replicated in the electronic environment to allow a team to create its own visual idioms.  Among all the other features I mention, this is one of the top three in importance for the perfect Agile tool.

10. Easy Sketching on Cards… Including the Back

Cards should allow free-form drawing with colours and some basic diagramming shapes (e.g. circles, squares, lines).  Don’t make it a full diagramming canvas!  Instead, allow team members to easily sketch layouts, UML, or state diagrams, or even memory aides.  The back side of the card is often the best place for more “complex” sketches, but don’t let the zoom feature allow for arbitrarily detailed drawing.  Lines need a minimum thickness to prevent excessive information storage on the cards.

11. Handwriting Recognition

With Siri and other voice-recognition systems, isn’t it time we also built in handwriting recognition?  Allowing a team member to toggle between the handwriting view and the “OCR” view would often help with understanding.  Allow it to be bi-directional so that the tool can “write” in the style of each of the team members so that text entry can be keyboard or finger/stylus.

12. Sync Between Wall and Electronic Tool

This is the most interesting feature: allow a photo of cards on a wall to be intelligently mapped to cards in an electronic tool (including creating new cards) and for the electronic tool to easily print on physical note cards for placement on a wall.  There is all sorts of complexity to this feature including image recognition and a possible hardware requirement for a printer that can handle very small paper sizes (not common!)

Key Anti-Features

These are the features that many electronic tools implement as part of being “enterprise-ready”.  I’ll be brief on these points:

No Individual Tracking – the team matters, not who does what.

No Dependency Management – teams break dependencies, tools don’t manage dependencies.

No Time Tracking – bums in seats typing doesn’t matter: “the primary measure of progress is working software” (or whatever valuable thing the team is building) – from the Agile Manifesto.

No Actuals vs. Estimates – we’re all bad at predicting the future so don’t bother with trying to get better.

No Report Generation – managers and leaders should come and see real results and interact directly with the team (also, statistics lie).

No Integration Points – this is the worst of the anti-features since it is the one that leads to the most anti-agile creeping featuritis.  Remember: “Individuals and interactions [are valued] over processes and tools” – from the Agile Manifesto.

Evaluation of Common Agile Tools

I go from “Good” to “Bad” with two special categories that are discontinuous from the normal scale: “Ideal” and “Evil”.  I think of tools as falling somewhere on this scale, but I acknowledge that these tools are evolving products and this diagram may not reflect current reality.  The scale looks like this, with a few examples put on the scale:

Perfect Agile Tool evaluation scale with examples

Plea for the Perfect Agile Tool

I still hope that some day someone will build the perfect Agile tool.  I’ve seen many of the ideal features listed above in other innovative non-Agile tools.  For example, 3M made a PostIt® Plus tool for the iPhone that does some really cool stuff.  There’s other tools that do handwriting recognition, etc.  Putting it all together in a super-user-friendly package would really get me excited.

Let me know if you think you know of a tool that gets close to the ideal – I would be happy to check it out and provide feedback / commentary!


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Pitfall of Scrum: Focus on Scrum Tools

Many organizations try to find an electronic tool to help them manage the Scrum Process… before they even know how to do Scrum well! Use team rooms and manual and paper-based tracking for early Scrum use since it is easiest to get started. Finding a Scrum tool is usually just an obstacle to getting started.

The culture of most technology companies is to solve problems with technology. Sometimes this is good. However, it can go way overboard. Two large organizations have attempted to “go Agile” but at the same time have also attempted to “go remote”: to have everyone using electronic Scrum tools from home to work “together”. The problem with electronic Scrum tools is three-fold. They

  1. prevent the sharing of information and knowledge,
  2. reduce the fidelity of information and knowledge shared, and
  3. delay the transfer of information and knowledge.

Scrum Tools Prevent Information Sharing

Imagine you are sitting at your desk in a cubicle in an office. You have a question. It’s a simple question and you know who probably has the answer, but you also know that you can probably get away without knowing the answer. It’s non-critical. So, you think about searching the company directory for the person’s phone number and calling them up. Then you imagine having to leave a voice mail. And then you decide not to bother.

The tools have created a barrier to communicating. Information and knowledge are not shared.

Now imagine that the person who has the answer is sitting literally right next to you. You don’t have to bother with looking up their number nor actually using a phone to call. Instead, you simply speak up in a pretty normal tone of voice and ask your question. You might not even turn to look at them. And they answer.

Scrum tools are no different from these other examples of tools.  It takes much more energy and hassle to update an electronic tool with relevant, concise information… particularly if you aren’t good with writing text.  Even the very best Scrum tools should only be used for certain limited contexts.

As the Agile Manifesto says: “The most effective means of conveying information to and within a team is face-to-face communication.”

Scrum Tools Reduce Information Fidelity

How many times have you experienced this? You send an email and the recipient completely misunderstands you or takes it the wrong way. You are on a conference call and everyone leaves the call with a completely different concept of what the conversation was about. You read some documentation and discover that the documentation is out of date or downright incorrect. You are using video conferencing and its impossible to have an important side conversation with someone so you resort to trying to send text messages which don’t arrive on time to be relevant. You put a transcript of a phone call in your backlog tracking tool but you make a typo that changes the meaning.

The tools have reduced the fidelity of the communication. Information and knowledge are incorrect or limited.

Again, think about the difference between using all these tools and what the same scenarios would be like if you were sitting right beside the right people.  If you use Scrum tools such as Jira, Rally* or any of the others, you will have experienced this problem.  The information that gets forced into the tools is a sad shadow of the full information that could or should be shared.

As the Agile Manifesto says: “we have come to value: individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Scrum Tools Delay Information Transfer

Even if a person uses a tool and even if it is at the right level of fidelity for the information or knowledge to be communicated, it is still common that electronic tools delay the transfer of that information. This is obvious in the case of asynchronous tools such as email, text messages, voice mail, document repositories, content management systems, and version control. The delay in transfer is sometimes acceptable, but often it causes problems. Suppose you take the transcript of a conversation with a user and add it into your backlog tracking tool as a note. The Scrum Team works on the backlog item but fails to see the note until after they have gone in the wrong direction. You assumed they would see it (you put it in there), but they assumed that you would tell them more directly about anything important. Whoops. Now the team has to go back and change a bunch of stuff.

The Scrum tools have delayed the communication. Information and knowledge are being passed along, but not in a timely manner.

For the third time, think about how these delays would be avoided if everyone was in a room together having those direct, timely conversations.

As the Agile Manifesto says: “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”

Alternatives to Scrum Tools

Working in a team room with all the members of the Scrum Team present is the most effective means of improving communication. There are many photos available of good team rooms. To maximize communication, have everyone facing each other boardroom-style. Provide spacious walls and large whiteboards. Close the room off from other people in the organization. Provide natural light to keep people happy. And make sure that everyone in the room is working on the same thing! Using Scrum tools to replace a team room is a common Scrum pitfall.

Scrum Tools - Labelled Team Room Photo

The most common approach to helping a team track and report its work is to use a physical “Kanban” board. This is usually done on a wall in which space is divided into columns representing (at least) the steps of “to do”, “in progress” and “done”. On the board, all the work is represented as note cards each with a separate piece of work. The note cards are moved by the people who do the work. The board therefore represents the current state of all the work in an easy-to-interpret visual way. Using a tool to replace a task board is another variant of this common Scrum pitfall.

This article is a follow-up article to the 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls written back in 2011.

* Disclaimer: BERTEIG is a partner with a tool vendor: Version One.


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Kanban in One Minute – Visualize the Workflow

Great new video about Kanban by Michael Badali.  This is the third video in a regular series:

https://youtu.be/lhRMal5zu00


Affiliated Promotions:

Try our automated online Scrum coach: Scrum Insight - free scores and basic advice, upgrade to get in-depth insight for your team. It takes between 8 and 11 minutes for each team member to fill in the survey, and your results are available immediately. Try it in your next retrospective.

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