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Scrum Board Setup Tips and Tricks

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I’d like to share with you some tips and tricks for setting up a scrum board I usually share with my clients. The bottom line is that too many tools have too many features that support old ways of thinking. Let’s look at the various items one by one.

Subtasks

Like the human tailbone, subtasks were once useful but are now mainly a source of pain. When we worked in Waterfall we measured progress with completed subtasks, but in agile when stories are short, subtasks are a burden.

A burden for developers who need to mess with subtasks using the ALM tool.

This a burden for managers who measure progress using a burndown chart that usually relies on subtasks estimation. That’s a burden because burndown charts may time tell an incorrect story (all work done but nothing is working) – progress should be measured by “done” stories, usually a burnup chart.

Using subtasks should be a choice given to developers. If you find it useful then use it. I prefer just discussing the work to be done with the other people working with me on a story. If needed we can write it down on a whiteboard, but usually, there is no need to write it down as the story is so short. We just do the job.

Showing subtasks on a scrum board takes the focus from stories getting done to subtasks. It makes the scrum board too clattered and worse of all it lets people focus on their specific job and not on the story getting done. Bad subtasks! Bad!

Swimlanes 

Another evil thing is swimlanes. Second only to subtasks.

People usually need swimlanes because there is too much information on the board. That’s indeed a problem. Many times it will be … subtasks! If it isn’t subtasks it may be either the stories are too small or the team is too big. Or maybe something else.

The idea is we need to see why are there too many items on the board and handle that problem.

The big problem with swimlanes is that it distracts you. When you have swimlanes it is difficult to see what is now in progress. This is because usually there will be items in the “to do” column which will make the swimlane too wide to see all the items in one column.

Your focus is on the things that are now in progress and that’s what you need to see.

Many times there is a swim lane per team member. This will hint that we are trying to make sure people are utilized. Like the manifesto would say, it is important to make sure people are utilized but it is more important to get stories done.

Sometimes team members ask for a swimlane per developer. This tells us that people really care only about what they need to do and not about the team. This brings us to the next item:

Story Assignee

Almost all tools allow one person to be assigned to a story. (Leankit allows many). If you want to assign more people you can use subtasks. However, we already discussed subtasks and the conclusion was quite clear.

We will usually need to assign more than one person. In many places, at least one developer and one QA will be assigned. More than that, we will be happy if people can swarm on stories – having several people working on one story is fun and contributes to teamwork and thus very effective.

So, what do we do?

Many tools allow the addition of custom fields. For instance, Jira. I usually recommend clients working with Jira add a custom field called “assigned team members”. The field type should be multi-select. You will need to manually add the list of all team members. Once you do that you ask the tool to present the information on the card on the board and suddenly – voila! You have a strong scrum board where you see the people involved in every story. That’s great.

Last but not least – Columns

Most tools start with the standard “To Do – Doing – Done” columns + a backlog. (read here about the critical difference between backlog and to-do). That’s great! Why touch it? Please don’t.

Many teams will add a “Test” column. And a “pull request” column. And there are more.

The problem with these additional columns is that they are good excuses for things getting stuck. If there is a “dev” column and a “Test” column it means it is really all right to finish dev (I’m done!) and QA can be done later. Reminds you of subtasks? correct, it is similar.

If the sprint is only two weeks long and stories are short, there should be no reason for these additional columns. Just get done with the story – and please no stories! Remember we already have the names of all involved people on the card – just get it done with.

Conclusion

A scrum board should be very simple. There is a list of stories to do. Some are in progress, some are already done. We know who is working on what. That’s it. Don’t let fancy features distract you.

You may be interested in one of our Agile Up! workshops where we help you use popular Agile ALM tools such as Jira and TFS more effectively.

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