How to read an Agile Board

In previous articles we have discussed what an Agile Board might look like for a typical software development team, but this will bring no rewards unless we know how to use it properly, for example in a properly conducted stand-up meeting.

A major function – arguably, the prime function – of an Agile Board is to make team priorities absolutely clear, so that all team members can be sure that they are working on What The Team Needs Most. For this to happen, everybody needs to be reading the board in the same consistent way, and that way must be simple, or people will get it wrong.

This article will explain what that simple method is.

Let’s start with some examples. Below is a simplified cut of an Agile Board, with just two tickets showing. Let’s say you are a team member reading this board, and as it happens your skill set and the state of those tickets means you are able to assist on either one of them. Question: which one should you pick to work on first, X or Y?

ticket-choice-vertical

The correct answer is pick X before Y, because in a properly functioning Agile Board, the vertical plane is reserved to show priority. Higher up means higher priority, and X is higher up, so you work on X first, as below:

ticket-choice-vertical-plus-answer

There is little controversy here; I have asked this question to real people hundreds of times, and everyone basically gets this right first time.

Now let’s try the same exercise for a different cut of the board. Again, you are a team member reading this board, and you are able to assist on both the tickets that are showing. Which one should you pick first, X or Z?

ticket-choice-horizontal

There is an equally clear answer here, which the great majority of people also get right first time. The answer is to pick Z before X, because Z is further to the right, ie it is closer to being Done, and ‘Done’ is what counts, the thing that delivers value to the organisation. Sadly in life it usually is very easy to start things, but it can be hard to finish them off, so an effective team concentrates on getting stuff finished before new stuff is started, and this desirable behaviour is promoted by reading the board in this way.

ticket-choice-horizontal-plus-answerThe third and final quiz question is a combination of the two above. Again, other things being equal, in which order should someone pick up the following three tickets?

ticket-choice-both-planes

The answer is pick Z before X, and X before Y. This is a simple combination of the two rules above, which leads to reading the board in a kind of triangulation method, from top-right (where you’ll find the most important tickets on a board) to bottom left (where you find the least important):

ticket-choice-both-planes-plus-answer

Now let’s apply this triangulation method to a more realistic board setup. This is exactly what a team is trying to do in every Stand-up meeting, so that it can discuss the tickets in priority order. Applying the triangulation method to this board we can easily label the tickets on it from 1 (the most important) down to the 17, the very least. The ‘Done’ tickets are ignored in this exercise – by definition, if they are Done, there is no work left to do on them.

ticket-choice-full-board

And how do you apply this rule to a board which has Swimlanes? Since the correct use of Swimlanes (discussed in detail here) maintains the principle of using the vertical plane for priority (i.e. higher up Swimlanes are higher priority than lower swimlanes), it is still easy to apply the triangulation rule and again number every ticket on the board from most important (1) to least (17):

ticket-choice-full-board-with-swimlanes

Sometimes, when applying the triangulation method, a team member will voice an objection: what the board is saying is not correct! And indeed in a well-functioning team there is a bi-directional effort going on at all times:

  1. work in the order the board tells you to work
  2. make sure the board is always telling the truth about the order to work on

Any team member must be empowered to challenge the signals the board gives out if there is any doubt. Far better to do so than to slavishly follow what the board says even if it is potentially wrong, or to do what you believe is correct without reflecting that choice on the board, leaving your teammates in the dark as to what you’re doing and why.

So a comment such as the following is an entirely legitimate statement to hear in a good team: “the board is telling me to pick up ticket 512, but surely I should be doing ticket 197 instead, for reasons a,b,c,d… “. If, on examination, reasons a, b, c and d stand up, then as far as possible the board should be amended to reflect the Real Truth, and that team member has done everyone a service. It is everyone’s duty to Make The Board Tell The Truth!

With the whole team taking collective ownership of their Agile Board, ensuring that The Board Always Tells The Truth, that team can jointly and individually use the triangulation rule to work out what to do next, and everyone ends up working on What The Team Needs Most. And the end result of that is a team that is continually aligned and with every chance of delivering effectively, with all the increased motivation to individuals and value to the organisation that such a result entails.

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