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Agile Tools. When is Whiteboard a Better choice than Software?

Peter Stevens has interesting posts about different agile tools. In this article we will find out whether whiteboard can beat software tools.

Let’s assume that we have a large and shining nail. What is the best tool for the nail? Hopefully, the answer is obvious for the most of us. Now, let’s assume that we have a development team and a “shining”, promising, cool new agile development process. Most likely the hammer will not help (well, perhaps, but certainly not recommended, as a surprise weapon against irresponsible team members who ignore daily meetings).

To tackle this problem, it is essential to have at your disposal a tool that enables requirements gathering, iteration planning, progress tracking and reporting. You can’t rely on memory for requirements gathering, you can’t rely on the universal perception for iteration planning and definitely you can’t rely on telepathy for progress tracking and reporting. You need a tool that will do the job with minimum effort and minimum side effects.

There are two approaches: simplest tools (I mean index cards, whiteboards, etc… no hammer or nails) and software tools. Some people think that index cards and whiteboards are the only possible tools for agile development and all the other tools jeopardize communication in a project team. Some people laugh just seeing a photo of a burndown chart sent by email as a weekly progress report. Obviously I shall say that there is no silver bullet, environments are different and grass is green. Let’s try to find out if the grass is truly greener on the other side by subjecting tangible tools and software toolkits to a comparative analysis.

If you ever tried Extreme Programming or Scrum, you would be familiar with the simplest tools commonly used for the fine-grained short-term project plans creation and progress tracking: Index Cards and Big Visible Charts. These tools have one major advantage over all others’ — they are tangible. You can take an Index Card and move it into another place. You can stick Tasks on the wall thus creating fine-grained plan. Then you can take a marker and draw a new segment on a burn down chart. Sweet! Whiteboards, markers, post-it notes, index cards, board magnets, paper and scissors — many people love to use them. It is entertaining and you have more reasons to get your butt out of the chair.

However, tangible tools do have some significant limitations. For one, no matter how big Visible Charts are, they are still visible to project teams only! Executives should visit the room to see the plan or check on the progress. When was the last time your CTO dropped by? Time tracking and remaining time calculation is manual and someone should update the charts. And for remote teams this approach will simply not work.

Let’s try to compare simplest tools with the web-based tools for the collocated team. Some areas are definitely more important than others. Obviously, communication is more important than fancy plan update or automatic time tracking — therefore we’ll use weights to assign relative values. There are three weights (1-3) and four scores:

1 – Poor

2 – Average

3 – Good

4 – Great

The formula is quite simple: Category score = Weight * Score.

Total score is just a sum of all categories’ scores. In the end we expect to have some numbers that we will use in our analysis.

Category

Weight

Simplest
Tools

Web-based
Software

Spreadsheets

Planning process

3

4 – Tangible and exciting

3 – simple, but less
exciting and visible

2 – doable

Plan visibility

2

2 – good for the team, poor
for execs

2– good for execs, poor for
the team

1 – poor for all

Plan update

1

3 – re-stick some notes

4 – several clicks, from
anywhere

4 – move some rows or mark
them for release

Velocity tracking, Time
tracking

2

1 – manual, asking each
person

4 – automatic

2 – manual, asking each
person

Burn Down Update and
other charts update

1

1 – manual

4 – automatic

4 – automatic

Communication

3

4 – just great

2 – exists

1 – no

Reporting

3

1 – poor reports since all
data offline

4 – almost endless
reporting capabilities

3 – good reporting
capabilities

People involvement

3

4 – everyone involved

1 – may become a problem

1 – may become a problem

Cost

2

4 – almost free

1 – may be quite expensive

4 – almost free

Total:

57

52

43

We have 56 for tangible tools, 52 for web-based software tools and as little as 43 for spreadsheets. Are you still using spreadsheets? Although the above scores are somewhat subjective, it is still clear there is a better way than spreadsheets or other tools not designed for Agile! The totals show that you are better off taking a trip to Staples and getting post-it notes, index cards and markers. If you decided to choose software route, visiting www.targetprocess.com and getting the best agile project management software is certainly another option.

Tangible tools are more preferable for agile processes — use them if you can! But remember, that it remains the case for collocated teams only! It is impossible to use usual tangible tools for remote teams. Remote teams hardly can share whiteboards and task boards. They need more formal processes and more formal tools. Agile offshore development is there and definitely is better than traditional waterfall process. More and more distributed teams use agile development processes successfully and that is the fact of life. What should you use in this case? Obviously, web based software is a great tool for sharing knowledge, project state and other project information. It coordinates remote teams nicely.

In fact, there are some guidelines that you may think about when reviewing the comparison table.

You should prefer White Boards, Cards and Markers if:

  • You are trying Extreme Programming or Scrum for the first time (that’s important).
  • Team is collocated.
  • You tried simplest tools, achieved great results and don’t feel a need to change anything.

You should prefer web-based software tool for project management in agile projects if:

  • You have a distributed team (offshore development).
  • You have large collocated team (20+ people).
  • Your executives need status reports and without them would not accept the agile process (“OK, if I can see real-time project status somewhere, you may try XP/Scrum/Lean”).
  • You tried simplest tools and for whatever reason they did not work in your environment. (In that case, you should try to define exact reasons for the failure. Perhaps, there are communication problems or something else that can be fixed).

We may combine results is a small matrix.

No Status reporting
required

Status reporting
important

Small Collocated Team

Tangible tools

Mix of tangible tools and
web based agile tools

Large Collocated Team

Mix of tangible tools and
web based agile tools

Web based agile tools

Remote Team

Web based agile tools

Web based agile tools

Another important question is how can we alleviate potential problems that may arise with web-based tools for project management in agile environment? Some thoughts:

  • Focus on communication and collaboration. Do not think that email is OK and enough. It is just not true. Use Skype, use web cams, whenever it is possible — travel and meet in person. Try to break the borders in all possible ways.
  • Plan iterations as usual — using cards! Enter data into the system at the completion of the planning game.
  • Integrate information radiators with software. For example, you may bind Ambient Orb to project status. It will be green if everything is OK and red if iteration is in trouble. You may print out iteration plan on A3 paper and stick it to the wall.

I think agile software vendors (and TargetProcess as well) should invent new ways to support communication using software and tangible devices. I truly believe it will happen in the very near future.

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