My Personal Agile: Visualization

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr)

So you’ve just started your own sprint.  You’ve got a nice big spreadsheet.  You may like that (I do) but if you’ve done any agile research you may ask:

“Why the heck are we doing this in a Spreadsheet?”

There are a lot of tools for organization and time management: Trello, Smartsheets, and my beloved Rally.  Why aren’t I using them here?

A few reasons – none admittedly all that noble.

  1. I am deliberately avoiding more sophisticated tools right NOW because I want to perfect my process.
  2. Spreadsheets give me a lot of control and I can read them with multiple kinds of software.
  3. There’s a lot of choices for tools, but none quite my style – or that I want to pay for.
  4. I track things down to very fine levels – these tools might overdo my breakdowns or it’d take more work to use them.
  5. I am used to operating out of spreadsheets.
  6. I compensate for the limitation with some other methods, some of which I list below.

But some of us don’t work out of spreadsheets.  Why?  We need visuals.  I’ll present you some ideas, but a note:

In “professional” practice of Scrum, I use the big visible boards either automated or printed out, and track to the task level on most teams, the story level on teams of specialists.  What works here may work for you and not work for a team or vice versa.

For instance, one tool may work for a team and not you.  My spreadsheet method would be a disaster for a team in most cases.

Anyway, let’s talk about ways to visualize your work if, like most people, you don’t love spreadsheets like I do:

Solution #1: Use One Of the Tools I mentioned

Trello, Rally, and so on.  Really requires you to learn and adapt to one of them.  It could work, but you’d have to learn a new tool.

The plus side is it may work and you learn a tool to use elsewhere.

Solution #2: Pivot Tables

Since all my work is in a spreadsheet, I use pivot tables and quick calculations to see where I am story wise, figure how much work is done, etc.  After doing this for nearly a year I had pretty good instinctive sense of where things are.

As a note, I do create a rough “guess” every week as to what I can, will, and have to do and look at that separately.

Solution #3: Print Out Your Sprint Backlog

This is a cheesy but surprisingly effective way to track work – Print the backlog out.  Tape it on a wall or something.  As work moves, fill in the spreadsheet cells, using them to track progress.  If you use it well, you might not even need to update the original spreadsheet (though I do as I like to run a lot of statistics)

I did this for awhile, by the way.  It helped, but really as I was always in the Spreadsheet I didn’t need it eventually.

Solution #4: The Big Visible Board

A lot of Agile methods – especially Scrum and Kanban, use a Big Visible Board.  You take some board, divide it into columns for the different categories (Backlog, Defining, Developing, Review, Done), and then stick notes or cards up for each task or story, and move those around.  Yeah, it’s nothing more than cards or sticky notes on a board that you move around.  But it’s fast, easy, and in-your face so you’re aware of what’s going on.  It also helps teams coordinate because they get to see what’s up at a glance.

Now you’re not a team, but these Big Visible Boards help you stay focused – you see it all the time, you’re aware of it.  If you find operating out of a spreadsheet doesn’t work I recommend trying this method.

However, my guess is that if you look at your Sprint Backlog there’s a lot there.  A few Projects, a good amount of Stories, and a lot of Tasks.  Wouldn’t the board get overwhelming?

Well first, if it’s overwhelming maybe you’re overloaded.  But if you’re not, here’s a few recommendations:

  1. Only have Defining, Developing, Review, And Done on the board.  Put your print-out Sprint Backlog on the left.  As you take tasks, make sticky notes for them on the board and see them through.  Sure you get a pile of sticky notes at the end, but that gives you a sense of progress.  By the way, you probably won’t need to update the original spreadsheet much if you do this.
  2. Track by stories.  This is a bit more challenging, but if you’re REAL focused on doing each story all the way through before you take on another, then you can just track on the story level.  Put the tasks on the story and check them off as you do them.  By the way, if you have good story/task breakdown you may have to combine it with method #1.
  3. Two-board solution. On the top are the stories in progress.  On the board below, active tasks.  Might get confusing, but it could help you get “both” levels.

Again, see what works for you.  but that’s the point – what works for you.

– Steve