Visible Sprint Status: Maybe Not Corkboards?

I'm thinking about ways to track the activity—the status... progress... stuff—that happens within a development sprint.

You could conceive a user story as moving through a series of phases (e.g., development, code review, testing, accepted). You might set up your Scrum task board using this paradigm, where you move an actual piece of paper between different columns on a corkboard. Some project-management software packages I've evaluated encourage a workflow of phases.

I wonder if there's a better way. At the user-story level, the idea of "passing through phases" seems Waterfall-ish, which always snags my attention because so few human endeavors are that linear. Phases lead you into some non-Agile patterns of thought, and they obfuscate the current health of the sprint.

Mike Cohn's task boards (with pictures!) divide into rows as well as columns. A row corresponds to a user story, and the tasks that compose that story move through the columns, which correspond to statuses. I'd previously missed (or forgotten) this distinction, and I thought the cards on the board were stories. I finally noticed the difference while drafting up this blog post, because I went looking for corroboration about the disadvantages of moving user stories through phases on your task board. What follows is an analysis of those disadvantages: non-Agile patterns and obfuscated sprint status.

By non-Agile patterns, I mean that columns on a board draw boundaries (literal and metaphorical) between collaborators. Do you intend to tell your testers that they can't think about a story until it lands in their column? Are you keeping your product owner from looking at a feature until all the code is built and blessed (and you've run out of time in the sprint)? Are you throwing code over the wall at people who might as well be in a different department?

"Heck no!" you cry. But doesn't a task board with indivisible user stories, sitting inertly in discrete statuses, imply that's what you're doing? Well, it could. And the metaphor subtly seeps into your thoughts and behavior, constraining your team's responsiveness, creativity, and collaboration.

How does a story-oriented task board obfuscate the status of your sprint? After all, it is tangible, visible, large-as-life where everybody can see it. But what is it telling you? Here are some challenges I've observed.

The pieces of paper representing user stories are the same physical size, but the effort required for different stories can vary dramatically. You glance at the board for a gut check, but you'll draw the wrong conclusion from lots of little stories (unnecessary worry) or few big stories (misplaced complacency). You could ameliorate this by making the pieces of paper represent component tasks instead of whole stories, but does a mere task move into the testing phase? Does your product owner evaluate a task? Can your customers use one? No, they need complete user stories. Once you've made the papers represent similar-sized chunks of work, the moving-through-phases metaphor gets in the way again.

Phases are liable to proliferate, until you want more columns than is practical for an actual corkboard. For any given phase, you might want to distinguish between "Ready to be picked up" and "In progress." Even if you're tracking virtually in a project-management tool, having too many phases is still annoying; you spend your time clicking dropdown lists instead of creating software. If you're in this mode, though, one solution for distinguishing between "ready" and "in-progress" is to write your name (or set the "Assigned To" field) on an item when you claim it.

Some items visit a phase more than once—like when a tester discovers a bug and gives the story back to a developer. (See that hand-off? That's the non-Agile-ness rearing its head again.) So when you see an item in the development column, is that its first trip through, meaning a lot of work remains, or a subsequent trip and it's nearly finished? You can't tell by looking at the board.

A communicative tracking tool would show you where bottlenecks or wasteful idleness is occurring. Using phases obfuscates this as well, because it implies that your testers aren't even looking at a user story until the coding is complete. (Can you call a piece of coding complete if it hasn't been tested or shown to the product owner? I'd say not. So read "complete" as a different word that represents "passed from the Development phase to the Testing phase.") But testers at the beginning of a sprint are creating test plans and collaborating with developers and product owners on the acceptance criteria; their "Testing" column looks empty, but they are in fact very busy with useful work. Someone outside the team might look at the board, conclude that the testers are idle, and be tempted to distract them with other tasks.

What a list. It's strange to me to write it. At my old job, my team had to have a virtual task list so that we could share it across continents. I was always jealous of the kids who got to have real live note cards on real live corkboards. Oh, how wistful I was, to have such an elegantly simple solution.

But now that I've used a task board, I can see its limitations, and I wonder about alternatives. I still want to cling to the belief that a tangible solution is better than a software tool, but I might have to let that go. Software is much better, for example, at turning points of information into a communicative picture. It is also better at searching, archiving, sharing with out-of-town stakeholders, and scaling.

The right solution will radiate information. It will clearly communicate whether the sprint is on track and likely to conclude successfully. It will alert you to lurking risks, so that the team can react and adapt proactively. It will tell a story about the sprint from which you can learn during your retrospective. These are the requirements by which I'm evaluating tracking techniques. The right method will show the heartbeat of the sprint.


ITechie said...

If the goal is to get to the 'done' state of the user story, does its journey hold a significant importance? Ideally, in a short sprint, your stand-up meetings give most vested parties an idea about what is and what isn't happening. For others, who need to see the progress, is it really important to know whether it is the first round of development or is it being reworked?

I think keeping it simple with three states as in 'Ready to be worked', 'In progress', 'Done' keeps it simple. If there is need to highlight a problem, keep a whiteboard that signifies in a line or two what the state of the user story is. As in, story x is dev complete, testing is having a go at it.

Am I off-base here?

Sharon said...

Thanks for contributing. Are you off-base? No, 'course not. I think it's a case of applying the uber-agile rule: What's right for your team is what works for your team.

I like the elegant simplicity of the method you describe (I'm a big fan of simplicity). That coarse level of granularity just wasn't meeting my own team's needs (current and former teams). The primary challenge we encountered was that it is too clumpy. The burndown would lurch in large stair-steps as stories were completed, so we couldn't feel confident about whether we were on track or not.

But another thing you mention: You just have three states. We were trying to track stories through states that really were more like tasks (in dev, in review, in test), and that created ambiguity. With a nice and simple flow, like you describe it, where you're either working on a story or it's done, that sounds more manageable.

ITechie said...

I agree with your uber-agile rule in totality.

I share your thoughts (and pain) on the burn-down charts as well.

Often I am trying to correct myself whether I am using Agile to serve Software Development or use Software Dev to Agile. Unfortunately, by placing emphasis on the artifacts we create to satisfy the 'transparency' needs, it seems like we end up serving Agile than helping ourselves.

I hope my ramble made sense. Great writing. Thanks.

Sharon said...

That's a great reminder: Ask ourselves, are we doing a thing just to do the thing, or are we doing it because it serves a real need? Nice point.