When ToDo, In-Progress, and Done Aren’t Good Enough

January 4, 2010

On a task board there are two places that we can capture additional detail regarding the tasks we are working on:

  1. In the tasks and stories
  2. In the categories that we use to organize the tasks and stories

The common starting point for categories on a task board are: ToDo, In-Progress, and Done. Obviously this works for the great majority of cases because the categories are so vague. It’s the starting point for most teams that are using a task board for the first time. However it isn’t long before we discover that some things don’t fit this model well. For instance many tasks commonly take place in multiple ordered steps. Look around you, it happens all the time. Trying to capture tasks that have more than three steps to them on a task board starts to feel awkward. People start to ask if there should be another column on the board. The answer is probably yes.

You see, if you resist and decide not to track additional legitimate state for a task, then in essence you are keeping that information invisible. State is important. Hidden state violates the principle of transparency that we are trying to promote on agile projects. So you need to find a way to represent it on your board. There are lots of mechanisms to reflect additional state on a task board:

  1. Add new swim lanes
  2. Use color on the task/story cards
  3. Use labels or stickies on the task/story cards
  4. Additional text on the card
  5. Additional task cards

All of these techniques will provide additional state information to your task board. A common symptom of a board that isn’t conveying enough state information is when the stories tend to get “stuck” under the In-Progress category for long periods of time. Now there are lots of reasons this can happen, but one reason the task/story may not be moving is because you don’t have an adequate way to express the state of the progress being made on the work. The developer may be making lots of progress, but none of it is reflected in the task board. When this happens, you need to consider that perhaps the board is not displaying information that would make the progress visible.

I was reminded of this today when looking at a team’s task board. Stuff was sitting in the In-Progress” category for too long. However I knew that the team was making great progress. So they weren’t lazy. And they were keeping the board up to date. So what was the problem? There wasn’t enough information on the board to properly reflect the work that the team was doing. As a result, there were impediments that we couldn’t even recognize because we didn’t have any way of showing progress on the hidden states. Being blocked on “In-Progress” is not very informative. Being blocked on the “certification request” is much more explicit.

So the next time that the team seems like they are stalled with their task board, consider changing the way the information is presented. Adding a few new categories could help the team identify some of the hidden issues that are currently blocking them.

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Task Boards: Telling a Compelling Agile Story

November 24, 2007

The task board is the single most important information radiator that an agile team has. A task board illustrates the progress that an agile team is making in achieving their sprint goals. Usually the task board is located in an area that is central to the team. For example, it’s in their work area or in the war room where they hold their stand-up meetings. I would maintain that the task board is an expression of the personality of the team. Some teams operate in a very minimalist style – only the most essential information is displayed. Other teams are quite disciplined. Everything is neatly laid out and you can get a very clear picture of the product that they are working on. From what I have seen, every task board is unique. It’s interesting to look at the different kinds of task boards that teams use, and compare and contrast the differences.

A Survey of Task Boards

Out in the “wild” there are many different examples of what a task board looks like. For example, this one uses a corkboard and three by five cards. One way to improve this task board would be to add a burn down chart. Then you not only see the status of the tasks being worked on, but you also see the burn down information which provides a overview of the progress that the team is making on the tasks for that sprint.

Coarkboard

Figure 1 – The Corkboard Task Board

Below is a rather more elegant version of a task board. I call it the “Beautiful Mind” task board. We just took some of that blue masking tape used for house painting and laid out the task chart directly on the window. Post-Its were used for everything else. It was located in an office building where there were many windows, but not very many walls. It was sort of a “low impact” solution. This demonstrates that with a little imagination you can create a task board just about anywhere.

Beautiful Mind

Figure 2 – The “Beautiful Mind” Task Board

It also makes you look smart if you stand next to it and gesticulate.

Here are a couple more examples of some task boards that we have seen “out in the wild”.

3 by 5 Cards

Figure 3 – The Minimalist Task Board

This one is just 3 by 5 cards taped on the wall. The yellow cards indicate the stories and the teal cards indicate the tasks. Task progress and status is indicated by putting little stickers on the cards and updating the hours remaining. Again, we see the burn down charts displayed prominently next to our task board.

Now we venture into the den of our very own CTO, Brent Barton! I wonder what he does?

Brent’s Board

Figure 4 – Our CTO’s Task Board

It seems that he prefers the “Beautiful Mind” style of task board. Very interesting! Again, it has the same columns that I described above. The interesting thing about this task board is that it is used just for tracking the work that Brent does. So, a task board can be applied not only to a team, but also to the work of an individual (especially one as busy as Brent). We should leave now before he wakes up…

Now I would like to share a rather unique idea for a task board that I was introduced to the other day:

Laminated Poster

Figure 5 – A Laminated Poster Task Board

This is a laminated poster that was created a team member with an innovative streak! He’s done a great job of standardizing the information and making it easy for people to update. It’s organized a little bit differently than the other task boards that I have shown you. There are some little bits that I might change, but I love the idea in general. I’ve seen a few more of these posters springing up lately, so maybe they’re catching on.

Here is another example of a printed poster that was used as a task board:

Excel Spreadsheet

Figure 6 – Excel Spreadsheet Task Board

This is just based on a printout of an excel spreadsheet. That certainly makes it easy. Just print it out and fill in the blanks.

So What’s in a Task Board?

These are just few examples of task boards in the real world that many of our customers use to track their sprint progress. All of these task boards have a few simple things in common:

1) 4 basic columns (there can be more)

a. Stories

b. To Do

c. In Process (In progress, WIP, etc.)

d. Complete (Completed, Done, etc.)

2) A Row for each story

A task board is really just a glorified swim lane diagram. I wonder what Edward Tufte (The data visualization genius, http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/index) would have to say about task boards? I bet he would like them. So if we are going to toss together a basic task board, then we need to take the ingredients above and find a little wall (or window) space to work with. The layout is very straightforward. Here is a simple diagram to illustrate this:

Simple task board

On the left, you have a list of the stories that you are working on for the sprint. In the next column, “To Do”, you have the tasks necessary to complete the story. You move the tasks from “To Do” into the “In-Process” column while you are working on them. When you are done, you move the task from “In-Process” to “Complete”. It’s really pretty simple.

Transitions

You can also do a more complicated version that looks something like this:

Taskboard

Notice that there are some extra columns in this one: Tests Ready and Hours. Test Ready indicates that the acceptance tests for this story are ready. This serves as a sort of gate that prevents work from moving forward on a story until the acceptance tests have been written. Having the hours remaining summarized at the end of the row just makes it easier for the team to keep track of time remaining for that story. Combine the hours remaining with a burndown chart and you will find that the chart gets to be very easy to update.

Electronic Task Boards

So, by now it should be clear that there are many different types of task board a team can easily create. They work great for people who are all co-located, but you might ask, “What about people who aren’t located in the same room as the team?”

Well, I’m glad you asked!

There are many tools out there that provide electronic versions of team task boards. One that I’m very familiar with is Rally. It gives a nice detailed summary of the stories and tasks that a team is working on in a sprint. It tracks time remaining, who’s responsible for the task, and what state the task is in (Defined, In-Progress, Complete). It has nice reports and burn down charts. In fact, some teams that I work with will display the burn down chart on a monitor above their desks so that the whole team can see the current burn down status. Good idea!

Rally

Figure 7 – Rally Task Board

As you can see, there is a lot of information on display here. In this view, Rally displays a hierarchical list of stories and their associated tasks for a given sprint. However, instead of moving tasks from column to column like we have seen in previous examples, Rally uses icons to indicate the current state of each work item (‘D’ for Defined, ‘P’ for In Progress, ‘C’ for Complete, and ‘A’ for Accepted).

Perhaps a web-based tool like Rally isn’t what you are looking for. Then perhaps you might consider looking at a tool like ScrumWorks. Their product has been around for a long time and continues to evolve in interesting ways. Again, ScrumWorks provides an information rich display of the current stories and tasks for a sprint. Overall, the Scrumworks interface is somewhat cleaner and simpler than the Rally interface. You aren’t plagued with a host of different tabs and options on each screen. Everything is pretty straightforward and simple to use.

Scrumworks

Figure 8 – ScrumWorks Task Board

The ScrumWorks display shows us the list of stories and tasks and that’s just about it. They don’t overwhelm you with multiple columns of information like other products do. However, there is no real analog to a task board here.

Just when I thought I understood all the players in this domain, our friends at ThoughtWorks brought their own product to the playground. The new kid on the block is Mingle. Mingle is based on a very flexible, wiki style platform. I haven’t had as much experience using it as I have with the other two products, but it looks like it’s going to give folks like Rally and ScrumWorks a real run for their money. The UI is clean and the product seems to allow a nearly endless variety of configuration options.

Mingle

Figure 9 – Mingle Task Board

So there we have a few of the electronic tools for task board management that are available out there. Most of my software friends run straight to the electronic tools like moths toward a bug zapper. I’ve done it myself – I’ve got the scars to show for it. The fact is that electronic tools have their uses, but they are not a good substitute for a nice tangible task board that a team can stand up in front of and work with together. Online tools seem to keep people in isolation. Everyone at his or her own desk, staring at the screen – that’s just not agile. I prefer to have the team working with a real physical entity that they can manipulate, edit, whatever. The quality of interaction is much higher.

In addition, electronic tools tend to hide information. They tend to make things less transparent rather than the other way around. If I walk into a team’s work area and they have no task board, then there is no way for me to quickly assess how they are doing. For a team member, the information is gone the minute I switch to any other activity on my computer. The information remains hidden until I select the tool again.

If you have a customer that can’t see your task board (as is often the case), then using an electronic tool makes a lot of sense. The same applies to working with distributed teams. However, use the electronic tools as a supplement, rather than as a replacement for the physical task board.

Let’s Review

Here’s a radical idea: Maybe we should be thinking of a task board as a recruiting tool. We should be showing off the cool stories that we are working on. They should be compelling enough that people passing by might take interest in them. They might stop, look, and think to themselves, “I would like to be a part of that…” Perhaps they might pass by, stop dead in their tracks and say, “No, no, no! I have a better idea!” Task boards should tell us all how the project is going. They are something to be proud of. A team slogging through incredible obstacles could show off the stories that they’ve accomplished like tattoos on the arm of a war veteran.

Task boards should be vivid illustrations of the achievements of a team. They should present a compelling picture of the challenge the team has undertaken. Along with a vision statement, they should draw us in. Like the TV commercials, they say this is where “The Few, the Proud, the Daring” will go. Give me an audacious goal, a compelling story to get there, and I will sign up in a heartbeat.

I can imagine walking through team workspaces and reading the task boards for each team. Some may have stories for teams that are just getting started and looking for new team members. Exciting stories full of promise. Others might reflect the work of projects that have been in progress for months or years, representing a tale of the battles that our grizzled IT veterans have fought and won – their challenges and triumphs. As I walk around the company, the task boards should reflect the nature of the work that each group is doing. Maybe I see financial projects near the CFO’s office. Perhaps corporate initiatives are tracked near CIO’s office. I bet there would be some exciting stuff up there.

When I think of the task boards, they remind me of those thermometers that HR puts up when we are doing a food drive. There is some compelling goal or vision (feed the homeless, toys for tots), and a big visible indicator of how close we are to achieving that goal. We need more of those. Make people want to work on your team – take the time to make your task board tell a compelling story.