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Tracking User Stories with a Collaboration Board

Backlog grooming is a team effort. Everyone, including stakeholders, must collaborate to evolve user stories from the bottom to the top of the backlog. As shown in Figure 5.6, it is a dynamic and active workflow where stories are constantly enhanced.


Figure 5.6. The backlog grooming workflow.

The team must master each step of the workflow; otherwise, the story will not progress as expected. Team members must synchronize their efforts on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the backlog is of little use to guide this work. At best, you can add a status field to follow the process, but it does not encourage collaboration. Instead, it is more efficient to use visual aids inspired by collaboration boards such as those offered through the Slingboards 5 platform.

A collaboration board communicates information by using sticky notes instead of texts or other written instructions. As shown in Figure 5.7, a collaboration board is a two-dimensional grid on which you move yellow stickies from column to column to guide the actions of team members.


Figure 5.7. A collaboration board is a two-dimensional grid.

Each column represents a state of the process, and each sticky note is a visual signal for guiding the collaboration. The aim is to move each sticky note from state to state to accomplish a workflow. The rows are used to group and organize the yellow stickies in a logical manner. If you expect to have only a few stickies, you can have a single row without any grouping.

A well-known example of a collaboration board heavily used by agile teams is a task board. A task board is a visual aid that guides the work of a team during a sprint. As shown in Figure 5.8, a task board is a constantly evolving summary of the team’s forecasts for the current sprint. It enables you to see at a glance what is done, what remains to be done, and who is working on what.


Figure 5.8. A task board is a well-known example of a collaboration board.

When a sticky note is moved from column to column, it serves as a signal for guiding the collaboration. More and more teams consider a task board as essential to ensuring a rich collaboration during the sprint. I believe the same is true during backlog grooming except that we must use a different collaboration board. Now see how you could create a grooming board to get the same benefits.

The most important items in a collaboration board are the columns because they make it possible to visualize the process. Several options are available to define the columns. As shown in Figure 5.9, a simple option would be to have a column for each step. A major disadvantage of this option is that you can hardly know when a step is completed. There is no visual signal to initiate collaboration between teammates.


Figure 5.9. A collaboration board with no signals.

A second option, as shown in Figure 5.10, is to alert collaborators by being explicit when a step is done. There are two disadvantages to this approach for grooming. First, this approach assumes that the process is linear, which is not true. Grooming requires a lot of backtracking, such as when splitting a story. Second, we are uncomfortable with a condition that states that the ranking is completed. Ranking is never completely finished and can occur at any time during the grooming.


Figure 5.10. A collaboration board with “Done” signals.

A third option is to alert collaborators by signaling that a step is ready for processing. This is the option that you can adopt, as it applies well to the grooming process. Figure 5.11 shows what the collaboration board would look like with one row for the backlog.


Figure 5.11. A collaboration board with “Ready” signals.

The contents of the sticky note, which are moved from column to column, should display relevant information to help teammates understand what is going on. Significant information improves communication and reduces interruptions. As shown in Figure 5.12, there are nine potential display areas on a collaboration sticker.


Figure 5.12. A collaboration sticker has nine display areas.

When we want to create a collaboration board to facilitate the grooming process, each sticky note is going to represent a user story. Figure 5.13 shows the final result for this type of sticker. Note that we have not used all display areas, only those that we considered necessary.


Figure 5.13. A collaboration sticker representing a user story.

The blocked indicator is visually pinning a status tag to the sticker. This status tag enables you to visualize work that is not directly associated with the value-added steps being performed. It creates visibility and awareness and enables the right people to react quickly to that new status. A visual alternative to pinning is creating special columns in your collaboration board that fulfill the same purpose. Although this is valid, and many people do it, we prefer pinning to expose that something is going wrong, or not happening. Board real estate is expensive. If you start creating special columns for each status a sticky note can have, you might quickly fill the board with empty zones.

A collaboration board is a clear, simple, and effective way to organize and present work during grooming. It increases the efficiency and effectiveness of the work by making visible the rules of collaboration and thus facilitating the flow. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Visual collaboration keeps the group members in the flow united around common performance measures. It enhances communication and reduces friction by making explicit the information teammates care about. It helps teammates

  • Understand and indicate priorities.
  • Identify the flow of work and what is being done.
  • Identify when something is going wrong or not happening.
  • Cut down on meetings to discuss work issues.
  • Provide real-time feedback to everyone involved in the whole process.
  • See whether performance criteria is met.

Collaboration boards increase accountability and positively influence the behavior and attitude of team members and stakeholders. Team members define and choose their own work instead of having work assigned to them. High-visibility and clear guidelines ensure teammates cannot hide work (or nonwork) from each other. They know that at any moment, if they want to, they can, with zero overhead and without causing any discomfort to anyone, see exactly what everybody is doing. Boards tend to expose the flow, but it is done with ground rules that people find quite reasonable. Thus, accountability is achieved in a harmonious way because it boils down to the individual responsibility of updating the board. This builds transparency among team members, which in turn builds trust.

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