Going Low-Tech to Uplevel Agile Practices
VP Engineering at Marc LeBrun
I needed to radically improve the agile practices of an inexperienced team that was already facing a lot of other process problems and organizational challenges. My agile consultant and I were concerned that if we tried to go directly from where the team was to more heavily using Jira and other automated tools that they would simply transfer a lot of those weak processes and misconceptions into the new environment, which would risk making it even harder to correct course.
We decided instead to take a radical approach and go very low-tech. Instead of immediately upgrading our tool licenses we went out and bought some giant physical poster boards and got the teams started by actually moving colored post-it notes around to track their tasks from start to finish.
We had been worried that there might be resistance by those who found this process to be childish or unprofessional. It turned out just the opposite; rather than rejecting these “training wheels” the teams became quite attached to their physical boards—they would even drag them down the hall (one person holding up each end) to weekly sprint reviews with upper management to use as visual aids, rather than creating slide presentations!
Different teams began to customize their physical boards in diverse ways that expressed the personality of their team by incorporating graphic themes reflecting their common-interests, such as sports or animals. Some teams even began using physical magnets with hand-drawn portraits to show task assignments (much like low-tech analogs of Jira’s thumbnail avatars). Each board began to personify that team’s unique culture, enhancing ownership, engagement, and process learnings. As the boards became more approachable and fun it was clear that adoption of the agile methodologies and philosophies we were teaching was gaining traction in a memorable and meaningful way with the engineers.
People were able to develop a better sense of what the agile processes were about by the simple movement of physical post-it notes with their fingers. They gained a more visceral understanding of what was going on. It really conveys something more concrete to successfully move real-world objects through the sprint to ‘Done’ rather than simply manipulating weightless images on the computer screen.
Eventually the teams successfully transitioned back into using the more traditional tools, but they did so with a much deeper understanding and a firmer grasp of their processes.
Since then I’ve found other opportunities to take advantage of going low-tech before adopting fancy tools. For example we bought an ostentatious gold trophy and passed it around to whoever was the build master for that sprint. Transferring the responsibility was like passing a baton, and you could track who was on-call by the physical movement of the object from desk to desk.
Recently, in another company whose engineers were already experienced Jira users, we nonetheless set up a simplified physical board that tracked the online system, not so much for the dev team’s use, but to help communicate with stakeholders so they could quickly see what was being worked on with what level of urgency. That saved our business users the hassle of trying to understand the intricacies of the unfamiliar tech tools we were using, thereby improving communications transparency and trust.
In today’s world of COVID-19 we have fewer physical interactions, but it can still be valuable to get creative and consider what low-tech opportunities are available to us.
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