Let’s Get Physical – The Case for Physical Agile Artifacts

06. January 2015 0
Let’s Get Physical – The Case for Physical Agile Artifacts

One of the many observations made by new agilists regards the use of paper in an agile team. Between task boards, backlogs, release plans, goals, and other formal (and informal) artifacts, there is a lot of paper used. Let’s face it: we know Post-It sales have increased with the popularity of Agile methods!

A considerable amount of time is spent creating – and maintaining – the “big visible indicators of progress” for a typical agile team. It’s sometimes hard to understand why these physical artifacts are important, especially if the team is also using an online Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) tool to facilitate the agile process.

When I was first introduced to scrum, I spent so much time creating and maintaining those physical artifacts that I called those development and maintenance tasks “Scrum Master Arts and Crafts Time.” This wasn’t a fair name for several reasons, not the least of which was that the Product Owner and our team’s BA worked right alongside me to create those artifacts… and our output usually wasn’t very artistic at all. But I digress!

The point here is that I didn’t think the team needed physical artifacts in addition to our ALM. Frankly, it seemed like the duplicate efforts were a waste of time – not only for me but for the team as well. After all, the team had continuous access to the ALM, which offered the same sort of progress and metrics trackers we were maintaining in the team space. I looked forward to weaning my new agile team off the physical paper so we could focus our efforts solely on our digital artifacts. After several months working in scrum, the team was tired of maintaining physical task boards and checking physical artifacts in addition to maintaining and checking the ALM artifacts. The team was reasonably mature in scrum understanding and had a strong track record of delivering to its commitment. So, we agreed to go “all digital:” the team gave up all the physical artifacts in favor of the online, ALM-generated task boards and progress trackers. I was pumped! No more Scrum Master Arts and Crafts Time! No more redundant administrative tasks! We would become models of efficiency!

But… it didn’t quite work out that way.

Though everyone had all the same information at their fingertips in the ALM, we quickly lost track of progress against our goals. We bombed our next sprint, missing more than half our committed points. Ouch! But, we attributed this to a one-time blip and continued on. We then missed the next two sprint commitments as well. YIKES!

For this particular team, it seemed the physical artifacts made a big difference in our ability to self-manage toward the completion of the sprint goals and impeded the successful delivery of the Potentially Shippable Product Increment. So, we all agreed to return to using the physical artifacts, and I happily returned to Scrum Master Arts and Crafts time. The team immediately returned to predictable velocity, achieving the sprint commitment on a regular basis; it also went on to become a model of high performance and rapid value delivery. Physical artifacts of progress were used in every sprint thereafter.

This is not a one-time observation. I’ve coached dozens and dozens of teams now, and I’ve seen this basic story repeated in every one. Granted, the details vary from team to team, and the rationale for abandoning and resuming the use of physical artifacts differ slightly as well. But yet in every case, I’ve found that every team that abandons all physical artifacts and trackers loses some momentum and velocity until it restores some physical indicators of progress against key metrics.

I have several theories regarding why this is so – and here are just a few:

Stakeholder transparency: stakeholders will generally not login to your ALM tool, but they will walk by your team space. A physical tracker is your team’s billboard of progress – or lack thereof.
Peer pressure: similarly, other teams walking by the team space will see the same billboard and thus, the team is incented to make more progress and resolve blockers.

Customized Artifacts: physical artifacts are totally customizable to your situation and are limited in design only by your imagination.

Creative Expression: in addition to customization, the team can get creative and have fun with expressing progress in a physical artifact.

Tactile Satisfaction: most people derive a good amount of satisfaction by physically changing a status or drawing a new progress line. Sounds silly but try it – you may find your team agrees.

Let’s be clear: I’m a big fan of digital ALM tooling. There are many reasons why online tools work well, and ALM-driven online tools are essential to enabling a distributed team to collaborate and share the task board in all locations.

However, the most successful teams find some way to physically display progress against goals and metrics. Identification of the specific trackers and metrics that are best will vary from team to team. The one constant is that a high-performance agile product team will always invite feedback and use every opportunity to provide transparency to their process and their deliverables. Invest time in identifying the right metrics and progress trackers that work for the team and its stakeholders, and make sure they are prominently displayed. The investment in creation and maintenance of these physical artifacts is well spent.

Written by Christine Novello


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