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The Perfect Agile Tool – 12 Key Features

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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

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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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Tips to Start Agile in a Hostile Environment

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Although Agile methods are very popular (particularly Scrum), there are still many organizations or departments which may not yet have official support for adopting Agile methods formally.  In some cases, management may even be hostile to the concepts and practices of Agile methods.  If you are interested in Agile, you don’t have to give up hope (or look to switch jobs).  Instead, here are some tips to start using Agile methods even in hostile environments.

Regular Retrospectives

Some Agilists claim that the retrospective is actually the key to being Agile.  In some ways, this is also the easiest practice to introduce into an organization.  Start with “easy” retrospectives like “Pluses and Deltas” or “Starfish“.  These are retrospectives that can be done in 15 minutes or half an hour.  Try to do them with your team weekly.  If you are are a team lead or a project manager, it will be easy to include this as part of an existing weekly status meeting.  If you are “just” a team member, you might have to get some modest amount of permission.

So why would it be good to do a retrospective?  Because it’s a high return-on-investment activity.  For a few minutes of investment, a team using retrospectives can become aware of dramatic opportunities for improvement in how they are functioning.   Here are a couple more articles about the importance of retrospectives:

What’s an Agile Retrospective and Why Would You Do It?

What is a Retrospective?

Practice-by-Practice

Although I strongly recommend starting with retrospectives, sometimes that’s not the best way to start.  Myself, my first formal Agile environment, I started with the Daily Scrum.  Another time less formal, I started with Test-Driven Development.  In both cases, starting with a single practice, done well, led to adding additional practices over a relatively short period of months.  This gradual adoption of practices led, in time, to attracting positive interest from managers and leaders.  This is the practice-by-practice approach.  Start with a simple Agile practice that you can do without asking anyone for permission.  Make sure it is a practice that makes sense for your particular environment – it must produce some benefit!  If you are technical contributor on a team, then practices such as refactoring or test-driven development can be a good place to start.  If you are more business-oriented, then maybe consider user stories or one of the Innovation Games.  If you are responsible for administrative aspects of the work, then consider a Kanban board or burndown charts.

It is important to get the chosen practice done consistently and done well, even when the team is struggling with some sort of crisis or another.  If the practice can’t be sustained through a project crisis, then you won’t be able to build on it to add additional Agile practices.

Stealth Project

Sometimes you get an unusual opportunity: a project that is funded but hidden from the bureaucracy.  This can happen for a variety of reasons, but often it is because some executive has a pet project and says (effectively): “make it so”.  This is an opportunity to do Agile.  Since there is little oversight from a process perspective, and since the overall project has a strong executive sponsor, there is often a great deal of freedom on the question of “how do we actually execute.”  There can be challenges as well: often the executive wants daily insight into progress, but that level of transparency is actually something that Agile methods can really support.  In this case, there is no need to ask anyone on what method to use, just pick one (e.g. Scrum or OpenAgile or XP or Kanban or Crystal or…) and go for it.  Don’t talk about it.

The “just do it” approach requires that you have some influence.  You don’t have to be an influencer, but you need connections and you need charisma and you need courage.  If you don’t have at least two of those three, you shouldn’t try this approach.  You have to do things and get away with things that normally would get people fired – not because they are illegal – but simply because they are so counter-cultural to how your organization normally works.  Here are a few comments on Stealth Methodology Adoption.

Co-Conspirators

There’s nothing like working with a band of rebels!  If you can find one or two other people to become co-conspirators in changing your organization, you can try many lines of action and see which ones work.  Getting together for lunch or after work frequently is the best way to develop a common vision and to make plans.  Of course, you need to actually execute some of your plans.  Having people to work with is really part of the other tips here: you can have co-conspirators to help you launch a practice-by-practice Agile transformation, for example.

But, like any rebellion, you really need to trust those you work with in these early stages.  Lacking that trust will slow everything you do possibly to the point of ineffectualness.  Trust means that you have, for some time, a formal vow of silence.  Not until you have critical mass through your mutual efforts can you reveal the plan behind your actions.

Read “Fearless Change”

I can’t recommend this one enough!  Read “Fearless Change” by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising.  This is a “patterns” book.  It is a collection of techniques that can be applied to help make organizational changes, where each technique has its own unique context of use.  Lots of research and experience have gone into the creation of this book and it is a classic for anyone who wants to be an organizational change agent.  Patterns include basics such as “Do Lunch” to help build trust and agreement with your ideas for change or “Champion Skeptic” to leverage the value of having systematic, open criticism of your change idea.

Don’t Call it “Agile”

This isn’t really a “tip” in the sense of an action item.  Instead, this is a preventative measure… to prevent negative reactions to your proposals for change.  The words “Agile” or “Scrum”, while they have their supporters, also have detractors.  To avoid some of the prejudices that some people may hold, you can start by _not_ calling your effort by those names.  Use another name.  Or let your ideas go nameless.  This can be challenging, particularly if other people start to use the words “Agile” or “Scrum”.  By going nameless into the change effort, people will focus more on results and rational assessment of your ideas rather than on their emotional prejudices.

A minor variant of this is to “brand” your ideas in a way that makes them more palatable. One company that we worked with, let’s call them XYZ, called their custom Agile method “Agile @ XYZ”.  Just those extra four symbols “@ XYZ” made all the difference in changing the effort from one where managers and executives would resist the change to one where they would feel connected to the change.

Get Some Training

Okay, some blatant self-promotion here: consider our Certified Real Agility Coach training program.  It’s a 40-week program that takes about 12 hours/week of your time for coursework.  The next cohort of participants starts in June 2015 and we are taking deposits for participants.  This training is comprehensive, top-notch training for anyone wishing to become an organizational change agent focusing on Agility.


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