Agile Planning Tools

One of the most exhilarating moments in my coaching career was when I entered the client team room one Monday morning to find they were pulling the cards and tape off of their backlog corkboard, and arranging it in a different fashion. I knew then that they had taken charge of their own process. That team became one of the best I’ve coached.

One of the low points was when several people, including a business analyst, product owner proxy, and the program manager, individually said that they couldn’t alter the “user stories” to cut across multiple components of the system because they were already in the computerized planning tool (and Word documents) and it would be too much work. That team did not appear to be getting much value from their “Agile approach” and had significant integration risk that was being studiously ignored.

One of the most frequently asked questions on public mailing lists and forums devoted to Agile development is “What Agile Planning Tool should we use?” There is always a chorus of answers touting this or that computerized tool, usually without asking any questions about the context. Is there one best tool?

Given the number of such tools available, either for purchase or for free, people are still seeking that perfect tool. Like Lord Franklin seeking the Northwest Passage, some pay a heavy price for that search.

What’s the big difference between the two situations described above? The first difference is that one was using a physical planning tool and the other a computer program. Should we take that as evidence that physical tools are always preferred and computer programs should be eschewed? That would be hasty without looking deeper. Our second “why was one team more successful than the other” answer is that the first team adapted their process according to the successes and difficulties they were having. The second held to a “consistent process” when it was getting in their way.

One of the biggest problems for teams trying to learn how to be successful with Agile techniques is that they often don’t recognize what’s getting in their way. They’re often trying to do things “by the book” to learn Agile practices–which is a good starting point. But they’ve not yet got enough experience to see the early warning signs of Agile impediments, and by the time they do, they often jump to the conclusion that “Agile doesn’t work.”

Let’s look at a recent inquiry on the Agile Project Management yahoogroup. The questioner mentioned that his small team was moving to Agile/Scrum and because they were partially distributed, were looking for “a product management platform at least to enable a virtualized scrum board and some basic reports like the burn down chart, etc.”

Some people opined that, because they were distributed, only an electronic tool would work. This isn’t necessarily the case. I’ve heard several reports of successfully using physical boards duplicated at each location. I can see some real advantages to this approach. One of the biggest challenges of distributed development is keeping the assumptions and attention of each location in sync with the others. Talking through the changes on the board on a daily (or more frequent) basis is an excellent means to accomplish this. Having silent changes that happen in the background within a computerized tool while you’re not looking, is not.

As it turns out, the team isn’t really distributed. The product owner and another business stakeholder is remote to the development team. The product owner makes an effort to be regularly engaged, but wants to give more visibility to the other business stakeholder. Using a distributed planning tool for this sets off warning bells in my head. It’s making the daily work of those producing the software more difficult for the benefit of someone who is insufficiently engaged in the process. I often hear the counter argument that “it’s only a few seconds to use the tool.” That may be, but those few seconds are multiplied many times over during the course of the project. They become a real drag on productivity and lengthen the cycle times. I’ve not measured the effect, but I’ve seen it clearly. Worst of all, it eventually discourages people from making improvements to their process because they’ve got so much invested in the current incarnation.

There are more insidious effects, too, when an electronic tool is being mandated just to observe from afar without engagement. The information that goes into the tool becomes a public record, and people start worrying about how to make it look good to others rather than how to use it to get work done. This is an even greater productivity friction, and it siphons attention away from the original goal.

The product owner of this team would do far better to develop a sprintly summary for the other stakeholder. Business stakeholders don’t really need visibility into the details within a sprint, anyway. If they truly do, then the sprints are too long. Broadcasting all of the minute details of how people are working just invites micromanagement and breeds distrust.

This is just one case study. In other situations, I would call attention to different details and likely offer different advice. Covering all the cases would be far too much for a blog posting. Besides, the real point is that people need to keep their ultimate goals in mind, and not trade thoughtful observation and decisions for the magic of a virtual tool.

P.S. Tim Ottinger and Jeff Langr have published some very good advice on this topic.

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