Thoughts about… Sticky Notes as Task Tool

When my former company started going agile, the developers in other teams made some fun of our way of using sticky notes and flip chart paper instead of proper software tools. "Hey, is wind a major impediment in Scrum?" or "Sabotage by opened window." were only my favourites.

While the one can argue if these jokes are funny or not, they made me aware that the agile toolkit of task boards with sticky notes and flip chart paper is considered primitive and funny by those who don't use it. At the same time I could not tell why I preferred it over any software tool that I tried before and after going agile.

Meanwhile, I spent some time thinking about this agile toolkit and the results are summarised in this article.

A task board with four columns: "Todo", "In Progress", "Review" and "Done" and three stories with some tasks.

A typical task board.

The starting point for tooling in Scrum as well as in Kanban as suggested by literature is the task board. I think it may be the reason that those sticky notes occurred in the first place since you simply need something moveable to put on the board to represent the tasks. But why do we use a physical board at all and how is it better than a virtual one?

The Camp Fire Effect

One clear advantage of a physical board is that a team can gather around it. It serves as a central meeting point everyone knows. The contents on the board are updated and read at least once a day (during the daily standup). Thereby it is ensured that the team members share the same level of knowledge about the team's current work.

If the board was a tool's virtual representation, no matter how good it looks and how many interactions it allows, it must be ensured that every team member looks at it regularly. So you would like to have a huge monitor which will serve as the task board to use during the standup. But no matter how large the monitor you buy will be, reading the text on single task items will never be as comfortable as on a simple wall with sticky notes on it… and it will be far more expensive.

Highly Customisable

Sticky note with task description, implementer names, reviewer name and two marks representing the number of days the task stood in progress.

Sticky notes can have many advances features.

No matter what tools are used, the real task is to get the product done. But the product may be very different, the team may be different, the room may be different… plus all of these things may even change during the project! So your tooling should be very flexible. Can you think about some software tool that is as flexible as some paper on the wall with some hand written notes and lines on it?

  • Think you need a peer review process? Just draw another line on the wall to create a review column in your task board.
  • There are crucial information about the project that every team member should keep in mind? Just write it on the wall and keep it there. Far more findable than a wiki page, right?
  • Want to know the work balance of the team members? Just look at the board and count the notes with the same name.
  • Feel that tasks are to huge? Make a rule that a task in progress gets a mark every day it stays in progress. If there are a lot of marks, you were right.

The possibilities to adjust a physical paper based board to your pressing needs are almost endless.

Virtual task boards provided by software tools often just try to imitate this flexibility. You will be faced with a lot of sophisticated ideas to categorise tasks, to generate graphs out of them, to order them by various aspects… however nice these features may be, what really matters is the ability to adjust the tool to our spontaneous needs right now and that will be harder in software tools than drawing on a wall.

Task References

When you talk about what you are working on and how it relates to other tasks it is very helpful to have something to point at. When you gather around the task board you can simply point at the sticky note that represent your task, you can take it off the wall and read it aloud to remind your teammates what it is about or they can read for themselves. This way you add meaning to that piece of paper.

This is far more intuitive than referring tasks by numbers from some software tool. Not everyone on the team may have read the text there recently.

Add Information

By talking about a task is you might find out some new facts about it, generate some new ideas how to get it done. If so, just write it on the note right there. No need to login and look for it. Just take a pen and write some more text on the note or even make a sketch if that's better.

In software tools you might be able to add much more text and there might be some tools allowing you to draw sketches as well. But less text combined with some words from you during the next standup may be even better (and nobody likes to read long texts) and there is no drawing tool better simpler or quicker than a pen.

Add a Task

Sometimes while you do tasks you notice that there is another task that needs to be done. Maybe you did an evaluation task and now you have decided for a way to solve the problem and so you should add tasks to actually do that. Or you notice that something should be documented or you need a meeting to get more information. Just take a new sticky note and write the new task on it.

This may be just as simple with a software tool but since the new tasks will change the overall look of the board, your teammates will notice them without an annoying email notification.

Remove a Task

Sometimes you may notice that a task is not necessary since the goal was reached another way or it was done already. Just take the note off the wall and put it into a bin and that's it. No need to document why you do that, just take it off the wall. If you want your team to know why, just do it in the standup meeting and tell them.

Again: no need for notification emails.

Mark Tasks Related

Two tasks that need to be done to achieve the same goal almost always have some kind of relationship to each other. Sometimes one needs to be done before the next can be started, sometimes the implementation of two tasks needs to be synchronised somehow to keep the test system in working state.

In such a case you can just take the sticky notes and stick them together as clusters or stacks. It takes just a couple of seconds to do that and if done with some talking during the standup everyone in your team will know what it means.

Conclusion

I tried some software tools and they all disappointed me so far. Giving it some thought, I came to the insight that this disappointment is by design.

There is no fixed process within a Sprint, only around it. Within the Sprint the team organises itself and two teams organised in the same way is a quite rarely seen thing. So a software tool would need to support all team organisation styles you can think about.

But software tools can either be adaptive and thereby get more complex and less intuitive to use or stay simple and intuitive for only a few styles of team organisation. The point is, if I was a tool developer and was confronted with the requirements only my team would have had in my last three projects… let's just say that would give me a terrible headache.

The only good reason in my opinion not to use physical task boards is a distributed team. In that case you have no other choice than to use some software tool. In any other case I would not even try to use a software tool instead of sticky notes.

  • I hope you will also take a look at Teamput (http://www.teamput.com). Teamput includes the ability to have side-by-side canvases so virtual teams can collaborate with breakout groups & drag sticky notes from canvas to canvas. You can also grab and move groups of sticky notes so it feels like the face-to-face process.