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Managed Chaos
Naresh Jain's Random Thoughts on Software Development and Adventure Sports
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Virtual Story Wall for Distributed Teams

So, when it comes to using a tool for Story Wall (read it as Agile PM tools): My first reaction is, you don’t need them unless you have used physical story wall (task boards) enough that you understand their limitations and you want to evolve.

If you are a small, co-located team, it is just simpler to use a physical story wall backed with a wiki or a spreadsheet. As the team grows (smell something is wrong), you might want to break down the large team into smaller self-contained (cross-functional) teams and continue using the same practice at 2 levels.

  • Team Level: Each team manages the user stories they are working on.
  • Meta Level: At a meta level, we manage the features (epics) each team is working on.

This scales fairly well.

For distributed teams, I’ll use the following approach:

  1. Start using Physical Story wall at each location backed with a wiki or a spread sheet. How the story wall is used really depends on how the work is distributed across teams.
    • If all the development and testing is taking placing in one location (offshore), then I would only use one story wall at that location.
    • If development takes places in both location, I would duplicate the story wall on both sides and during the “one-on-one standing meeting” (not a distributed stand-up meeting, I don’t think they work), each side updates their story wall with updates from others side. This ensures both sides are really collaborating.
    • And sometimes, teams can maintain their independent story walls and then sync up once a week.
    • One needs to figure out what works best for their situations.
  2. Once the team understands and matures using this. Next step could be to do away with the physical story wall in each location and just use a Wiki or a Distributed SpreadSheet (something like GoogleDocs) to maintain their backlog and story wall.
  3. If you belong to an organization where everything has to be “enter-price” class, then I might consider one of the following tools:
    1. Mingle from ThoughtWorks
    2. Silver Catalyst
    3. Jira and GreenHopper
    4. VersionOne or Rally
    5. And so on…

You might ask, what about tracking, planning, project management dashboard (fancy charts: burn-downs) and so on. Well, IMHO a lot of it is hype. You don’t really need all of that. You need some of them and its simple to generate them without having to use a heavy weight tool that adds more complexity than it takes out.

At one point, I really wanted to try out a tool for distributed teams. There was nothing good available at that point (2004), so I wrote one myself using RoR. The tool was fine, but it was very difficult to get the same feel as real story wall. So I dropped the tool and went back to physical story wall (this was a distributed team).

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