A kingdom for a decent tool review

Backlog tools are seldom the first-order problem in an organization. And even the best ones can’t solve the first-order problems for you. However, bad tools do get directly in the way of your transformation efforts. That’s why it’s useful to tell one from the other.

 

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– God bless me, but the backlog, is very like a list! (adapted from John Godfrey Saxe)

Having been involved in the development of a backlog tool (that’s Agilefant, nowadays known also as Nektion) since 2004, I’ve been a long time dismayed by the quality of the tool reviews out there.

I know, it’s individuals and interactions over processes and tools but bear with me here. Tools are seldom the first-order problem and even the best tools can’t save you. However, bad tools do get directly in the way of your transformation efforts. That’s why it’s useful to tell one from the other.

Unfortunately, most tool reviews seem to be camouflaged marketinghuge tables or lists consisting of extremely shallow observations of the tools’ capabilities and/or copy-paste from the vendor’s sites. I honestly don’t know why these are done in the first place! Perhaps virtual name-dropping gets you traffic?

Gartner’s magic quadrant reports seem to come the closest, but they, too, suffer from staying at a superficial level.

Another confounding factor is that as SAFe and the like spread further, the vendors’ marketing folk pick up that this is something their product should be able to do as well. And they go and change their website to say that surely their product supports SAFe whether or not that actually is evenclosely the case in reality. Of course similar things tend to happen to everything which has demand – like it has for AgileScrumLean or Kanban.

If there was a clear upside to doing good tool reviews, surely someone would have done so already. And kept at it, because whenever I have found something that might be useful, it’s cut short after some two posts.

So, while producing useful tool reviews will probably prove to be a futile effort in ways I don’t yet foresee, I’m willing to take my chances and try it.

But before going into the actual reviews, in this post I’ll lay some necessary groundwork.

SO, WHAT MAKES A TOOL GOOD?

In my experience, the “goodness” of a tool really comes down to three things:

  1. The conceptual strength of the tool
  2. How easy it is to get started
  3. To what degree you can tailor and adapt the tool as you learn more of what you need

I’ll try to elaborate a bit on what I mean by these below.

1. THE CONCEPTUAL STRENGTH OF THE TOOL

At the heart of the challenge is the concept of ‘product backlog’ and being able to support how it’s supposed to work. While that might sound simple – “just list the most important items” – taking a closer look at what has been said about it will reveal a vast landscape of needs.

Exploring that further would be a subject of another post itself, but you can get a taste of what I mean by skimming through chapter 2 of “Towards Agile Product and Portfolio Management”.

2. EASE OF GETTING STARTED

The ease of getting started is in direct contradiction to the conceptual strength of the tool. This makes things challenging.

I’ve seen cases where people want to start by getting a board-like view for the company’s high-level initiatives (a ‘portfolio kanban’, if you will). But equally crucial is the need to support a single team in its daily work.

While Trello might, with individual boards, cater to both of these needs, its conceptual strength stops short when people start wanting to combine these views into a coherent whole.

From the portfolio perspective this can expand into wanting swim-lanes for ‘strategic themes’, roll-upped progress metrics based on the epics’ breakdown and so on.

Likewise, on the level of the individual team, being able to tie the team-level work items to the big audacious hairy goals of the company is something that may help guide the decisions. As expert work such as programming is essentially problem-solving, and there are many ways to solve problems, an understanding of the big picture helps the team align their solutions to the company goals.

Either way, you have to start somewhere, and if the conceptual strength gets in the way of just jotting things down as you would on post-it notes or a paper notebook, it will cripple the drive.

3. TAILORING TO YOUR NEEDS

To be able to combine both the easiness of getting started and the conceptual strength, you need to be able to adapt and grow the tool as you need to, creating new concepts and relationships and renaming the old ones.

This makes it possible for the tooling to grow with you. Otherwise, you have to force your way of working to the model enforced by the tool. This could be a “big hairy proven framework” which incarnates the latest version of the Unified Software Development Processes or Capability Maturity Models of late 1990s – or something else which doesn’t quite fit your reality.

No matter how enlightened, if a big model is forced on the organization too soon, the result will be co-optation: your system projects will be cast as ‘release trains’, your component teams as ‘feature teams’, and your non-customer facing business units as ‘value streams’. In such a scenario, the tooling wille become a strait jacket. In such a case, if you are going through with your transformation, not only will you have to change the organization, but also dismantle the tooling.

An important but fairly simple as well as often overlooked part of tailoring is being able to rename the concepts in the tool.

While choice of names will matter in the long-run (think of for example, ‘projects’ vs #noprojects), in a transformation you want to be able to pick your fights.

Will you, from the get-go, have to convince your C-level managers to talk of Epics, Sagas, Novels and Steam Trains or simply Business Value Proposals and Projects like they’ve used to?

THE CANDIDATE TOOLS

At the time of writing this, I’m considering to take the following tools under a closer scrutiny; in alphabetical order, these are:

  • Agilecraft – the self-claimed leader which to date has not lent itself for easy sign-up and tire-kicking
  • Agilefant – the open source version from 2014 – as a baseline
  • Favro – the offspring of Hansoft from Sweden
  • Google Sheets – not because spreadsheets are that good but because they just might be better than anything else
  • Leankit– I’ve heard good things about this, though nowadays it has been acquired by the more traditional vendor Planview
  • CA Agile Central (formerly known as Rally) – first IPO, then going to CA to die?
  • Taiga – the other open source tool worth mentioning
  • Targetprocess – long-standing original thinking from Belarus
  • VersionOne – besides Rally, the other U.S. based ‘enterprise agile’ vendor; nowadays acquired by CollabNet, which already many years ago swalloved an early player, ScrumWorks

Of the obvious possible choices, I’m skipping JIRA, at least for now. This is because of my customer engagements. I am anyhow in the process of writing a separate thread of posts covering it.

I’m also skipping big software houses’ such as HP’s, IBM’s and Microsoft’s offerings, even though nowadays they, too, claim to support “agile”. I may be wrong in doing so, but for some reasons I can’t quite verbalize, I don’t feel it’s relevant to address them. And you can read how they by some strange mechanism get put up as leaders anyway from any Gartner or Forrester report.

So that’s it for the groundwork, and stay tuned for the first review. I will be backlinking the results to this post, and following Nitor on Twitter you’ll hear about it among the first.

If you have suggestions for tools which I should take a closer look at, or want to affect the order in which I go through the candidates, get in touch!

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