Thursday, June 11, 2015

Agile artifacts - low-tech solutions in a high-tech field

Isn't it ironic that Agile is the latest thing used to drive our most high-tech field but it seems to be most effective to carry it out using really old-school tools: wallboards and spreadsheets.

I would have started with the credit for the inspiration but it wouldn't have made a very appealing thumbnail on Linked-In or Google. This post was inspired by a tweet from Andrew Yochum (@Yochum) which in turn leads to a blog posting which is absolutely the least self-promotional ever -- no author credits anywhere. So now you have his Twitter information and a link to the post . As you will see from the link, I used his kanban picture too, as that helps to drive readership, but since I'm promoting his post that seems fair.

Back to the topic: I've taken a look at several automated tools that support Agile processes (Rally, Mingle, Jira) and they all have the same weakness: real estate.   Unless you have a humongous monitor, it's pretty hard to see what's going on in a screen-rendered version of the wallboard, and if the metaphor converts everything to lists then at least for me the whole flavor of Agile is lost.

So what about the low-tech options?

I've used SharePoint to try and track stories and progress.  It works, after a fashion.  It has the advantage over Excel in that everyone can see it and work on it at the same time.  The disadvantage is that you can't see the cards laid out; you have to use each story as an item in a list.  By creating the progress points as discrete options in a single column (fields), you can get SharePoint to generate views, using the list-type format and the power of the "group by" function, to show you such information as:
You can also use the calculation function (sum) to show you the number of story points planned and completed in each sprint, and that of course is the information you need to construct velocity charts - in Excel!

Excel, of course, lends itself to the charting.  It is also very handy for tracking the stories in the form of a requirements matrix (I know the purists are gagging, stop that).

What about using the Excel as the board itself?   No problem!  With its columns-and-rows display, Excel is of course capable of acting as the board.  In fact, in the example shown above, we could and did extend the columns to the right because we are tracking the stories anyway). But it gets to be a pretty big sheet.  For group purposes, Excel's drawbacks as the primary tool is that only one person can edit it at a time and it must be maintained on a shared drive, which means everyone must have access to that drive. For some reason office shared drives seem to be a bit more persnickety than things hat live on a web site if you're coming to them remotely.  And of course Excel doesn't do versions, so if one person trashes up the sheet the only way to fix it is go back to the last version that was saved separately.

And of course there is the wallboard. The problem with that is the demise of the concept "wall".  With open-plan offices increasingly the rage, there are no walls. Withe remote workers, there is nobody there to look at the wall anyway.  And people seem to get upset if they have the work-space right next to a spot (e.g a space along one of the rare walls) where a half-dozen people will cluster and jabber, even if it is work-related.

In a related post on Linked-In Pulse, I also note that the same problem arises with the traditional waterfall tool (MS-Project).

Please feel free to share your workarounds for using electronic methods of replicating a physical collaboration that hardly exists in the real world any more.

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