Cards, Stickies, Whiteboards or Tools

Shane Hastie and I taught our Working with Geographically Agile Teams workshop last week in Sydney. One of the questions that arose is “What tool do I use with a distributed team?” That same question is on the scrumdevelopment mailing list this week.

Shane and I don’t know what is wrong with a whiteboard and cards and stickies, updating the board at the standup and taking a picture of it, making sure everyone receives a picture of the board wherever the heck they are, and then they can see the board, or they can update their board. It’s fast and easy. And, unless you are trying to coordinate a program of many teams, it’s quite reliable. Program management may require other tools, especially if your management has dispersed several feature teams around the world.

Why do people want to move to tools when they can barely use agile approaches to their projects? If you can’t stick to a timebox, a tool is not going to help. If you can’t finish your standup in 15 minutes, a tool is not going to help. In fact, futzing with a tool during your standup will only prolong your standup. If you don’t have team agreement on what done means, a tool won’t help; it will only obscure that fact. If you have bottlenecks, a tool may not help you see that.

I like tools. But sometimes the best tools are the simplest tools. I stopped using Gantt charts when I realized they perpetrated lies on the organization. Do I still use them? Sure, at the high level only, not at the detail level. And not for agile projects. On non-agile projects, I start project scheduling with stickies, never with a scheduling tool. There is tremendous power in being able to move a sticky around.

If your team doesn’t know how to track an agile project without a tool, you need to learn how first, distributed/dispersed team or not. That’s what cards and stickies buy you, the ability to move them around. Do not underestimate the power in a card or sticky, and especially the ability to move it to “in progress” or “Done.”

With manual tracking, you will learn about the impediments and bottlenecks in your organization. Once you know about them, you can decide what to do. Can you use a tool to learn about the impediments and bottlenecks? Sure, if you look at it. But that’s the problem. You have to go look at it, by yourself. The team is not looking at it together.

Once you’ve learned from your manual tracking, you will see what kind of a tool to use, not just one that’s free, because that’s what the organization is willing to spend. Maybe the free tool is the right one for your situation. Maybe it’s not. A whiteboard that meets your needs and a camera that takes less time to futz with is even “free-er” than a free tool that does not meet your needs.

12 Replies to “Cards, Stickies, Whiteboards or Tools”

  1. One of the things I like the most about using cards and pens is doing it during planning sessions. It’s not just that they’re easy to move around. It’s that anybody can reach out and physically improve the plan by moving stuff around. It’s unbeatable when a previously cautious team starts to discover that everyone can say what they think, and manifest that opinion by moving a card. I like to tell people I’ve sworn a holy oath to never again participate in a meeting where somebody tries to capture what’s happening in an excel sheet or in some other tool. It drives me crazy to see how ineffective such meetings become, and so far I haven’t had to break my oath. I just have to remember to always bring some extra stickies when I visit clients.

    Thanks for the post, Johanna.

  2. I couldn’t agree more Johanna! Too many places are trying to throw complex tools at problems, when they aren’t anywhere near mature enough to understand the tool or use it effectively! I’ve successfully introduced the whiteboard/post-its around the office, and I don’t think we’ve ever been in such good control. It’s a culture shock when I drag them away from their complex tool, but now that we’re into it we seem to be gaining momentum with the use of these tools.

  3. Nice post Johanna! In fact, I’m facing this issue at the moment. I work in an agile team and we’re currently using a web tool for the scrum board. However, just as you stated, the web tool does not seem to help and I’m struggling all the time to have the devs update the status of their tasks in the board. Our sprints usually have around 200 tasks and taking a picture of the physical board doesn’t seem to be a feasible way out. Especially when the stickies are rather small and the team working away from our office cannot figure out what has been actually completed. Could you suggest any other approach for us? đŸ˜€

  4. Maybe this idea might help: If both teams have a board with a similar layout and the same stickies on it, they can keep it in sink by having a “board jockey” at both sides. As soon as a sticky is moved on one board, the “board jockey” on the other team is informed to move the sticky. If, due to different timezones, this isn’t possible you could batch up the changes and report them as soon as possible (preferably before the next standup)


  5. Cards, stickies, whiteboards, cameras – I thought those were sophisticated tools! I know they don’t cost much $$$ But they are the most effective in my experience no matter the (low) cost.

  6. The cards, stickies, et al., also make the experience interactive and it keeps more people in the game. An electronic tool is usually only in the hands of one person with others sitting back and commenting from time to time. Good project teams are engaged.

    Good post, Johanna.

  7. I agree completely. I recently wrote my own article on this subject, but you summed it up better than I did. We are currently taking photos of our board everyday and uploading it to a central place. Seems to work well for us.

    One other problem I’ve found with tools for agile management is that they can dictate the shape of your process. I.e. we can’t do that because the tool won’t let us.

  8. A wonderful post. The hard part is getting technology dependent people to believe that data not in a computer can be useful. Once they do, they almost all become fans of stickies!

    Marcelo, if I may step in:

    I cannot imagine a good reason for any length sprint of any team size to have 200 tasks in the sprint. (Of course, I have not experienced all possible situations.)

    I suggest you simplify your task definition. Does the team really need that much detail in task definition and task tracking? Can you get whatever benefit from 200 tasks in some other way, such as a Work Agreement and product Definition of Done so that the number of individual tasks that require tracking is reduced?

  9. This sounds really interesting and I’d love to try this, but I wonder…what happens if a sticky physically gets lost or drops off a board? Does this ever happen?
    Also, how to you use that board to see what your load is on your resources? How do you know duration of tasks? I should probably do more research and maybe I’ll get those questions answered, but I guess this is why I am more comfortable using tools (my tool of course is LiquidPlanner) than purely an offline model.

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